It was February 2008 at High Tech High. As my first period students arrived and settled in, I distributed copies of an email the entire faculty received the evening before from email@example.com. The email, signed only “Concerned Student,” expressed outrage because the author felt not enough attention had been paid school-wide to Black History Month, currently in its last week. It read, “I’m not saying that every teacher in this whole school needs to drop whatever they already have planned and change the curriculum to do ONLY Black History, but people need to do something.”
Most mornings, my class began with a fifteen-minute writing warm-up. On this morning, the warm-up was a response to this email; with no preface except that I received it the night before, I asked students to read it and write a reflection on what struck them. Of the 25 students in the class, twelve were girls and thirteen were boys; thirteen were white, eight were Latino, two were Asian, two were black. These ratios more or less mirrored the school overall. The email said, “We go to a white school.”
Some students read quickly, and began writing their responses immediately. Others took almost the full fifteen minutes just to read and re-read before slowly crafting a response. Everyone was silent. As the time expired, I asked, “What did you write about?” Many hands rose at once.
“I agree with most of what’s being said here,” said Robert. “Not much gets taught in general about the contributions other cultures have brought to this country. But it’s not just a black thing; it involves everyone, like Mexicans and Asians too.”
Jennifer said, “At my old school—I went to a private school, mostly white—we would take this month and learn about black history. When I read this I hadn’t thought about it, but I’m surprised that our school doesn’t.”
“I think people definitely deserve equal rights,” said Mark. “That goes for blacks, whites, men, women, Asians, and every other race or ethnicity or gender or whatever! But no specific people deserve a month for themselves. This mentality kind of sickens me.” He was visibly distressed by the conversation. “Like, why is there no Mexican History Month?”
“Actually,” I said, “there is a Hispanic Heritage Month. Does anyone know when it is?” No one answered.
“A lot of the time I feel like my white peers see blacks as just a joke,” said Carrie. “A lot of my friends see black people as being too touchy about racial stuff. But it’s hard for me to speak up against them because their thoughts are so well ingrained.” She paused. “It’s really frustrating.”
“I don’t think there should be a designated month just for black history,” said Brian. “It should be taught all year round, as part of the overall curriculum.”
“That’s right,” said Gina. “It seems to me like Black History Month is basically institutionalized racism. Singling people out based on their race and not their actions is wrong, even if it’s supposed to be positive. That’s why ‘separate but equal’ didn’t work.”
“Let’s pause here for a moment,” I said. “Look around the room at who has done most of the talking. Also look around at whose voices you haven’t heard.” As students slowly took this in, a few surprised sounds and awkward giggles emerged. They began to notice, as I had, that almost every student who had spoken throughout the conversation had been white; about half the class had remained silent. The two black students had said nothing.
One point from the email that the students hadn’t addressed was a sentence that read, “I’m choosing to be anonymous because I don’t feel I can talk to a teacher or my advisor about this.” In our small school, many of us felt that the best part about it was the close-knit sense of community that we could create. The thought that there were possibly students here who didn’t feel comfortable approaching their teachers about issues that mattered to them was deeply alarming to me—and I began to question why my classroom had such conspicuously silent voices.
Moments like this continually arise as I address issues of race and ethnicity with my students. As identity and self-perception are key elements in the development of high school students, the subjects of race and ethnicity often play a large role in students’ understanding of themselves. At High Tech High, a school with a diverse—and intentionally integregated— student body, educators need to understand how this complex issue affects the students’ understandings not only of themselves but also of their peers and the school community.
Knowing how crucial issues of race and ethnicity are to my work as an educator in a diverse learning community, I chose to conduct an action research project around the question, “How do students talk about race and ethnicity?” I emphasized talk because it is more easily identifiable than how students think or feel, yet it gives insight into both. I hoped that the answer to this question might help me (and others) understand how to support the development of students’ identities, and also how to create a more inclusive, safe space for discussion of this often touchy topic with an ethnically diverse group of students.
The process of my research began before I knew I was doing research. Formal class discussions about historical instances of racism, informal conversations with students about themselves and their friends and families, overheard comments in the halls outside of class—these moments pieced themselves together into a patchwork of questions. When I began doing research in earnest, I was looking to fill the holes in that strange tapestry, to connect all its loose threads into answers I could understand and put to use. Through analysis of surveys, interviews, focus groups, student journals and class discussions, I arrived at several themes associated with identity, power, and privilege. Here, I want to highlight one theme—High Tech High’s impact on students’ race relations—because it has salient implications for other educators and institutions.
Through my research, I began to see the impact racially integrated classrooms could have on students’ ways of understanding issues of race and ethnicity. Because many of the students in my study came from racially segregated neighborhoods, they had few opportunities to encounter racial diversity in their lives outside of school. This paucity of experience with the other provides many high school students with limited opportunities to develop relationships and empathy across differences. Where many of HTH’s students would have continued from their segregated elementary and middle schools into high schools that serve those same populations, they now went to a school whose demographic (in most cases) was quite different from their home neighborhoods. The students themselves recognized the potential value in this:
“At HTH I am much more comfortable with the subject of race because of the people I’ve met.”
“You have more people to talk about race with. You have all these blended cultures, so you can talk about each other’s race. […] They all combine, and it’s just a way to connect.”
“It’s a good thing about High Tech High because you’re surrounded by so many different cultures. It allows you to think more about each one.”
