“What is justice? What is fair?” Idaho teachers take different approaches to discussing race

Eighth grade reading teacher Ximena Schneider doesn’t plan to talk to her students about race and ethnicity. She doesn’t have to plan. Every year, the conversation starts itself.

Sometimes it begins when a student asks Schneider about her experience as a South American immigrant to the United States. Sometimes she sees an incident of  bullying or discrimination among her students that she needs to address. Other times the spark is ignited from a book her class reads about the Holocaust or racism in America.

As one of the few teachers of color in the Idaho Falls School District, Schneider can lend a unique perspective to the student’s questions.

“(We) talk about ‘what is justice? What is fair?'” Schneider said. “People think teachers tell the kids, but we don’t have to tell. The kids are the ones who come up with the questions and conclusions.”

As those questions of justice, racism and systemic inequality grip the nation, Idaho Education News wanted to know how Idaho teachers address the topic of race with their students. Teachers from Idaho Falls to West Ada chimed in on Facebook to tell us more about their approach.

Elementary school teachers said they start conversations about race and equality through art projects, videos explaining racism to kids, and books about historical figures like Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks.

“It’s never too early to talk about race,” said Giselle Andrade, an Idaho native who plans to teach in California through the Teach for America program. “It’s important for students to know about the different cultures that are around them, especially if they weren’t raised in a diverse area.”

Middle-and-high school teachers described more candid discussions around current events, and reading clubs geared toward social justice.

Others said they don’t talk candidly to their students about race.

“Only if it’s part of the curriculum or if it’s brought up by students. I’ve never had to address this issue or really feel it’s an issue,” one teacher posted on Facebook. He declined EdNews’ request to discuss the subject in an  interview.

Teaching the teachers

Idaho’s teaching standards require every certified educator to understand “diverse cultures and communities to ensure inclusive learning communities that enable each learner to meet high standards.”

Aspiring teachers don’t always recognize diversity in Idaho.

Vanessa Anthony-Stevens, an assistant professor at the University of Idaho, teaches a mandatory class called Teaching Culturally Diverse Learners. It’s not uncommon for her to hear some version of the refrain: “We’re just all so white here in Idaho.”

She debunks that from day one.

Anthony-Stevens teaches the idea of “diverse ruralities,” disrupting what she says is a predominant narrative that rural American is made up of homogenous, white communities. Rural areas have always been multicultural — first populated by indigenous communities and developed by non-Europeans exploited to build infrastructure. In recent decades, Idaho’s rural areas have grown increasingly ethnically and linguistically diverse. Idaho’s Latino student population has grown, and this year Latino students make up almost 20 percent of public school students statewide.

“If  you can’t see people, you can’t recognize them, you can’t legitimize them, you cannot support them,” Anthony-Stevens said. “…We can’t do schooling that way.”

Diversity isn’t only about race, Anthony-Stevens said, but race matters. Because of systemic inequities, students of color are far more likely to live in poverty than their white peers, and less likely to attain the same levels of academic success. Teachers have to see the intersections of factors like race, poverty, gender and rurality — as well as how those factors influence education, in order to build a classroom that can meet the needs  of all students, she said.

“If I believe that all children, regardless of racialized background, should have  access to educational achievement then I need to become really savvy about understanding how to interrupt the patterns that create obstacles to that, and understand how they might manifest — or that maybe I’m participating in them, and that’s a problem,” Anthony-Stevens said. 

Incorporating discussions of race into the classroom

Chelsea Jones-Dinger used to think teaching focused on subjects like math and geography. Then she took Anthony-Steven’s class.

“She was really the first professor that I had that just put it in your face: There is race, we all look different and let’s talk about it,” Jones-Dinger said.  “It was fascinating to me that it was OK for us to talk about it front of each other.”

That reaction wasn’t universal. Some of her classmates didn’t think the course was necessary, Jones-Dinger said, or dismissed the ways that a student’s identity might impact their experience in school.

But  for Jones-Dinger, the class struck a chord. She would see instances of racial bias in movies and in jokes — and started to rethink her job as an educator.

“It is the teacher’s job to bring to light these social issues that are happening all over the place when (students) leave the school grounds. Race is in everything,” Dinger said.

In her first-grade classroom in Pullman, Wash., Dinger opens that conversation through kid-friendly lessons like self-portrait projects. Talking openly about race and racial injustice while she was in college helped her feel comfortable addressing the subject with students and peers.

Ivan Peterson didn’t have those conversations when he was getting his degree in the late 1980s.

Peterson teaches history online to students in the West Ada school district and says that discussions about race and racism in the United States are fundamental for students to understand American history and to grapple with contemporary moral issues.

Those conversations aren’t always comfortable, Peterson said. He knows teachers who would rather avoid  in-depth discussions of controversial or upsetting topics, like the Holocaust, because they don’t want to ruffle feathers.

“I’m a white guy, and whenever you deal with topics that are outside your own experience, there’s always a certain amount  of trepidation,” he said. “…I have to believe in the process of academically exploring topics, and exploring the facts in a truthful way, and having that authentic conversation with the students. I don’t present myself as an expert.”


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