6 Ways Teachers Can Better Support Black Students in the Classroom


6 Ways Teachers Can Better Support Black Students in the Classroom

Uncomfortably true memes are spreading on social media highlighting what students will have to learn about the year 2020 in future classrooms. Fear, worry, sadness, and uncertainty are spreading through teachers and students alike. A lot has happened since kids have been in classrooms – a pandemic and increased attention on the racism many of our Black students face daily. How will we navigate it all this fall? As teachers, we have little control over the decisions on how we return to school during a pandemic, but we have complete control over how we react to the Black Lives Matter movement that has dominated the headlines. It is our responsibility to not let this uprising of social justice be overshadowed by Covid-19. We all, especially White teachers in predominantly White schools, must show our students why this movement matters.

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Why is it crucial to support Black students?

Our students live in a virtual world. Every protest, instance of police brutality, meme, and news story is available at their fingertips. They are watching, reading, listening, and forming their own ideas and opinions based on the “evidence” of strangers. They are learning how they should be treated or how they should treat others from TikTok and Snapchat. What our students need from their teachers is what students all throughout history have needed from their teachers: love, support, and guidance. Here are ways to show our support for our Black students:

1. Read, read, and read some more!

It is irresponsible to effectively discuss and impossible to empathize with others on a topic that you are not educated on yourself. Because of this, our homework is to read as much as possible. Stay up on current events from more than one platform. Find journalists you trust to report the news without bias. Read history, more than what you were taught in school. If you want to quote Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, or Colin Kaepernick, then read about them. Know their story, their sermons, their plight; understand their platforms.

Read books about race by Black authors. Along with nonfiction, read fiction by Black authors, featuring Black characters. Get your hands on stories that your Black students can relate to and see themselves in, stories that you can use to connect with them. It’s powerful when a White teacher says, “I can’t imagine what you feel because I have never had that experience, but let me tell you about a book I read that helps me understand a little.” 

2. Redecorate so all students are represented.

Add representation, diversity, and inclusion to your classroom walls. Your students need to see themselves and their classmates when they look around the room.  Make sure your posters include children of all skin tones and abilities. Going virtual this school year? Add diversity to your digital classroom. Do you have athletes, scientists, inventors, historical figures, and authors highlighted? If so make sure to highlight Black athletes, scientists, inventors, etc. Studies show that this simple step can help with the development of children’s implicit bias (our unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that affect our actions and beliefs). When all students are equally represented in the classroom decor we are making the statement that directly affects how kids see themselves and others. 

3. Diversify reading lists and classroom libraries.

In the same way that adding diversity to your classroom decor is important, adding it to your bookshelves is just as, if not even more, important. Students need to see themselves in literature. They need to meet characters that they relate to. But more than that, Black students need to be introduced to literature that tells stories about more than just overcoming hardship. They need to be the main character in a story surrounded by other Black characters.

In Hollywood, this is referred to as the DuVernay Test, named after director Ava DuVernay. In order to pass this test, the story must center on African Americans and other minorities that have full lives and who are not just props to drive the plot of White stories. Author of The Hate U Give and On the Come Up, Angie Thomas, addresses this in interviews when she explains that, “the thing is, with Black girls, so often we feel left out. We don’t find ourselves in a lot of different things. We don’t see ourselves in a lot of books, especially young adult books…” As teachers, we have the opportunity to put books in the hands of our Black students that mirror their own lives.

4. Make your classroom a place of safe interaction and trust.

Take the time to celebrate your students. Give them the opportunity to interact with one another, and you. Use get-to-know-you icebreakers as a chance to allow students to connect through what they have in common. Simultaneously, celebrate students’ differences. Give them the opportunity to teach each other and share their own stories. Ask them questions and allow them to give you feedback. Empower your students to feel comfortable enough with you and their classmates that they can say when something is bothering them or that they feel underrepresented.

Commit to being the best educator you can be for your students, going beyond what you learned in your one diversity class in college about teaching Black students, and get to know each individual fully.  When you build that trust, you will have the opportunity to discuss with your Black students and their families how they feel and what you can do better to meet their needs. 

5. Be Intentional

Model positive conversation. When students are discussing difficult or sensitive topics, such as police brutality or protests, don’t immediately quiet them or ask them to change the subject. This can get tricky, especially in a public school setting, but changing the subject gives the impression that these conversations are unacceptable. Use the opportunity for students to journal about their thoughts on the topic, encourage them to write questions on slips of paper to use for class discussion, or assign current event reflections to give students the opportunity to read up on topics they connect with.

Another way to intentionally develop positive implicit biases is to help White students understand that when describing a person or a character physically, saying that they are Black is not a bad thing. It isn’t a trait that has to be whispered. We need to help our students normalize seeing each other for who they are and allowing each other to be proud of who they are.

Black students in predominantly White school settings carry invisible loads that we can’t all relate to. When discussing slavery or the Civil Rights Movement, they catch the quick glances of their peers who feel guilty discussing the topics in front of them. They feel the shift in the mood of the class when the answer to the question about why Tom Robinson was found guilty in To Kill a Mockingbird is “because he was Black.” They know that as Black students they are four times more likely to be disciplined than White students, and it is very clear to them that 80% of teachers in America are white. As teachers, we need to get uncomfortable with our intention. It is our responsibility to call out stereotypes, to work to dismantle the systematic racism within our buildings and to do whatever it takes to meet the needs of Black students.

6. Humble Yourself 

You will mess up. You will get push-back and make people mad. However, no reaction that you get as a teacher working to do the best that you can for your students can compare to what it feels like to be a Black student who believes no one is in their corner. Teachers need to acknowledge our weaknesses and ignorances and then work to fix them. The only way we can become better teachers for our Black students, for all of our students, is to listen, read, educate ourselves, get uncomfortable, and when we mess up grow from it and do better. Your students are watching and learning from you.

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6 Ways Teachers Can Better Support Black Students in the Classroom

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samfrye

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Samantha is a high school English teacher from Monroe, Ohio, as well as a momma to three boys and a wife. She has an MFA in Creative Writing Nonfiction, but spends most of her days looking for missing Crocs and correcting grammar mistakes. Between soccer practices, grading papers, and trying to keep up with laundry (ha!), things get pretty busy. And, with three boys things also get pretty loud! But in between the chaos she writes. 

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