How to Lay the Groundwork For Antibias and Antiracist Teaching

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 (Rudzhan Nagiev/iStock)

When Washington, D.C.-based educator Liz Kleinrock shared the anti-bias/anti-racist(ABAR) work, lessons and books she used in class, she got positive feedback and curious questions from other teachers:

“Can you tell me more about how you did this?”
“What did this lesson look like?”

She sensed that educators had a lot of interest in ABAR work, but felt they lacked the resources to use it in their own classrooms. So, she posted on Instagram asking teachers who wanted to start incorporating ABAR work into their curriculum what was holding them back. She received over 200 responses.

These responses, organized into ten categories, formed the chapters of her new book, “Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community.” She said, “I wanted this book to be really practical, especially thinking about so many teachers out there who keep facing these perceived roadblocks or barriers that are preventing them from engaging and just getting started in this work.” 

Teacher kneels next to desk to talk to a student
Kleinrock working with her students (Courtesy of Liz Kleinrock) (Courtesy of Liz Kleinrock)

In her book, she documents what's been effective in her classrooms with her students so teachers who are standing on the sidelines feel more comfortable and supported when jumping into this work.

Building Classroom Culture

For Kleinrock, successful ABAR work starts with getting to know students early in the year. Building relationships with students from the beginning helps both students and teachers understand more about their identities and backgrounds while diving into topics that often feel personal. 

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“When I think about the demographics of the United States and then the demographics of most public school teachers, there are some discrepancies there,” says Kleinrock, referring to reports that show almost 80% of teachers are white even as the majority of students in public schools are students of color. “What does it mean, then, for an educator to have a very different identity and perhaps come from a different community compared to the one that they're teaching?” 

One of her favorite activities to do at the beginning of the year is creating biography bags with students. Each student receives a paper bag and writes the visible parts of their identity on the outside. Then, students will write things that are only visible when people get to know them on bits of paper and place those inside the bag. “This helps remind students and teachers that we should be careful when making assumptions about others,” writes Kleinrock.

Get-to-know-you activities are great ways for students to build trust with their teacher. “As a teacher, you're also participating in them as well. It's an opportunity for your students to get to know who you are,” Kleinrock advises, noting that teacher participation is also a great way to model language around gender or race identity. 

These activities aren’t just for the first two weeks of school, advises Kleinrock. Community building can continue as the year goes on. Another technique she uses to get to know her students comes from her graduate school advisors. “You need to pick a student or two and then spend two uninterrupted minutes with that kid per day for five days in a row and just see how that builds your relationship.” Throughout the year she’ll invite small groups of students to eat snack or lunch with her to continue to build relationships with students.

Kids also need to understand that teachers are accountable to their students and that teachers are there to make sure that they have a positive learning experience. Kleinrock uses the children's book "Thank You, Mr. Faulkner" for the basis of her conversation with her class about what kind of teacher her students want her to be. She’ll ask them questions like, “What does a good teacher do?” and “ How does a good teacher talk to their students?” Based on student responses to her prompts, they’ll draft a teacher contract. “I'm in service to them, and that is my purpose in the classroom for the year that we're together,” says Kleinrock. After the class has reached a consensus about the contract, they’ll have a ceremony where she signs and hangs it on the wall next to their classroom community agreements.

Handwriting in a bubble that reads "Good Teachers" with hand writing that says "try to find solutions", "stand up for students", "make people feel comfortable", "help when something is hard"
Capturing ideas with students for a teacher contract (Courtesy of Liz Kleinrock) (Courtesy of Liz Kleinrock)

She makes it clear that they can always go back and revisit the contract throughout the year to make sure that she is holding up her end of the bargain. The contract is a powerful centering and reflecting tool that strengthens her classroom’s culture and sense of connection to one another. 

Documenting Success

Kleinrock starts off ABAR units with a short questionnaire to discover what students already know. She’ll ask questions like, “What is a stereotype?” and “What does it mean for a community to be diverse?” Students’ answers to these questions  are sometimes silly as they try to make sense of what is being asked. Kleinrock recalls one of her student’s answers to the question, “What is race?” was “When two people run and you figure out who is the fastest.” 

