Building Resilience Through Difficult Conversations and Strong Relationships

 

By Hillary Moser and Habiba Davis

Editor’s Note: The following offers two perspectives on an incident in a sixth-grade class at a school in Massachusetts. After a student of color walks out of a class focused on post-Civil War Jim Crow laws, the teacher and the school social worker — with input from two students of color — create a successful, two-day lesson on race and microaggressions. We offer this as a reminder of the importance of anticipating and planning for these kinds of issues and conversations that we know will emerge during the school year. How can white teachers engage with each other and colleagues of color at the start of the year to develop a plan? How can we front-load classroom guidelines to create space for this dialogue before something happens? How do we not put the onus of responsibility on students and teachers of color? While the authors were able to remedy this situation, it is a scene that plays out in classrooms across the country and that necessitates our careful attention and action.

 

Hillary’s Perspective

I sat in the back of my classroom on a cool April day and settled in to hear my sixth-grade students present Google slides on their mini-research projects. Over the past week, they had researched historic topics such as the Great Depression, Jim Crow Laws and Segregation, The Great Migration, and the Harlem Renaissance. They conducted this research in order to understand the historical context for their last book-club book of the school year, which focused on The Great Depression. All the main characters in the book are people of color.

This day, students gathered to listen to the “Jim Crow Laws and Segregation” group presentation. Before this fateful day, I tried to think of everything I needed to do as a white English teacher in order to create a culturally responsive classroom and lesson. As this group began its present, however, I noticed that one of the students of color in the class slowly slumped lower in her chair with each slide. I didn’t want to draw attention to her in the moment, so I decided to give her space. After the presentation, the group walked back to their seats and students chatted quietly, took notes, as I assessed the slides.

Suddenly, a student walked up to me and whispered, “Ms. Moser, _____ just ran out of the room — crying.”

I looked up. It was true; she was gone. My heart sank. Why hadn’t I noticed her leaving? Why didn’t I intervene while the slides were being presented? I didn’t have an aide to sit and watch my class, so I leaned in on a friend of the girl and asked her to go find her, and then I called the school counselor’s office to reach our school social worker, Habiba Davis. But, she didn’t answer.

My class began to rumble and whisper as my mind raced through a litany of thoughts:

 My classroom is student centered. I try to create strong relationships, integrate diverse literature into my curriculum that represents our population of students. With this lesson, I gave the students guiding questions, gathered online resources, created a Hyperdoc for each topic of research, checked student work, let students pick the topics they wanted to research, and chose my most mature students to focus on Jim Crow Laws. I made sure to tell them not to use graphic images. I told them they needed to be mindful of everyone in class because it may be their first experience hearing about the Jim Crow Laws and the related violence and hate. Lastly, before the presentations, I explained to the entire class that some of the information may be unsettling, but my door is always open to talk and discuss their feelings.

After minutes of pacing the room, I saw the silhouettes of the two students outside my classroom. So, I stepped into the hall to talk with them. The girl who had left upset told me everything was fine, but I could sense that it wasn’t. I guided her into class; luckily no one made a big deal of the moment. After the bell rang, I asked the two students to stay and talk. I began with an apology and explained again why we had to present on this topic. I said I thought all students needed to know that hateful groups existed and still exist, and also that students would not understand the historical context of the novel without this background information.

After my explanation, I asked, “What can I do to make this better and do better?” 

The girl who left said she was tired of being one of two students of color in class and having the white students looking at her each time a sensitive topic, such as race, arose (a common comment made by many students of color in predominantly non African-American or Latino schools).  

My heart sank after she shared her feelings. I thought I had covered all my bases, but I obviously had not. I suddenly felt like I had let these girls down. I hadn’t thought carefully enough ahead of time about what they knew or didn’t know about the topic, or about what trauma this information may trigger in them. I thought about the historical information my students needed to know — and that was it.

At the end of our conversation, I told both students that they could come back and talk more whenever they needed. I excused them, feeling unsettled. Two minutes later, they were back and stated, “Ms. Moser, we want to talk more — now.”

Again, I sat and listened.

Within a span of thirty minutes, one of the girls, who wants to be a teacher someday, said, “It would be great if you created a lesson that discusses how other races and cultures experience prejudice so students understand that it isn’t just us.”

I then asked if they would like to create the lesson together with me. They immediately agreed. One of the girls rattled off her ideas, which involved a cooperative learning activity using guiding questions. We spent the rest of the period working out the details, reviewing the literature, creating questions that tackled the issue of microaggressions toward certain races, cultures, and genders in school, social media, and literature. Our guiding questions dove into how best respond to microaggressions and how our students could help our school be better when it comes to racism and other forms of prejudice. 

At the end of the period, I gave the girls a pass to their next class. As I looked over the questions we created, I felt better. Something was going to come of this moment.The other half of me, to be honest, was terrified. What if I said the wrong thing during the lesson? I didn’t want to make these students feel even more singled out in this process. I also knew, as a white woman who grew up in a white middle class community, that I needed help in leading this discussion. What kept me grounded were the two students who came forward. In twenty years of teaching, I have never had sixth-grade students of color be completely open and honest with me about their feelings on racism and prejudice.

