Race in the Classroom: Innovating (Color)Blind

Hello, blog world! I’ve been wanting to write something since the Fellows’ first day in Chicago and just haven’t been able to find the words. Between school visits, design sessions, and (especially) conversations with my Fellowship cohort, I’ve been overwhelmed with thoughts, ideas, and more than anything else, emotions. It’s taken a couple of days to reconcile those feelings and be able to put them into coherent thoughts.

Over the course of our trips to California and Chicago, we noticed a disturbing trend: The most innovative schools—those that were truly giving students to the freedom to direct their learning—were overwhelmingly serving Latino and white students. Almost everywhere we went, we were shocked by the absence of black children in the innovative classrooms we observed. In school after school, we kept asking, “Where are all the black kids?” “Where are the classrooms that look like my classroom?”

Only three of the 15 schools we visited served majority black populations. At these schools—KIPP Empower (LA), KIPP Create (Chicago), and Urban Prep—the emphasis on school culture was palpable, and students were compliant, on task, and controlled. These schools are getting excellent results, and they were built by thoughtful, caring adults aiming to give students the best of the best. The adults called all the shots in those schools, just like I do in my classroom.

But these schools were different from the ones we were most excited about—schools like CICS West Belden and Epic—where students were truly given the freedom to direct their own learning. In this latter group, schools were busy and loud and engaging. These were the types of classrooms we knew students needed, but they weren’t serving all kids.

Over the course of the week, I became obsessed with this phenomenon. I, along with many other Fellows, started asking everyone we came in contact with, “Where are the proof points of personalized, student-directed classrooms serving black kids?” No one seemed to know. We got lots of different answers:

“This school reflects the demographics of this particular neighborhood.”

“Well, I’m not really sure why there aren’t more black students…”

Finally, during a leadership panel, one panelist told us bluntly, “People think it won’t work with black kids. They say black kids need more structure.”

Even though we’d been expecting that answer, to finally hear someone say it directly felt like a punch in the gut. It made us angry. Who’s to say what black kids can and can’t do? Who’s to say what our students need?

I was angry, too, but mostly, I was ashamed. I thought about the ways that my own teaching is reinforcing the narrative that the only schools that work for black kids are those that emphasize control and compliance. I teach in schools that serve a majority black student population, and I would certainly categorize my teaching style as “structured.” (A less generous description might be “massive control freak.”)  And my guiding philosophy has always been that control leads to freedom: When students feel safe and routines are predictable, they have the freedom to take risks. So every year, I work hard to set the tone, to establish control, always thinking that once we get the “perfect” classroom culture, I’ll start to release control back to the students. Unsurprisingly, we never get there, and I rationalize my choices by saying that my kids “need structure.”

The truth is, my kids have structure. They’ve had structure for months and months and months. What they need and deserve is freedom—freedom to explore their interests and engage with each other around academic topics. They need to talk and make choices for themselves, even when those choices aren’t perfect. I need to embrace the fact that that won’t always look perfect, and every minute won’t always be spent on task.

I know that what students are getting at CICS West Belden is leaving them better prepared for college and life than what they’re getting in my classroom. I don’t know how to get there, but I refuse to believe that my students—or any students—can’t do it or need something different than the best we can give them. So that’s what I’m going to do for my Fellowship summer pilot project: attempt to release control and give my kids the freedom to drive their own learning. And I guess we’ll see what happens.

Kate O’Connor, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
E.L. Haynes PCS


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