Entry 04 – How to Talk About Race in Class

Entry 04 – How to Talk About Race in Class

Our writing prompt for the week:

Do you incorporate the perspective of cultures, ethnicities, genders, etc. into your class that are not your own and how so? How do the kids respond?

Do you have any experiences from your classes where diversity or lack of diversity has impacted students?

In all my time here at Headwaters, I’ve only taught math and robotics.  Not the typical place where conversations of race, culture, or ethnicity come up.  I’ve also had an advisory all those years but those conversations haven’t come up there much either.  Our school population is fairly homogenous though, so perhaps that’s one of the reasons it doesn’t come up as much.

screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-9-17-24-amI definitely remember having more of those conversations, particularly about race, at my previous school.  I taught 5th grade in Killeen, TX for three years.  We were a huge Title 1 school and every year my classes were a mix of white, black, hispanic, asian, and bi-racial kids.  Part of our social studies curriculum was to discuss some of the main cultural and political events of the 20th century, including he Civil Rights Movement.  Each year before we went into the events that happened, I had a discussion with the class on how we would talk about such race relations.  I told students that it would be ok to refer to people as white people or black people; that describing the color of one’s skin was not an offense, but the manner in which you talked about such a person was what was important.  I also reminded students of the relationships they had with each other; white boys and black boys and hispanic boys all playing football during recess; asian girls and black girls and white girls all having sleepovers and birthday parties together outside of class.  I felt it was important to remind them of these relationships before having conversations revolving around race and conflict.

I don’t remember any particular negative experiences coming up during those lessons.  When we learned about Malcolm X, many students (both white and black) empathized with his aggression early in his life when fighting for equality.  Other students disagreed and sided more with King and peaceful resistance.  While I did have students that didn’t like each other in my classes, I never remember any of that (at least openly) being over the race of another student.

Perhaps that was a safer way to have that conversation; it’s easier to just talk about all the great things of the civil right movement; most people are on board with that.  I imagine things could get a bit more sensitive when people are sharing their own personal experiences with discrimination and racism.  Much of the recent tense race relations hadn’t started showing up in the media while I was teaching 5th grade.  I think those conversations would have been harder.  Many kids that age will just repeat what they hear at home for better or worse.

Me and my Panamanian self in 10th grade
Me and my Panamanian self in 10th grade

I think a lack of diversity just keeps you from having an opportunity to hear the perspectives of people who are experiencing the world different than you.  Much of my worldview is that of a white male.  The most discrimination I’ve had was when I was the most hispanic student in school in upstate New York (I’m half Panamanian) and kids called me Jose or Pablo or something.  It was more of an annoyance and I wouldn’t even classify it as ‘discrimination’.  I was just bummed that my hair was curly and I couldn’t spike the front of my hair straight up like all my friends.

I think the best thing we can do is just ask people who are most impacted ‘how are you feeling about all of this.’  That at least starts the conversation on an empathetic tone, and it’s hard for these discussions to be productive in the absence of empathy.

Anywho, onto how things have been going in class this week.


We did a fun Cheez-it activity to demonstrate square roots this week in Pre-Algebra.  I vlogged the experience and will post it when I’m done editing it.

In Math Skills, I’m getting into teaching multiplication / division of decimals by 10s.  I’m trying to get them to understand the concept that each number is just moving one place value larger/smaller because in our base 10 system, each place is 10 times bigger/smaller.  But alas, I think we may just end up with the rule of ‘multiply means move the decimal to the right; divide means move the decimal to the left.’  I tried giving a bunch of problems that started simple and got a bit more complex to demonstrate it but I really feel they’d get it so much more if I were able to figure out how to model it.  I wish we had more base 10 blocks.

Really digging the pace of robotics.  About to finish our first project this next week where students have their bot go the route of a small baseball diamond or they have their bot trace two letters.  I’m trying to get my bot to trace the letters A and B.  It’s tougher than it seems.  The challenge currently is having enough pressure down on the pencil for the markings to be dark and visible.  Here’s the rubric for the project.


By Thom H Gibson

I help middle school STEM teachers create meaningful & memorable experiences for their students. Teacher, podcaster, YouTuber. Two-time teacher of the year

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