Later in the day, I did connect with Habiba, our school social worker and a woman of color. I also spoke with my Co-Team Leader, Cathy Boege, who is also white. I invited both to help finalize this lesson and to co-teach it with me. Thankfully, they eagerly agreed. As a team, we spent a few meetings with the two girls and finalized the lesson and set the date.

Ultimately, we did a three-part lesson to four sixth-grade classes. Cathy defined key vocabulary and made sure everyone understood racism, prejudice, and stereotypes in her Ancient Civilization class. On the same day, my students in English/Language Arts read four narratives from the New York Times written by students of color who experienced microaggressions. We read them aloud and had a large circle discussion about each. On the second day, Cathy and Habiba joined my class as we used the information from the first day to help students complete the cooperative learning activity on the guiding questions we created around microaggressions.

Conclusion

I identify as white and understand the privileges that come with being white. But I haven’t always thought about race in my life. When I was growing up, just about everyone on my block, at school, in church, and my suburban town was white. Norwegian holidays and customs shaped much of my life. Every winter, I flipped Lefse, a Norwegian pastry, on my grandmother’s griddle with my mother, and I now make it with my children. My parents made sure that I identified more with my ancestors’ culture than with my race.

Shortly after graduating from a predominantly white college in 1998, I decided to move to Dallas to teach middle school English. It wasn’t until I started teaching there that my lack of understanding of race and other cultures became clear. At first, I found it very difficult to connect with my students of color because I had absolutely no experience interacting with children of color. But slowly through my first year, I knew I had to make a change. After 9/11, prejudice and racism became very real to me, and I knew as an educator I had to have conversations about race in the classroom — I had to lead these conversations — because it was affecting our classroom and school culture.

In this instance, I am glad I took the leap to break from school as usual to create a lesson that addresses the issues of microaggressions and its impact on our class. It was particularly gratifying to have the input from my two students of color and two colleagues — and also to have the full support of the administration. 

Through this experience, my students developed a much deeper understanding of themselves and their classmates — and learned how they can best support each other across differences. They also developed their critical thinking skills and cultural resiliency. As for me, I gained an understanding and greater clarity that my whiteness definitely has an impact on my students. From this, I will in time revise my historical fiction unit to focus on common themes between book club selections rather than race. Instead, I plan on using Being the Change by Sara K. Ahmed during our realistic fiction book club unit which outlines lessons on identity, the importance of one’s name, and understanding internal bias and microaggressions. I will pair her work with book club books such as The Front Desk by Kelly Yang, Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan, The Misfits by James Howe, Harbour Me by Jacqueline Woodson, Ghost Jason Reynolds, Merci Saurez Changes Gears by Meg Medina, and Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. Moreover, I made my decision to do this because it is an essential part of my job to create engaging inclusive curriculum, norms for a safe learning environment, and to forge strong relationships with all of my students. I understand that I need to think deeply about my units of study and how they may impact each of them.

Another key takeaway is that I could not have done this lesson with my two students, Cathy, and Habiba. Having Cathy and Habiba in my room on the day of the cooperative learning activity helped the room feel safe. Their presence kept students focused on the task at hand and open to asking questions. I’m particularly thankful that Habiba and I have had a strong professional and personal relationship. From the very beginning of my time at the school, I have felt comfortable reaching out to her to ask questions about race, trauma, and forging strong relationships with students of color. Her guidance has only made me a better teacher.

Looking back now, I will never forget when a mixed-race student asked after our lesson, “Are other teams doing this lesson, Ms. Moser?”

I said, “No, not in this capacity.”

She replied, “Well, they should. It was really worth it.”  

Habiba’s Perspective

In early April, I received an email from a dear and trusted teacher, Hillary Moser, who I refer to as my late night BFF. Hillary is endearingly called this because of all of our late night (after our children are in bed) discussions regarding students and their academic and social-emotional learning. Hillary regularly seeks me out to discuss how we can best support students in her classroom. Sometimes we engage in broader discussions on teaching all students and what this specifically looks like for children of color.

On this day in April, I received an email from Hillary noting that a student of color in her class — one with whom I also work — emotionally broke down during a student presentation on Jim Crow Laws and Segregation. Hillary was wondering if I was available to connect with the student. Unfortunately, I did not retrieve this email until later that day, which of course meant I had missed any opportunity to see the student at the time of the incident. My more immediate thought in the moment was that I had wished I had been available to the student so that I could hear from her what had triggered her reaction. Knowing that this student had experienced microaggressions around race in the past — I wanted to hear her articulate what made her emotional in that moment, particularly given the pre-class work that her teacher had done to prepare all students for the lesson.

As a school counselor, once I discover what is going on with a student, I want to help them find ways to feel empowered in such situations in the future. However, soon after I outlined a plan for what would work in this case, I quickly remembered it is not my job to do this with her (or any student) alone; it incumbent of all adults in her life — teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders — to support, educate, and help her build the capacity to manage or regulate (until able to process in a safe way) emotions when engaging in race related topics.

After having several conversations with this student, the parent and a few other students of color in the same cohort at the school, we focused on leveraging this experience in the English class to build resilience. We also did work supporting the classroom lesson that was constructed mainly by the student and Hillary, with help from Cathy Boege, the group’s Co-Team Leader.

I must admit that on the day we did the lesson with the various team classes I was a little nervous. Many of the students in our school community have never interacted with a person of color in a teaching capacity. How would these students receive me as a facilitator? What did I need to say to connect with them? In one of the classes I co-taught I only knew a few students.

To ensure the classes were safe environments to learn, Hillary opened the lesson with the norms for the day and allowed the students to add any norms they felt were missing. She then shared with the students that their history teacher and I would be in the class as support.

I asked if I could say a few words before we started. Soon after I opened my mouth, I immediately knew I was in my element and any sense of nervousness was gone. I shared my role in the school and my connection to Hillary (that we were L-N BFF). I explained how, on some nights, we discussed ways to support all students’ academic and social-emotional learning. I then asked why they thought I was there. The students gave polite, expected responses. However, in one class an Asian student shared that I was there because I am an African-American woman. I  applauded (figuratively) and thanked her for being courageous enough to give this answer. I closed my introduction in each class by saying that I am women of color who was there alongside their teachers because it takes all of us, collectively, to combat racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of social exclusion. I explained that we wanted this lesson to be one where everyone felt safe speaking honestly and respectfully about race and culture.

As we moved through the lesson throughout the day, I was so impressed with our students thoughtfulness in their responses. It was obvious that some were apprehensive, but many did a great job thinking through the prompts at their table. It was clear that this lesson was asking them to venture out of their comfort zone, but they posed and answered questions openly and pushed themselves to inquire about things that make many people feel uncomfortable. One student was brave enough to inquire when it was okay to use the “N” word.

Conclusion

While I always wish I can be there for students in moments of crisis, in this instance I’m glad the student who had left her class had to work out her concerns directly with her teacher. We always ask students to talk to us about their concerns, but most keep their thoughts to themselves. In this instance, both students mustered the courage to return to an entrusted adult and were able to be brave and respond honestly. They practiced exactly what we as adults ask them to do — use the skills they learn to resolve issues that are challenging for them. This cannot happen, however, unless you have a teacher with a culturally responsive classroom.

Another significant component in being a good teacher is the ability to build trusting relationships with students and families. This is particularly important for teachers working with students of color. Hillary knows this and makes relationship building a key component in her practice. As a teacher, she is also aware of who she is as a white woman who did not grow up in a diverse community. Teachers are advised to be mindful of their biases and blindspots so that there is an ability to be genuinely open to “hearing” and embracing students. There needs to be an understanding of students’ journeys in order to effectively help them with their learning. In our school, we also want to know that we are developing meaningful relationships that focus less on being empathetic and more on empowering the students’ abilities to engage in productive learning.

As a result of the interaction in this lesson and in my conversations with others (mainly students), one thing that was reinforced for me is the importance of affinity groups for students, as well as the need for adults to find ways to celebrate the learning of our children of color. With this lesson on microaggressions, one fundamental accomplishment was helping the students in understanding the underpinnings of microaggressions and how this shapes their thinking. In their affinity group, our students of color were able to think through and speak honestly about how racism and bigotry impacted their learning in a classroom. Also, what was openly discussed is what triggers them when different lessons on race are discussed in classes. Lastly, on a more personal level the students were able to begin the work of embracing their ethnicity in a constructive, supportive, and, most importantly, empowering way.

When it comes to microaggressions, I would like to believe that many of the hurtful comments are spoken out of ignorance (impact over intent). As adults, however, we have to help our students be and do better. We can and should start early having what we identify as difficult conversations that can subsequently result in lessons that lend to student growth. That day in April 2019, our young children reminded me that the discourse may be difficult but that we have to tackle challenging conversations through honest dialogue and by helping them build resilience. These young sixth graders reminded me how brilliant and courageous they are. As educators, we must also be brave and courageous.

We have powerful students in our midst and, as the adults in the school, we must always aim to be a deeply meaningful part of their lives. 

Hillary Moser has taught middle school English for twenty years. She loves working in a community with a large diverse population. She is passionate about creating a loving and safe learning environment for all children, and she is a strong believer in the power of relationships with students. She is a hardworking mother of two and avid Tweeter.  

Habiba Davis for many years has been a staunch advocate in helping students with social emotional issues; underserved and/or at-risk youth in the public schools and criminal justice systems throughout Massachusetts. She is best known for her passion and commitment to working and learning from youth, families, and educators — and is a proud mother of the greatest (in her eyes) twins in the world.