In the days following the police killing of George Floyd, Qorsho Hassan’s fifth grade students were curious about the circumstances leading up to his violent death and the unrest that ensued:
“Why was George Floyd arrested?”
“Why can’t our leaders, our elected leaders do something? Do the right thing? You always tell us in the classroom and at school to do the right thing.”
“Can’t the police use paintball guns instead of rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters?”
These are some of the questions Hassan, then a teacher at Gideon Pond Elementary school, remembers fielding from her students during their last weeks of school this past year. The Burnsville school is racially diverse — about 2 out of every 3 students are children of color, and nearly half of the student population is Black.
Hassan said her 10- and 11-year-old students were “brave, insightful, willing to have difficult conversations, willing to ask questions that might be problematic, but they want to learn.”
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Wanting to learn, according to Hassan, is a good place to start. The Somali American teacher is an equity leader and was recently selected as a finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. Before the school year ended, Hassan and her co-teacher, Monet Barnes, made sure to incorporate Floyd’s killing into their Zoom class meetings.
“To not address it, once again is that silence piece and it is complicit because you are erasing the experience of kids of color, communities of color,” Hassan said. “You’re also really kind of creating more space for that confusion, that anger, that hurt to not be checked, to not be processed, and I think that that is dangerous.”
As schools, parents and educators think about how to talk to students about racism, Hassan and Barnes have some advice:
1) Start talking to kids about racism — now
Don’t delay conversations about race or racism because kids are young or because you don’t have a perfect plan.
“If you’re not having those conversations, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable they might be, I think that that in itself is a grave injustice. I think that that will perpetuate white supremacy and the same system that murdered George Floyd,” Hassan said.
Barnes said parents and teachers should normalize talking about race.
“If you start talking about it at a young age, they’re going to see that as normal and then they’re going to be able to talk about the hard stuff that comes up,” Barnes said. “They’re going to be knowledgeable and be able to speak on the behalf of other people of color, if they’re students of color. But also, if they’re white, to be an ally to people of color as well.”
2) If you’re not sure how to talk about racism, admitting that is a good place to start
Barnes recommended being vulnerable with kids and admitting to them how you’re feeling about current events or about talking about race. Scared? Confused? Uncertain?
“Teachers and parents really have to do the work on themselves before they start having those deep conversations. But even if they haven’t yet, a good place to start is just being open and vulnerable. You can say, ‘I don’t know, I’m working to figure it out,’” Barnes said. “Tell your students how you’re feeling, but also do the work in yourself.”
3) It takes work to understand racism and teach kids anti-racism — Do that work
Hassan and Barnes both said they have to continually learn about themselves and improve their anti-racist work. They recommend other educators do similar work by reading, understanding context and history and learning about themselves.
They recommend Teaching Tolerance as a resource, guide and toolkit they use for doing anti-racist work in the classroom.
4) Integrate teaching on racism into your classroom throughout the year
Barnes and Hassan are intentional about integrating education on racism into their curriculum, discussions and planning, whether they’re teaching in-person or via Zoom.
Hassan and Barnes find creative ways to teach Black American and world history throughout the year.
“That doesn’t just mean that we’re celebrating all the things that Black Americans have done for our country, but we’re also speaking out about the things that the country has done to them,” Barnes said.
And it’s not just history. Both Hassan and Barnes use literature that amplifies the voices of people of color: showing their struggle without putting them in a victim role.
5) Give students the chance to talk, be vulnerable and be leaders
Barnes and Hassan said there’s a time for direct instruction, but there’s also a time for letting students lead discussions with their questions and wisdom. When they had a class discussion about George Floyd, both Hassan and Barnes made space for fifth graders to ask questions and answer each others’ questions.
“I think that’s really important that we’re not leading that discussion, that the peers are really able to facilitate and kind of lead each other and practice being leaders and speaking out about this,” Barnes said. “I think a lot of times we think that kids don’t know what’s happening and they don’t see it. But they knew everything. And they had such wise insight into what was happening.”
6) Make sure your Black students know their lives matter
Hassan and Barnes said it was important for educators to use their power in the classroom to not just facilitate conversations about race and racism, but to actively validate and advocate for their students of color.
“I think about how important it is to validate those students of color that you have in your spaces,” Hassan said. “(Those students) need to hear that racism is still a part of our country and it’s something that unfortunately kills a lot of Black lives and they need to be told that their lives matter. They need to be told that their stories matter and that their voices matter as well.”
7) To school administrators, honor the work of Black educators
Barnes said it was important to honor, listen to and pay for the work of Black educators. But she added that white school administrators needed to be leading conversations on racism as well.
She said school leaders should take a stand so that they don’t re-traumatize teachers of color. “People of color in the school are hurting,” she said, and might have to expend more emotional energy trying to explain things to people or prove themselves.
She also suggested school leaders should reach out to teachers of color to listen to and support them. If those teachers ask for help, be ready to offer help. If teachers give suggestions, be ready to take those suggestions.
Hassan and Barnes were two of the only three Black teachers in their school; Hassan has since been laid off due to a district budget shortfall and will teach at nearby Echo Park Elementary. They’ve felt the isolation of working in a state with an alarming shortage of teachers of color and worry about what that means for the educational outcomes for their students.
“We don’t value representation in our education field,” Hassan said. “Education is another area in which racism thrives.”