Simple strategies for imagining an equitable education that benefits all students.
CRSP & Adult Learning Specialist
Equity in schools, or a lack thereof, was a problem long before the pandemic began. However, the challenges caused by school closures and remote learning exacerbated the lack of support for minority, special needs, and low-income students, as well as language learners. As we imagine a more holistic, equitable approach to education, we must consider a version of education that addresses students’ academic, social, and emotional needs.
Equity is crucial, especially in times of crisis.
Promising practices for promoting equity
Too often, the terms equity and equality are used interchangeably. While equality means treating every student the same, equity means making sure every student has the support they need to be successful. Simply put, equity in education requires putting systems in place to ensure that every child has an equal chance for success. As President Obama said in his inaugural address, "We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else."
We have an opportunity and an obligation to provide equitable systems that foster success for all, not just success for some. To assist and explain the process, the University of Southern California (USC) School of Education proposes seven effective ways to promote equity in education. Let’s examine what these suggestions can look like in practice.
In addition to the strategies offered above, we can promote equity in our classrooms by recognizing that all learning is a social and emotional experience. We have all endured collective trauma over the past few years, in addition to the personal losses we’ve experienced. Many students (and teachers) are still finding their way back to their learning.
We may not yet have all the answers for how to address students’ academic and emotional needs in an equitable way, even as we return to the familiar environment of our classrooms. But we do have the opportunity to do more, better!
Encourage curiosity and caring in young learners, and support an understanding and appreciation of differences.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
Conversations about race are not easy. They can bring about feelings of fear, anger, and frustration, and as a result, these conversations are often avoided. However, grappling with topics of race and diversity are truly important, especially with young children who are cultivating their understanding and their perceptions of the world. Experts argue that children are never too young to learn about kindness, fairness, and human rights. Research states that children “as young as three months old...may look differently at people who look like or don’t look like their primary caregivers.”
As a parent of a soon to be two-year-old and a professional development consultant who works closely with educators of young children, I am committed to seeking ways to engage in and facilitate my own conversations about race, especially in today’s world, as well as share strategies with educators that they can use in their own classrooms. What follows are a few strategies I’ve curated and adapted from my own musings and readings, as well as some concrete strategies inspired by one of our reimagining education initiatives: Literacy Unbound. These strategies can be particularly helpful when it comes to facilitating conversations about race with young students and cultivating skills, mindsets, and capacities that will serve us well today, and in the future.
The importance of asking questions
One of the most effective ways to grapple with topics of race and diversity is to ask questions. This is particularly effective with elementary students, as they commonly ask many questions of their own. By encouraging their curiosity and caring, and creating a safe space for them to be inquisitive, you can help pacify concerns, address confusions, and support an understanding and appreciation of differences. Additionally, you can raise your own questions focused on topics of race, diversity, and exploring differences to get students thinking and recognizing how they can be advocates of positive change. Here are some examples of questions that I turn to, curated and adapted from websites like PBS.com:
These questions can be a part of morning circle time, a weekly reflection or journal writing prompt, or even as a theme for a bulletin board, where students can share their responses using post-its or index cards (or, while online, students can add their thoughts online to Padlets and Jamboards).
Introducing & exposing students to diverse books
As Dr. Aisha White, Director of the P.R.I.D.E. Program at the University of Pittsburgh, explains, books — especially picture books — are a safe place to start when talking to children about race and racism. She suggests selecting picture books that offer multiple perspectives and explore various entry points for addressing complex topics. Some popular texts she suggests include:
These texts can be read as part of designated read aloud time, as part of a school-wide, character building initiative where the books are read in every classroom, or as a central text that guides and inspires a larger unit of study.
But as Dr. White explains, it’s not enough to just read the book. “If a parent (or educator) just reads the book and doesn’t have a conversation — doesn’t start to talk about racial disparities and racial discrimination and racism in America — then it won’t really affect a child’s attitudes toward race…it comes back to…having a background knowledge before speaking with their children, and being brave enough to have the tough conversations.”
What does it look like to support students in reading complex texts more closely, more carefully, more creatively, and more critically?
Sparking conversations around texts
Literacy Unbound, one of our signature initiatives, aims to unbind traditional approaches to the teaching of reading and writing using drama and play-based strategies to spark conversations that are inspired by questions raised in a specific, shared text. Teachers and students are brought together in this process as critical and creative thinkers, which helps foster a space for collective inquiry and exploration.
Using drama and play can be particularly effective with young students, especially when looking to support engagement and participation, while also providing a safe entry point for complex and challenging conversations.
Let’s look at a few strategies from Literacy Unbound to see how they can be effective and what they can look like when applied to one of my favorite texts, The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson. The Other Side follows the story of a little Black girl named Clover who sees a little white girl across a fence, but is told by her mom that she can’t cross to the other side of the fence because it isn’t safe.
Facilitating conversations about race with young students is no easy task. It takes courage, patience, and a lot of thoughtful planning and reflection on the part of educators, parents, and caretakers. Moreover, it takes a lot of persistence. Being open-minded and developing understanding, kindness, and an appreciation of others who are different from us is not something that happens after reading one text or engaging in one conversation.
As Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton note in their book Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools, courageous conversations about race require that we stay engaged and anticipate feelings of discomfort, as well as expect and accept non-closure.
We encourage you to create space for these conversations with your students and reimagine the ways in which you can spark curiosity and critical thinking around race and equity in a safe and supportive classroom.
In this episode
In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, educators and schools across the nation are navigating anti-racist, anti-bias (ABAR) work. Often used in concert and sometimes interchangeably, by definition, these terms represent an activist approach to educational curricula that attempts to challenge prejudices, including racism, sexism, ableism, and ageism.
We're joined by Columbia University graduate students for a discussion on cultivating an anti-bias, anti-racist pedagogy, the process of developing an ABAR framework, and the lessons they are learning along the way.
What is a goal or vision for how teachers can use this ABAR framework? What would you like to see?
In this episode
Today’s students use their digital expertise and the power of their voice to respond to issues of inequity in society. Therefore, it is essential that teacher educators develop their own racial literacy skills — and those of their pre-service and classroom teachers — in order to support students' digital activism. Authors and Teachers College, Columbia University faculty Detra Price-Dennis and Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz join us for a look at how educators can cultivate these skills, and how to promote equity in digital spaces.
How can educators have engaging and constructive conversations about race?
In this episode
Pre-existing disparities in access to adequate technology have been exacerbated by a shift to remote and blended learning environments over the past year, placing Black children at a further disadvantage. Black parents have worried about accessing resources or supplies that will help keep their children on track academically, and have voiced concerns regarding the safety of their children when returning to schools.
Two educators from the Black Education Research Collective (@berc_tc) at Teachers College, Columbia University — Sonya Douglass Horsford and Phillip Smith — join us to connect these concerns to relevant research and discuss the implications these disparities have for the future of education.
What is the smallest thing we can do to make the biggest difference?