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How to Talk About Race in the Classroom

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How to talk about race in the classroom

Bestselling author and activist Stephanie Jirard shares insights on facilitating conversations around race and criminal justice with your students.

The more we all talk about race in our classroom, the less people will equate discussions about race with “racism,” allowing us to continue to learn from one another. Our students are depending on us to lead the way and show them how to engage with difficult topics. In this day and age, silence in no longer an option.

If you are apprehensive about discussing race in the classroom, I found Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race (2018) an accessible and helpful book. From my own classroom experience teaching criminal justice for the past 17 years, here are my suggestions:

  1. Reflect on how you personally feel about issues of race and criminal justice that may invite contentious disagreements in the classroom. Be prepared to respond when certain issues arise so you can help navigate the discus­sion in an educational direction.

  2. Plan time during your lecture, or in responding to discussion posts online, to talk about race. Be emotionally prepared to not reach closure or a tidy resolution to an issue that has vexed the country for 400 years.

  3. In preparing to engage your students in a discussion about race, prepare “off ramps” in advance. When a situation escalates and you find yourself ill-prepared to cool emotional flare ups or to corral the discussion, plan an exit ramp that keeps the discussion about race moving, but once removed. The goal is to pull back from the emotion but still keep the discussion going. If the discussion becomes irretrievably broken down and it would be counter-productive to continue, please do not end the class period with a mass of swirling emotions. Check in with students to see how they are feeling and commit to continuing to address issues so that everyone can understand and honor their classmates’ different perspectives.

  4. In conducting a discussion on race, have the class establish specific ground rules to make sure everyone is heard. During the discussion, check in and make sure everyone is still comfortable with the rules as community norms of engagement.

  5. When you begin the discussion either face to face or online, allow everyone to speak once before anybody speaks twice. I cut up my class list and pull names randomly out of a cup until everyone expresses their thoughts on the topic.

  6. Employ active listening techniques to prevent misunderstandings and ask open-ended questions to encourage students to participate. Work hard at not being judgmental or condemnatory if a student expresses unpopular viewpoints.

  7. If a class member expresses statements that may be perceived as insensitive—for example, “The Confederate flag is about history, not hate, and removing statues of southern heroes is trying to erase history”—you will have to engage in Socratic method deductive reasoning. The goal is not to get the student to change their mind, but to help the student see why what they are saying may be hurtful to others.

  8. Leave time for a debrief. Plan to end your discussion with 10 minutes to wrap up, check in with students to gauge whether the discussion helped them understand the issues, ask if you can do anything to improve the quality of the discussion (if you made mistakes, apologize and ask for suggestions to do better), and then rinse and repeat.

Access more free resources from Stephanie Jirard now:

Teach a Policing course? Stephanie Jirard’s resources pair well with the following titles: