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Spark Equity in Your Building With These Six Experiences

Editor's Note: This is the last part of a four-part series that is focused on the shifts that need to happen before a school or school system can implement equitable practices. 

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."    Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Greetings! Have you helped a black or brown boy today? This year? How are you doing with improving the outcomes for black or brown girls in your classroom? School? District? Community? If you work in a 10-month school, you have approximately 800 hours left at the time of this writing (3/22/18) to make a difference. Before the 15 minutes it takes to finish this article is done, I would like to more concretely define equity. 

When I say equity, I am not referring to an approach to education where everyone receives the same strategies and services. Educational equity, for the purposes of this conversation and many others, is giving black and brown children whatever resources they need to consistently master grade-level concepts and skills regardless of their income-level, location or educational history. This is a race-based conversation. It is important that I make that clear, because this clarity helps us to set specific goals for how we will continue to engage this work. If we are going to make a difference, we have to be clear about terms and realize the impact of our own beliefs. It is only then that our change won't be word-deep, but belief-deep. 

We act through our beliefs and our beliefs are changed by immersive experiences (and focused reflection). The last shift before equitable practices can become ingrained in the culture of a school, is a shift in experiences. This last shift follows the previous three shifts: in ethics, expectations and expertise. These shifts can occur consecutively or simultaneously. What is most important is that they are put in place by the teachers and leaders of every school.

In the remaining space on this blog, I will list six experiences that you as a teacher can engage in that will put the needs, dreams and potential of your black and brown students in the absolute forefront of your instructional focus. This list of experiences is not exhaustive, but can spark conversations that lead to action. I want to be clear, if all of this conversation does not lead to action, then it is for naught. Actions have to follow our words, or our words will be the epitaphs that children can write on their failed educational careers—"at least they talked about helping us." 

1. Meeting and planning across difference. Meeting 'across difference' mainly means to meet with people of a different race, as that is the major dividing line when it comes to issues of equity. I suggest doing this first within your faculty. When you have a sit-down with members of another race, state the purpose of the conversation—to get understanding. Then, start by asking questions such as the following:

-What do people of your culture and race wish that people of my culture and race recognized?

-What are ways that you feel honored by the people of my race/ethnicity in this educational environment? What are ways that make you feel dishonored?

-What do I need to know about the students of color that I teach that I might not readily notice?

The roles in this conversation are reversible for the first question, but the last two are designed to be asked of the black and brown staff in your building. After this conversation, the last question that needs to be asked and answered would be—'what can we both do to better the outcomes of the students of color in this building?' I recommend this type of meeting to happen quarterly. You can also add the community and students to this type of dialogue as well. The key for such a conversation is to ground it in the protocols originated in Dr. Glenn Singleton's seminal work—Courageous Conversations. So, when is your first meeting?

2. Race-based feedback. This may seem controversial, but often times we perform data analysis and teacher observations at the color-blind level. Despite our attention to numbers, the results still remain color-coded. So, why not have observations and data meetings that are grouped by race and gender. What if we separated data out by black and brown males? What new trends would pop up? What if members of the academic leadership team focused on your interactions with black and brown females in their informal observations? While the conversations may be uncomfortable, by concentrating on the affective as well as cognitive experiences of our black and brown students in the classroom awareness would be raised, hopefully spurring improvement in practice. For a more comprehensive framework on how this can be implemented in schools, this resource by Dr. Lisa Williams and Dr. K Johnson from their ground-breaking book, When Treating All Kids The Same is the Real Problem, would be a great start. 

3. Collaboration with students outside of the classroom. When is the last time you have attended an extracurricular event featuring the students of color in your classroom? In your school? What if community service hours were completed with teachers and students side-by-side? I remember years ago attending a solo for one of my students, Maria, who wrote about her nerves in a journal entry in my English Language Arts class. I can still feel my fingers touching the fingers of the parent of one of my students, Dwayne, as we made a cheer tunnel to celebrate their football championship victory. When we change the places where we experience students, we change the way we see them. 

4. Community planning. Do you know the needs of your school community? What are the economic, spiritual and health needs that impact the guardians of the children of color in your building? Hosting a forum where you explore this dynamic is an experience that can open the eyes of all of your teachers to the real impact of their instruction. Every community is a reflection of how well we have educated the students that flow through its schools. How does your school community look?

5. Academic competitions with high-performing schools. When I prepared my first Black Saga team to perform in Baltimore County Public Schools' annual competition about Black History, I was stunned. I was not surprised by how nervous my students were, but how utterly prepared other students were. It stoked a competitive fire in me to prepare and teach them better than before for the next year. It is an emotional experience to see your precious students overmatched by students of the same age from similar neighborhoods (or different ones). This strategy is not a scientific one, but I can assure you that if you care about your children—seeing how they stack up against higher performing peers has unique potential to inspire you (and the students) to learn with a deeper sense of purpose and pride. 

6. Staying up to date with pertinent race-based research and news. Most recently, there has been an article that was written in the New York Times that essentially ended the debate of race vs. class (especially for Black males). Did you read it? If not, you can access it here. Staying up to date on news that illustrates uncomfortable realities about race affords you the opportunity to experience life from the 'other side.' There are many blogs such as theroot.com and shadowandact.com that provide a minority perspective on mainstream entertainment. Additionally, you can follow columnists and other equity minded practitioners (ahem... @MDTOY2012) on Twitter/Instagram and continue to be educated on the barriers and breakthroughs that black and brown people in America (and the world over) experience. 

*Bonus Experience: Get the 411 on landmark cultural events. Have you seen Black Panther yet? Have you seen it with an African-American yet? Did you discuss it later? This groundbreaking movie and moment is important for so many reasons - representation, pro-African sentiment and the message of Black genius. As you sit across difference, it would be important to go through the experiene of hearing why that movie means so much to us. The same goes for those times when officers are cleared of all charges as it relates to murders of young Black men and women. Get to know our perspective and you will become more proximate to pain and closer to the joy that beats at the heart of who we are. Remember, when you experience the people of a culture where their culture is, you can begin to change stubborn beliefs about that culture and those people.  

Have you incorporated any of these practices in your school? Why or why not? Which ones do you think would be most effective? Most controversial? Please keep in mind that in order to change the outcomes for black and brown students, we must change our beliefs about them. One of the most effective ways to change beliefs is through experience. As a black male teacher and parent of two beautiful black children, I challenge you to implement at least two of these experiences before the end of this calendar year. We do not have another second to lose. Let's get to work. 

"For they are all our children; we will either profit by or pay for what they become." -James Baldwin

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