“The water we’re swimming in” or “The smoggy air we’re breathing” are two well-known metaphors for talking about racism. They describe how racism is both everywhere and constant, which means it’s also present in classrooms, even when teachers have the best of intentions.
This year’s Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in Schools (DWSC) Conference focused on how teachers can work towards antiracist practices to bring about policy changes and create positive outcomes for students.
“How do we create more anti-racist schools? That’s the question we’ve been looking at,” said educator and conference founder Joe Truss. “The conference spotlights a whole lot of people’s work that have been iterating and innovating in their own sphere.”
Truss has a legacy of supporting teachers and school leaders in challenging white supremacy culture in their schools through workshops, monthly check-ins and large gatherings. This year marks the first formal DWSC Conference with keynote speakers Dr. Bettina Love, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Dr. Gholdy Muhammad.
“Joe’s conference really helped us center that schools can be liberatory spaces, but it definitely has been historically a space that has been violent towards kids,” said Nguyen Huynh, a teacher at DeJean Middle School in California. At the conference, educators are able to reflect, connect with one another and develop plans for better serving the needs of their students.
Grading Quality Over Quantity
After reading Tema Okun’s characteristics of white supremacy, one of the recommended pre-readings for the conference, Huynh re-examined his grading. This past year, he stopped grading regular assignments because he felt students were doing the assignments in order to get a good grade, not deepen their understanding. He gave them the space to practice self-reviewing skills and gave them all the answers with the assignments. “It helps them build their own skills of checking themselves and also self-reviewing,” he said.
He also prioritized developing students’ mastery of content and skills. He took the pressure off students of having just one shot at demonstrating what they learned in tests and used a variety of assessments instead. For example, if he assigned a quiz, students were able to have unlimited retakes. For one assessment, he had students draw from their personal experience and use their advocacy skills to write a letter to the district superintendent about whether they wanted the school building to open or stay closed.
Many students preferred having the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery with the letter and show authentic learning. Huynh has received positive feedback about scaling back on grading assignments on the quarterly surveys he gives students. “My kids are saying, ‘I enjoy learning in this class’ or saying that it’s much less stressful now that I don’t grade everything.”
Huynh has faced a few issues getting parents on board with nontraditional assessment. While alternative ways to measure student learning are increasing in popularity, they are not widespread, so it’s hard to get buy-in. There was pushback about the emphasis on reflection and whether students were continuing to build important skills. “I think it definitely highlighted what we need to do next year about how to communicate these new things with grading, especially because it’s normally not what people are used to.”
Students Seeing Themselves in STEM
Calvin Nellum is a physics and math teacher at Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit. His work with Joe Truss focused his attention on how STEM education can be more antiracist by bringing in math tools from Black, Indigenous and POC cultures. “Allowing scholars to see themselves in science, that was my task,” said Nellum of bringing culturally responsive lesson plans into his predominantly Black classroom. “Just teaching scholars that science is them. It’s more than just using it to make things. It’s in you. It’s in your culture.”
Using a site called Culturally Situated Design Tools, Nellum shifted his curriculum to include coding the curves of Adinkra symbols created by the Ashanti people of Ghana using Scratch programs and calculating the arcs found in Anishinaabe Native American architecture. Students were able to examine visuals from these cultures and use math as a way to explore intricate designs. “These patterns and symbols and circles – all of these things that they use to represent nature, represent honor – represent where they come from. They have embedded mathematics in them.”
He’s seen growth in his students’ confidence in STEM subjects and he presented the success of his lessons at the DWSC conference during the Anti-Racist Teachers and Leaders Symposium. “We got a lot of growth and I wanted to share the results,” said Nellum. “There are culturally responsive lesson plans for science and math teachers.”
Community-centered Classwork for Deeper Learning
Beth Vallarino, a humanities teacher at Tahoe Expedition Academy in Truckee, California, has been involved in Truss’s monthly check-ins for educators trying to become more justice-oriented in their teaching practice. She gravitated towards his educator-centered rubrics on anti-racist teachings. “Rubrics allow us to have a shared understanding and shared language about what quality or proficiency or success looks like,” said Truss.
Using the rubric to reflect on her teaching practice has helped her identify priorities and gaps in the assignments and projects that she assigns students. Additionally, the rubrics provide questions that guide teachers to develop classwork that explores historical and current events in their community. She said rubric questions like “Was there a recent event that was either controversial or celebratory?” and “What’s the official history of your area?” are instrumental in helping students learn more about significant local history.
“Kids were able to find out a lot about Truckee that’s not necessarily on a plaque,” she said. Using the rubrics as a guide, Vallarino’s class examined Squaw Valley Ski Resort’s decision to change their name because it contains an offensive slur against Native Americans. Students discussed the historical context that might have contributed to the naming and why the name should or shouldn’t be changed. “It’s interesting to present information in varied ways about what’s going on in our community and have them come up with their own ideas and opinions about what’s going on.”
In a conference presentation, Vallarino shared how her students have been identifying and speaking with experts, college students and organizations implementing justice, equity, diversity and inclusion work – also known as “JEDI” work. Students presented what they learned to their school administration alongside recommendations for how their school can be improved.
Vallarino plans to identify ways that antiracist teaching can extend even further beyond classroom walls. “I want to be more involved in developing opportunities for parents and families because it can be really challenging if your kids are learning something that you personally don’t know about or aren’t aware of,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned is that it’s really critical for schools to provide opportunities to educate communities.” She’s exploring ways to develop a shared vocabulary about antiracism and its role in improving humanity with students, caregivers and communities to build deeper understanding and energy around social justice work.
Building Capacity and Sharing the Work
While Vallarino is hoping to build more collective capacity in her community, Huynh is hoping to build capacity to take on more antiracism work within his school’s staff. After attending Truss’s workshops last year, he brought five colleagues to the conference. “A lot of the work has to involve getting enough people on your side and moving forward together. And so for me, I made the decision to try to get many staff members to go just so there’s more sustainability,” he said. “We just need to keep building capacity because I think it’s really hard on our staff of color and myself.” Sharing the work helps reduce burnout among POC educators and gives co-conspirators an opportunity to help.
Truss agrees that one of the merits of the conference is getting everyone together to immerse themselves in a topic. He’s hoping that people not only learn from the sessions, but also are able to learn from the model of how the conference handles conversations about challenging and disrupting the status quo.
“Seeing what quality professional learning looks like allows them to go back and lead it,” said Truss.
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