For many of us in education, the lure of changing the world for the better is part of the reason we got into this game. As we see the turbulent politics and crises emerging around us, it’s sometimes hard to know how to use our roles to help equip students to engage with the real world and make it a better place. We are admonished not to bring our politics into the classroom, or offend anyone by sharing too many of our own opinions.
Even if we are still hoping to find ways to bring important issues up in class, it can be hard to ask for advice on the topics of race and social justice at school so that we can do a good job. I remember the first time I was presented with Huck Finn and told to teach it. I read it and immediately came to my colleagues in a cold sweat, asking how on earth I would deal with the language of the book in the classroom. “It’s just history,” I was told, “you just read it.”
Ummm. That didn’t work for me. I was not going to have my students read the n-word aloud in my classroom like any other word.
But like me, teachers often encounter really difficult and loaded situations without any training or prep in how to handle them. Much less how to use them to help students grow, gain confidence in their voices, and learn to have conversations about important issues that don’t end in fury, tears and reports to the superintendent about a teacher messing up the classroom with politics.
Sometimes even asking questions leads people to get angry at the way we phrased those questions or the fact that we didn’t already know the answer. It’s not easy to talk about racism, sexism, and homophobia. It’s not easy to talk about the state of politics in America.
But it is important. So important. We have to keep asking and trying and reading and learning and hoping to do better. To find ways to approach big and important subjects. Subjects that sometimes feel taboo.
Since encountering a giant swastika in the parking lot at my favorite trailhead this spring, my half-Jewish children walking just far enough from me to miss it, I’ve wished more than ever that I could help teachers fight against hate and work towards equity. I’ve discovered many wonderful resources (like the ones from this post), and many wonderful people to learn from, like my guest today.
In this episode of The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast, you’re going to hear from Teaching Tolerance‘s teacher of the year, Liz Kleinrock. I find her inspiring, and I believe you will too.
Listen in to discover ideas and strategies for safely holding conversations in your classroom around topics that can be contentious – like race, religion, gender, and more.
Can you tell me a little about what you do and why you do it?
I am an educator based out of Los Angeles, California. I’ve been in a classroom for the past ten years. I started as an Americorp teacher, and loved it so much I decided to get my masters in education and moved to L.A., where I’ve been teaching at a founding charter school for the past seven years. My main focus has been around equity and inclusion, and social justice in the classroom.
Now obviously, you are an elementary school teacher and today we’re talking to high school teachers. But I think on this topic, many of the same rules (and let’s be honest, anxieties) apply. It can be hard broaching big political, social, and racial issues in class. But I’m repeatedly inspired by the way you do it. You’ve written that it’s not about teaching students WHAT to think, it’s about teaching them HOW to think and helping them practice that. Can we talk about what that means in the classroom?
Sure. I think when it comes to issues of things like race, equity, gender, and religion, most folks have a lot of opinions and big feelings about that. As a teacher, you have to be really aware that you are not falling into this role where you are preaching from the pulpit at the front of your classroom. It can be really hard to check ourselves, especially where there’s a topic that we feel really passionately about or we have a personal connection to, but we need to consider – if your child had a teacher who was doing that from the opposite side of the political or social spectrum, how would you feel about that?
From my perspective, it’s really about helping students develop critical thinking skills, about asking meaningful questions, and expressing their observations and experiences with each other and the whole class, and really delving into who they are as individuals and how their identities intersect with those around them.
My role as a classroom educator is to really act more as a facilitator. Whenever I start a new unit, I like to use a KWL chart – listing all the things we know about a topic, all the questions we have, and then all of our learnings and our new understandings. I really like this strategy because it keeps me from taking too dominant of a role in that process. I’m really recording their thoughts and what they know and their questions, and then I’m able to provide resources to help them delve into those ideas on their own.
You gave a wonderful Ted Talk about talking about taboo subjects in class. Can you share a little about this and how it might apply to teachers of older students as well?
When I look at my students in these conversations, in these lessons, I have kids who have been really disenchanted and checked out when it comes to more traditional lessons, but when you ask them about their lived experiences, when you ask them what they know about the political climate in our communities, or things like Black Lives Matter or the Dream Act, they have soooo much to share.
