Hansen: The critical debate on racial theory is a distraction from the real issue: making schools places where children can truly be themselves

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An children return to school this fall, the world of education is turned upside down by the critical non-problem of racial theory. I say no problem because no school or district teaches higher grade content, or something like that, to kindergarten through grade 12 students. I fear, however, that the CRT debate distracts from a more critical question: How do adults engage with students to make them feel seen and appreciated, and make schools places where all children feel they can truly be themselves?

A recent report by the Rand Corp. showed that black and Latino parents were much more likely than white parents to keep their children at home to learn even if their local schools returned to face-to-face classes; 25% said their child felt safer and performed better online than in person. This follows other research showing that 20 percent of students aged 12 to 18 report being bullied in school, and almost a third of teens report feeling pressured to ‘look good’ or “Integrate socially” in a way that distracts them. Many students who identify as non-majority in one way or another, whether on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender identity, learning differences or cognitive , found relief in online learning, avoiding school environments that often seemed unsafe.

The Leon Lowenstein Foundation funded a coalition of organizations led by a team from Next Generation Learning Challenges to try to understand why some schools and programs have been more successful than others in keeping students engaged in learning during this last year. The first results of the What made them so prepared? project indicate that at least part of the answer is that the adults in these programs – the schools I call human-centered in their approach to education – had already changed their relationship with students. These programs are built around values ​​such as interdependence, collaboration, community and diversity, which contrast with the school’s industrial model. Students in these schools report, both in general and during the pandemic, that they continued to feel connected, known and supported as individuals and students by adults and their peers.

I have spent my career studying these schools and understanding what makes them so effective in cultivating a sense of belonging. Their ability to do this allows students to engage in difficult conversations about issues such as race, poverty, and trauma in ways that are surprisingly absent in the vast majority of schools. One of the most important factors is how adults present themselves. While it may seem simple, the knowledge and skills to be physically, mentally and emotionally present for another person, so that they in turn feel emotionally and physically safe to be themselves, are not those that most of us have never learned. If I don’t feel strongly grounded in my own sense of self, it’s going to be very difficult for me to feel secure in letting others be who they are, allowing them to experience and deal with difficult emotions like anger, sorrow or rage in my presence.

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Being able to do this fundamentally changes the nature of relationships within the classroom or school. The adults in these programs have done the deep and often uncomfortable job of bringing out their unconscious beliefs, biases and assumptions, and becoming more aware of how these may unintentionally emerge in what they think and act in. depending on what they believe that a child can do, whether that child is “good” or “bad”, “intelligent” or not. Because they got the job done, these adults have the skills and tools they need to change the way they engage with others, especially students. It allows them to create a genuine sense of kinship and belonging, and helps them show young people what it means to do the same for each other – and support them in doing so.


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For many reasons, most of us have never had the chance to develop these skills. We see this playing out in civic and political discourse, as more and more people are increasingly unable to engage in conversations that challenge their own values.

It’s tempting to believe that changing a school curriculum to include more explicit conversations about race, privilege, and identity will make schools safer for diverse groups of students. But just introducing new content won’t change much. The power of this work only comes when adults can engage in solid conversations about the implications that content and ideas will have for their daily interactions and relationships with students. For example, if educators teach how America’s economic and social systems were designed to disadvantage people of color, students may well cite personal experiences or observations of how this plays out for them or their community. Teachers have to be prepared to facilitate such discussions, which is not easy.

Educators need professional learning opportunities around racial dialogue that are healing-oriented, long-term, and community-based. These programs share certain approaches:

  • Create strong personal bonds between participants who see their role as witnessing and supporting each other on a journey of change.
  • Base the work on the idea that the challenge encompasses a worldview and values ​​that have unfolded over several hundred years in a cultural stew of social, economic and political strife. These systems impact each of us in real but different ways.
  • Focus on people’s lived experiences in processing and learning, that is, asking them to notice, name and feel the discomfort that the cognitive work of better understanding these dynamics evokes in their body . He encourages the use of breathing and physical movement as a means of letting the body go through and alchimizing trauma.

Schools will not really change until the nature of the relationships within them changes. Educators need support in learning to make room for the types of interactions and conversations that students need most if they are to feel seen, known, and accepted fully, regardless of the content covered in the course. formal program.

Ulcca Joshi Hansen is Program Manager at Order givers for education. A former English learner and first generation student, she is a mother of two, a former elementary school teacher with two decades of experience in education and author of “The future of intelligence: How our education system needs to change to help all young people thrive.


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