Getting Real about Race and Education

This post has been guest written by Burlington High School English teacher Erika Lowe. Along with her fellow 9th grade teachers, she organized a day long learning experience around Race: Are We So Different, exhibiting through January 27th at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. 

A year ago when the opportunity to team with teachers in a new freshmen academy crossed my path, I jumped at the chance to apply. Seldom does a teacher find a group of colleagues willing to take risks with learning that I have found in the ninth grade teachers with whom I work today. This year we took on several new initiatives including 1:1 iPad classrooms, team teaching and integrated curriculum units.

Innovative learning is about taking creative risks and when you have a group of teachers willing to collaborate in going where no teachers have gone before, you can dream big. A few months ago we envisioned bringing our students together to explore issues of race and diversity on a scale never before seen in Vermont. We aimed for a day dedicated to student centered learning that would not only start an authentic sustainable conversation on issues of race within Burlington High School, but reach beyond the borders of the school district into the community.

Taking into consideration feedback from students last year when work was done in humanities classes around race and diversity, we concluded students desired and needed more time to engage with these topics. Students had many questions, feelings and conflicting ideas around race and diversity. And they needed the vital space, time and freedom to navigate these important issues. We presented our ideas and concerns to the administration and school district, who embraced the plan from the beginning.

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Last week our vision came to fruition when our freshmen participated in Getting Real About Race, a day dedicated to exploring these important issues. Students rotated through conversations and activities at Maglianero, Main Street Landing Theatre and ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, exploring four essential questions generated by academy teachers:

  • How does race affect me?
  • What labels do I use and why do I use them?
  • How do I have conversations about race?
  • How do I acknowledge the ideas and opinions of others without making judgments?

Students generated over 500 questions about race in social studies classes prior to the event, which we handed over to 12 panelists from the community. Panelists at Maglianero engaged in an authentic dialogue with students based upon their questions. We created a panel made up of community members who represented different races, genders, sexual orientations, ages, religions and occupations in order to expose students to a truly diverse panel.

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Teachers scouted the exhibition Race: Are We So Different?at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center weeks prior tothe event. We immediately knew the exhibit posed the problem of being too text heavy for students and that it would be important to pre-teach vocabulary and content in order to provide students the tools necessary to truly engage with the issues posed within Race: Are We So Different? on a much deeper level.

Students further engaged in related activities at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, such as writing down and responding to microaggressions and racist comments they had heard over the course of their lives and generating reflections expressing how they identified themselves versus how others identified them. Teachers posted these on the walls of rooms where students could learn from one another’s experiences.

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We screened a Dateline NBC special, My Kid Would Never Do That, at Main Street Landing Theatre, which explored how peer pressure plays a role in racism. Prior to the film, students participated in anonymous surveys around issues of race and diversity using the NearPod app on their iPads, which they received feedback from in real time. They wrote reflections based on the film and NearPod results and generated digital images inspired by one phrase that resonated with them from their reflections on race and diversity.

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Desiring to extend the Getting Real About Race event beyond the freshmen academy and into the Burlington community at large, we collaborated with the Young Writers’ Project, who set up camp at two locations to collect recordings from students, teachers and community members. Volunteers described how race affects them in their everyday lives in order to share their stories in podcasts. We invited the press and live tweeted the event over Twitter in order to share our conversations and experiences with the social media community in our city.

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How empowering it is to dream big and then see your plan come to fruition. Academy teachers from six different disciplines collaborated to ensure a safe, organized and successful Getting Real About Race event and positive experience for our students. And we did it despite fears of walking over uncomfortable and unknown terrain. We took creative risks and embraced innovative learning. The result was an event that not only benefited our students, but started a larger conversation with the Burlington community at large. And the collaboration and innovative thinking continues due to opportunities afforded to us through the Partnership for Change.

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