I’ve just seen this really change the level of engagement and investment for my students, and my kids have been between ages 6 and 11 years old, so I can only imagine if you gave older students that space and platform, what direction they might take it in. I think, also, working with older students, they’re at this place where very soon they’ll be leaving the high school environment and thinking about when they get out into the world beyond school, when they are put into brand new situations, whether it’s college, or the workplace, or if they move – how are we equipping them with this type of social and cultural literacy and fluency to set them up for success when they are in environments with people who are different from themselves?
You’ve found ways to talk about consent, privilege, allyship, and racism in class. Have you dealt with backlash against your bravery? What advice would you give to others who feel like they have to walk on eggshells?
I am very privileged to work at a school called Citizens of the World, so on some level when families enroll their students at our school they have an idea of what they’re getting into. We have a very transparent mission and vision and statement around our commitment to diversity and equity. The main pushback that I’ve actually found has been around teaching gender, and elevating the voices and experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals, and that’s been mainly based on religious beliefs. I have surprisingly not had a lot of pushback, even when I did a unit on privilege – I didn’t really have a lot of resistance. Again, very privileged situation, and I know that many other teachers are not in the same situation as me.
But when I think about what I try to do to set myself up for success, the transparency between school and home is incredibly important. When I’ve talked to parents and asked families, “If your child’s teacher was to talk about issues of race or religion, what would your concerns be?” And I think, understanding their concerns and fears is the first, most important thing you can do. And it’s such an easy thing to do. I’ve had parents whose children are white, express the fear that their child is going to be demonized in class. I’ve had parents who have black and brown students, who have expressed a lot of concern that their child is going to be tokenized or singled out, or that the teacher hasn’t done the work themselves to really unpack their identity and their biases, and how that might harm their child in school. And those are completely understandable perspectives.
So I think really getting on the same page and understanding where concerns are coming from is super important. Even if your fear is that your administration doesn’t support you, figuring out why. Where are they facing pressure from? Is it around curriculum? Test scores? Is it also about pressure from parents? And what kind of a networking community can you build so you’re not operating in isolation? This work is hard enough on its own, and unless we are building capacity, there’s just going to be burnout. You can’t be the only teacher in your entire school or your entire district who wants to talk about race and equity. Even if it’s other teachers, if it’s teaching assistants, if it’s teachers who teach enrichment classes like art or music, or even gaining parent involvement, but just really coming together with this united front to show administrators or board members that this matters to you and how it can benefit all students.
Let’s dig deeper into your unit on being an ally. I watched the documentary that was made about this and found it very powerful. I have even started trying to teach about this the way you do to my seven-year old son. Can we talk about this? To me, it seems representative of the way you teach important concepts that can empower students.
It’s so funny, that unit and that film was made three years ago, and even looking back there are so many things I would change about how I did that, including just the language that I used. You know, I think allyship is really important, but I’ve started to use the word accomplice more with my students now, that it’s not just about standing next to someone and saying I support you, but what kinds of actions are you taking to act alongside them, with them. It’s not just a term or label you can give yourself, you really need to have the action to back that up.
The way that I started doing this was because after the 2016 election – I live in Los Angeles, which is a very liberal city in a very liberal state – but even seeing my 4th graders feel the sense of disenchantment and helplessness because they were 9, 10 years old, and really thinking, you know, we’re kids, like what can we do?, I wanted to help them focus their impact on our immediate school community.
I really wanted to build their historical understanding, so we started by – we happened to be reading Number the Stars, which is a fantastic piece of historical fiction by Lois Lowry about a Christian, Danish girl and her family who take in her Jewish friend during the Holocaust, and how they work together to smuggle her out of the country. So we used that example as a way to show how people had stepped up and really put themselves on the line to act, in the interest of someone else, where they really didn’t have anything to gain, in fact they had a lot to lose, but they did it anyways.
So we also looked at examples of Quakers and white abolitionists, during times of enslavement in the United States, and really wanted to bring it full circle and looked at how different religious communities in the present day were stepping up to help each other. We read an article about how students at one school had one deaf classmate and then everyone learned American Sign Language. Just these really amazing opportunities that have been led by everyday, ordinary citizens. Because I really wanted to get them away from this idea that you have to be like Martin Luther King, you have to be like Cesar Chavez, if you want to make a difference. But there are things we can do in our everyday lives to step up, even when the issue doesn’t impact us directly.
Recently in my Facebook group, a teacher shared the wonderful ways she was connecting with students in her classroom with a unit that explored hip hop and the Black Lives Matter movement. Then she was told she might be teaching her students to be anti-police and that she should really include more voices that shared other perspectives. I feel like this cuts straight to a really key issue for teachers, that if they share ideas and information about challenging biases and racism, people around them are going to say they are too political and demand that they share other perspectives. But then what does it mean to share “other perspectives” when it comes to anti-racist texts? This is such a tricky issue for teachers, is there any light you can shed on it?
If I were this teacher, I would first have to figure out – who is voicing concern? Is it parents and family members? Is it administrators? Are they fully aware of the lessons and conversations that are taking place in class? Because I know, regardless of student age, if they come home and share a very small snippet of something that happened in school, people can jump up that ladder of inference really quickly and come to all these conclusions about lessons and conversations that didn’t actually happen. So the first thing you need to do is to have an in-person meeting with stakeholders. And just be, again, very transparent.
In the past, I’ve also had success when I can give families a heads-up – not ask permission – but just let them know what we’ll be talking about in class, and then send a follow-up communication whether it’s a newsletter or an email – and just let them know hey, this is how it went, these were some of the talking points, and here are some additional resources you can use as a family member to keep supporting your kid at home, and to continue this dialogue.
I think the multiple perspectives piece is really important, and again, can be really challenging. Depending on how much time I had, I’d look into the community and see whose voices I can actually bring in, to give more of a professional perspective. Like if you could reach out to your local police station, and ask a police officer, particularly a police officer of color, to come in and speak to your students. To speak both as a person of color and as a police officer, I think could be incredibly powerful. I know that a lot of different cities also have chapters of Black Lives Matter, if people can come in, and share their experiences there. Because, there’s this issue of when we say “share your truth,” everyone’s truth is different. And just because someone else’s truth is different doesn’t make it any more or less valid, but you do need this collection of voices in order to create a more complete picture.
You share a lot of great books on your Instagram, @teachandtransform, to help teachers learn more about confronting and dismantling racism. If listeners were going to go buy two books to help them learn more about this, which two would you recommend as starting points?
OK, so I want to give you one practical book and one theory book.
The theory book, without a doubt, by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why are all the Black Kids sitting Together in the Cafeteria? It’s a staple, it’s fantastic, it’s such a great blend of using certain anecdotes that she observed in schools along with data about how race and racial injustice plays out in education.
The practical book is a newer one by Cornelius Minor. It’s called We Got This, and it’s out from Heinemann publishing. And it’s a really great guide to building community and addressing issues of equity and inclusion in your classroom.
Connect with Liz Kleinrock
Liz Kleinrock is an anti-bias educator and consultant based in Los Angeles, California. A transracial adoptee, Liz was born in South Korea and grew up in Washington, DC. She attended Sidwell Friends School from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, and Washington University in St. Louis, MO, where she graduated with a BA in International Area Studies and Children’s Studies.
After graduating, Liz moved to Oakland, California, where she served as an AmeriCorps member with Girls Inc. and Super Stars Literacy. For two years, she taught an at-risk class of 1st and 2nd graders in Title-1 schools in East and West Oakland. Fully convinced and determined to continue down the teaching path, Liz moved to Los Angeles, where she attended UCLA’s Teacher Education Program. After spending a year student teaching a 5th grade class at 122nd St. Elementary in Watts, Liz joined the founding staff at Citizens of the World Charter School Silver Lake. Liz earned her M.Ed in 2013, completing her thesis on social and emotional learning based on research conducted with her students.
During her time at Citizens of the World Charter School, Liz was accepted as part of Teach Plus Teaching Policy’s 2014 cohort, where she met with local and national educational leaders and collaborated with fellow Los Angeles teachers to propose policy reform around teacher preparation programs. She is also a published author with Teaching Tolerance, and her work has gained national recognition through a documentary produced by Fluid Film, and media outlets such as CNN, The Washington Post, NPR, and The Huffington Post. Liz was invited to SXSW EDU 2018 as an education mentor, where she met with educators and innovators in order to assist in the creation of social justice programming in schools. In 2018, Liz received Teaching Tolerance’s 2018 Award for Excellence in Teaching, and currently serves on the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board. Most recently, Liz is proud to share her 2019 TED Talk from “Education Everywhere” on building foundations of equity with young learners, and is working on her first book.