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Engaging With Students in Academic Conversations About Race


Academic conversations about race can be challenging for teachers to lead and manage, especially in today’s divisive political climate.

Classroom dynamics, socioeconomic differences, geographic locations, and school administrations are some contributing factors regarding how race is addressed in school. For any classroom teacher, even the most experienced and seasoned, fostering academic conversation skills about race can feel overwhelming.

When addressing race in academic conversations, there are some simple yet effective guiding principles an educator should follow to steer conversations appropriately and ensure positive outcomes for all students.

The strategies offered below can be applied when discussing race in the classroom, whether as a result of a planned lesson (for example, a unit about the Civil Rights movement) or if a student raises a question related to a current event, even if it is not directly tied to the course’s subject.

Academic conversations about race can happen anywhere, even in an algebra class! It is therefore the responsibility of all educators to facilitate these conversations appropriately.

Start With Your Environment: Setting the Tone

Your classroom environment sets the tone for young learners to feel welcome, safe, encouraged, and affirmed. Even something as simple as posters on the wall or the arrangement of desks can impact how students feel in the classroom, which can dictate their willingness to share, participate in discussions, and ask questions.

girl sitting in classroom chair

A supportive classroom environment recognizes diversity and reflects it in the materials used in the room. The students pictured in textbooks, online presentations, wall calendars, or posters should include a diverse racial makeup.

It is also helpful for young learners to see reflections of themselves in the classroom if and when they speak English as a second language, have a disability, come from a blended or multi-generational family, or any other way they may differ from the majority.

Whatever educators can do to create an inclusive and welcoming classroom environment will help facilitate healthy discussions about not only race, but a wide variety of topics.

Don’t Blow it Off: Take the Time to Address It

Many educators work under the constant pressure of deadlines, test scores, and hundreds of large and small tasks that loom over them throughout the day. Therefore, it can be tempting to brush past some topics to keep the class moving toward a goal. However, discernment is needed here to know when it is the right time to get “off” track.

Important discussions about timely and sensitive topics may at times outweigh necessary tasks. If students express concerns, frustrations, or fears in the classroom, it helps them to know those concerns are validated. Take the time to discuss important topics, such as topics around race, when needed, even if it means getting behind on the day’s lesson.

If anything prevents you from addressing the concern, be it the class bell, a mandatory assembly, or the need for students to finish a pressing assignment, make a note to revisit the topic at the start of the next class. This will demonstrate to students that you value and prioritize the importance of such discussions.

In the long run, these discussions will shape students into the adults they become. A safe and respectful space for productive conversations about race will tremendously impact your students for the better.

student raising hand for query in hand


Establish Ground Rules and Lead by Example

It is crucial to establish ground rules for class discussions about race (or any topic, for that matter) that help to facilitate healthy exchanges of relevant ideas, thoughtful questions, and a general openness to learning from others’ input and ideas, especially those that differ from one’s own ideas.

Ground rules can vary widely based on the students’ age, the classroom size, and other factors related to your specific community. It may not be practical for a teacher managing 30 students to use the same discussion format as one with a class of only 18, for example. A classroom teacher working with special education students or English language learners may make accommodations for those who need assistance communicating relevant ideas.

Some ground rules you might consider in an academic classroom environment include:

  • Use “I” statements as often as possible rather than “You” statements.
  • Ask for clarity when you do not understand something; allow the speaker an opportunity to rephrase their statement.
  • Do not interrupt others when they are speaking; only the person holding the “speaking prop” has the opportunity to speak.
  • Be respectful!

When students and teachers communicate respectfully, academic discussions about race can be fruitful and productive. Teachers should also be mindful never to ignore strong emotions. If a student is visibly upset by the discussion, pause to address that and see if an opportunity to voice her concerns would be helpful.

Listen More and Speak Less

It can be tempting for teachers to over-manage the discussion, but giving the students ample time to share their ideas versus pushing them toward specific talking points is essential. Resist the urge to step in and instead try to stand back and allow students to manage the discussion (as long as they do so respectfully).

teacher trying to hear

Giving students ownership of a class discussion, especially on an important topic, gives them a chance to build essential conversation skills. They will better understand how to manage their emotions in a group setting with multiple perspectives, hear the viewpoints of others, and share their views with confidence.

Sometimes, a classroom teacher must step in to best facilitate a discussion, including when language becomes hostile or threatening. Students should be aware that this type of speech during academic talk always goes against the ground rules of the class.

Turn Discussions into Action

While your class talk regarding race may never come to a neat and tidy conclusion, encourage students to think about how they can turn their concerns and ideas into action. Challenge their critical thinking skills to develop ways to contribute to championing diversity and increasing inclusivity at school or in their community.

By allowing your students the time (and safe space) to have productive conversations about race, you will empower them to think beyond an academic classroom environment and how they can be a part of pursuing racial equity in their communities and workplaces in the future.

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(NOTE: Credits for Teachers provides self-paced online Professional Development courses for K12 teachers.  Teachers who take our courses receive graduate credit from our university partner that can be used for salary advancement or license renewal – Learn More Now)

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