Yet, at the end of the school year, students find looking back at their early answers to be a powerful experience. She gives them the exact same survey so students can see how much their understanding has changed.

“I think the challenge when it comes to anti bias or anti racist or any work around diversity, culture, social emotional learning is that folks often have a desire to make it quantitative. And this work doesn't really translate in that way,” says Kleinrock, referring to how tests for ABAR don’t have enough nuance. “A lot of the data that I take tends to be either observational or anecdotal.”

Kleinrock also finds “I used to think...and now I know” formats helpful in showing students how much they have learned after each unit. She’ll also use short surveys to hone in on where she needs to focus her lesson plans. Last year, in her sixth grade class, she asked students to rate how knowledgeable they are about Asian American history on a scale of one to five and if they could name three Asian Americans. When she found that the majority of her students could not, she used their responses to direct her lessons towards addressing the gaps in their knowledge. 

Transparency, Not Permission

Every caregiver deserves to know what is happening in their child's classroom, says Kleinrock. And some may have mixed feelings about ABAR work in the classroom. For that reason, Kleinrock doesn’t just work to build relationships with students, she puts time and energy into her relationships with their parents and caregivers. 

“For the most part, I found that a lot of parents don't necessarily object to the topics themselves, but they're concerned about how the topics are going to be taught,” says Kleinrock. "And a lot of the work that I like to do in schools is figuring out the alignment between what's happening within the school community and what's happening in classrooms and also how parents and caregivers are being included in that conversation.” She borrows from Dr. Sara Kersey’s advice that teachers see themselves as community educators who actively participate as community members.

When caregivers do bring concerns to her about what their students are learning in class, Kleinrock will schedule a meeting to talk with them face-to-face if possible. “One mother who had a white son was concerned that the work that I was doing was going to result in her white son being ashamed of who he was or that he would hate himself,” she said. During their meeting, the main focus was finding common ground, even though they didn’t see eye to eye on many things. “Even asking, ‘I understand that you have some concerns. I'd just want to hear where these concerns are coming from. What is the root of the concern?'” says Kleinrock. Then, she tries to offer practical, concrete and actionable steps to show what she’ll be doing to support students and keep parents in the loop about what kids are learning in class. 

Building relationships with caregivers at the beginning of the year is critical. In the first two days of class, she’ll send a positive email home to each student's parents. “That one can take a while, but I think the payout is enormous,” she says. “You have so much power over how you craft relationships with parents and caregivers and making sure that they know, right off the bat. I'm here to celebrate everything wonderful about your child.”

Additionally, she tries to be as transparent as possible about what she is teaching. She started a closed Facebook group for parents where she could post pictures of student work and keep parents in the loop about what was happening in class. "That way, there can be this really beautiful cross communication between what's happening in the classroom and what's happening at home," she says.  An unexpected perk is that Facebook automatically translates posts into different languages for caregivers that are not English-speakers.

She joked that when parents ask their kids how school went at the dinner table, the Facebook group equips them with a few follow up questions when they get a nondescript “fine” in response. 

“Having systems like that also helps build a lot of trust and mutual respect,” says Kleinrock. “I wasn't trying to sneak around and teach about different subjects because I knew parents wouldn't like it, but rather I want them to understand what their kids are talking about.”

It’s also helpful for parents to feel involved in the classroom. For example, Kleinrock is intentional about creating ways for parents and caregivers to visit her classes. “One of the surveys I send home is asking parents, ‘Hey, what is your schedule like? Do you want to be super involved?’” She’ll invite weekly guests called mystery readers. The mystery reader would show up on Friday morning with a book from home, and read it aloud. This small opportunity to get involved gives caregivers a chance to check out the classroom culture.

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“I think there are far too many teachers who view families as their enemies – like a group who's working against them – when hopefully we can all remember that if students are our focus, that we're all coming together from different perspectives for the children who are in these classrooms in the first place.”