Most students in the study gave positive descriptions of the integration of racial groups that students experienced at HTH. In addition, they had positive associations with the byproducts of that integration: the ability to discuss race with students of other racial groups, the opportunity to learn from one another’s culture and experience, and the development of greater mutual understanding. By addressing the lack of these opportunities outside of school, HTH and other schools like it are in a unique position to create a climate of understanding that students otherwise would not experience.
Another significant factor cited by many students in their acceptance of one another’s differences was the school size. Because of its population of approximately 550 students and class sizes of no more than 25 students, several students expressed feelings of openness and intimacy that made it easier to talk about difficult issues like race. One student said HTH is “a more intimate setting. People have less of a problem speaking out here because there is less to fear. We’re in an environment where we all know each other.”
One point stood in contrast to students’ comments about learning from difference: their mention of self-segregating behaviors outside the classroom. This phenomenon is certainly not unique to HTH; other researchers have found that students in desegregated schools often self-segregate by “social-race” groups in informal interactions such as during lunch break (Clement & Harding, 1978). When I asked one student why she thought this happened, she said students tended to self-segregate because “they just have things in common. We all want to find someone who’s like us.”
It seems that the students understand this informal segregation to be about finding others who share the same group identity—or, as they put it, people who have things “in common.” Beverly Tatum explains it this way in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (1997):
The black students turn to each other for the much needed support they are not likely to find anywhere else. In adolescence…finding the answer to the question, “What does it mean to be a young black person?” is particularly important.… It is the peer group, the kids in the cafeteria, who hold the answers to these
questions (p. 60).
It seems, then, that informal racial segregation can result in healthy, productive effects on students’ self-definition in certain social contexts. However, this only reinforces the importance of the classroom as the place where intentional structures for integration need to be practiced. As many students in my study expressed, they see the benefit of the opportunities for learning that come from these structures.
What can be done with this information? When educators know what adolescents say about the relationship of race and ethnicity to their own identities and to the way they interact with their world, we can make our own practice more responsive to students’ needs.
We can begin by ignoring a few assumed “truths.” These include the common belief that Western canonical knowledge is the main (if not the exclusive) standard of cultural excellence in schools (McCarthy, 1993). If we revise our definition of a canon to be, as Neil Postman (1995) defines it, a set of “agreed-upon examples of excellence,” then we can provide our students with canonical knowledge from cultures around the world as an affirmation of those differing cultures’ values without contradicting our own expectation that schools teach students standards of excellence. Though many examples of multicultural curricula exist in schools already, another important element to making them more effective is to involve the voices of the students in their implementation. As I learned through my study, students respond positively when they know they have been heard, and so a culturally responsive curriculum must attend to the voices of the students it is intended to serve.
Another finding from my study is the importance of teacher-to-student and student-to-student relationships in creating safe spaces for dialogue. Unfortunately, the way to establish healthy relationships that support open, reflective thinking is not as easily articulated as, say, what titles should go in a book list. In my own classroom, I have had some measure of success merely by inviting students to share their stories with me. Sometimes this happened during class discussions, sometimes through assignments, and sometimes it was at lunch or after school. Regardless of when it happened, it was always a priority for me to demonstrate how much I valued their perspectives. Often, some kernel of relevance for my study of race and ethnicity emerged from these stories; more than anything, though, it helped establish a connection that supported more direct ‘research’ activities and more effective teaching later on.
There are concrete steps schools can take to create an environment that supports healthy relationships. My students mentioned the small class sizes and small school population at HTH as an example of how our school created such an environment. One student’s use of the word “intimate” gets right to the heart of how class size is related to students’ relationships with peers and teachers. If teachers hope to explore challenging topics such as systemic racism and privilege, they must first establish a climate where students know their voices matter. Small class size is not the only way to create this climate; however, conscientious teachers can only achieve so much on their own without the support of school-wide structures.
It is not sufficient for schools to have structures that are merely not racist; instead, schools and educators need actively anti-racist structures to combat systemic racism. The curriculum is one structure where that can be played out, through intentional choices in the subject matter. Also, teachers can utilize formal classroom structures such as grouping strategies to achieve anti-racist practice. In this way, teachers can encourage accepting, cross-cultural interactions between students (Clement & Harding, 1978). Although integrative grouping strategies alone cannot solve everything, they can be a first step toward achieving a more equitable classroom environment. The students in my study expressed the benefits of carefully designed grouping practices, and they encouraged their continued use.
Whatever the curriculum, whatever the structures, ultimately it comes down to listening to students, making sure we understand them, and creating environments where they can talk and listen to each other. Even the most well-intentioned educators may implement the most well-intentioned practices and still fail if they have not really heard what the students are telling them. Through this study, I tried to understand the way my students talk—partly about race and ethnicity, but more fully about their own identities, questions and understandings of the world. In the end, the most critical piece, and the enduring lesson, was the importance of taking the time to really listen to them.
To learn more about Spencer Pforsich’s research on how students talk about race and ethnicity, visit his digital portfolio on the HTH GSE webpage at //gse.hightechhigh.org or purchase his book, Student Discourse on Race and Ethnicity, at http://www.hightechhigh.org/books
Clement, D., & Harding, J. (1978).
Social distinctions and emergent student groups in
a desegregated school. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 9(4), 272-282.
McCarthy, C. (1993).
After the canon: Knowledge and ideological representation in the
multicultural discourse on curriculum reform. In C. McCarthy & W. Crichlow (Eds.), Race, Identity, and Representation in Education (pp. 289-305). New York: Routledge.
Postman, N. (1995).
The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York: Vintage.
Tatum, B. (1997).
“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A
Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity. New York: Basic Books.