As the School Year Begins, Open Minds to Equality Offers Ideas for Teaching Against Racism and Hate

By Nancy Schniedewind

oepn mindsAs­­­­ the school year begins, we social justice educators must work harder than ever to make Black lives matter in our schools and to educate students about racism — especially given the hateful rhetoric, racist practices, and unjust policies that abound in our nation’s communities and schools.

While clearly a challenge, it is also an opportunity.

[The latest issue of Rethinking Schools focuses on making Black lives matter in our schools.]

Here in the mid-Hudson Valley of New York, Trump’s victory has emboldened some white students to express a sense of racial superiority in various ways. Soon after the election, one student strutted down the hall of a local high school exclaiming “white power” and waving both arms high in the air. In a middle school in a neighboring district a group of white students surrounded a cafeteria table of students who had immigrated from Mexico and chanted, “Build the wall.” And some undocumented elementary school students were not even coming to school because their parents were afraid they would be picked up by immigration officials.

As educators we have a responsibility to combat white supremacy in our schools and can bring an anti-racist, pro-justice pedagogy and curriculum to our classrooms. We can work to build a classroom community where Black lives matter and where students can share their concerns and fears and get support not only from us, but from their peers. We can also better respond to teachable moments by bringing a social justice lens to our teaching, and in age-appropriate ways we can implement learning activities to heighten students’ understandings of racism and other “isms” and teach them skills they can use to challenge and change them.

Ellen Davidson’s and my book, Open Minds to Equality: A Sourcebook of Learning Activities to Affirm Diversity and Promote Equity, offers a wealth of resources toward these goals. [Also, the latest issue of Rethinking Schools focuses on making Black lives matter in our schools.]


Ideas for Anti-Racist Teaching Against Hate from Open Minds to Equality

Open Minds to Equality is a valuable resource for responding to teachable moments about racism; as well as Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia, and anti-immigrant discrimination. It also provides a sequential series of learning activities to educate students about racism and other forms of discrimination so they can respond with deep understanding and critical perspectives to current manifestations of structural violence and be more able to act for change in their schools and communities.

Below are examples of some of the many learning activities in Open Minds to Equality that contribute to these goals. Noted are the chapters they come from and a brief summary of the activities. These activities focus in particular on racism, but some link learning to other “isms” based in gender, class, language, sexual orientation, religion, and ability.

The chapters and learning activities within them follow the “Sequential Process for Creating Inclusive Classrooms and Schools” described on pp. 3-4 of the introduction to the book. The four steps in that process include:

  1. Create an inclusive, trusting community where students appreciate diversity in the classroom.
  2. Enable students to empathize with others’ life experiences and explore why and how inequality based on difference exists.
  3. Help students examine discrimination in institutions in their lives and see how it has affected them.
  4. Empower students to envision and create change to foster greater equity.

The initial activities are more basic, later ones more complex, and finally, the last ones focus on taking action.

A chart of all the lessons enables you to select appropriate activities for your “teachable moment” needs. “Forms of Discrimination Addressed in Lessons” is found on pp. 370-373 in the book’s Resource Section.


Chapter 5 —  Expanding Our Vistas: Our Lives to Others’ Lives
This chapter focuses on helping students build empathy with students different from themselves. Through narratives and case studies, students can better support those students in their classroom and school targeted by racist and other discriminatory narratives heard in person or in the media.

p. 85: “That’s What You Brought for Lunch?”
Students examine a scenario in which two Latinas in elementary school are teased for eating homemade tortillas for lunch and respond to that situation. Students pinpoint a time when they were teased because they were different from others and what they would have liked other students to do. They discuss what they can do about situations like this in their school.

p. 95: “New to America”
Through this activity students come to better understand the feelings and experiences of two immigrant students, one from Honduras and one from El Salvador (one documented and one undocumented). By reading a dialogue between them, students examine what they have in common with these immigrant students and what they can do to support any immigrant students in their school.


Chapter 6 —  New Words: New Perspectives
This chapter includes lessons to teach students language and concepts to discuss prejudice, discrimination, and “isms.” These activities enable them to discuss concrete examples of racism that exist today in their school contexts and in our society. They can become aware that, contrary to popular myths, racism is not imagined or disappeared, but is real.

p. 111: “Prejudice and Stereotypes: What Are They?”
Students learn to define prejudice and stereotyping, share experiences and reflect on similarities and differences between people who face prejudice constantly and those who experience it only once in a while.

p. 126: “The Isms: What Are They?”
Through age-related examples, students learn about the “isms,” including racism, and the dynamics of social inequality fostered by structural inequality.

p. 139: “At the Airport”
Through a story, a student tells her class about a recent plane trip, students discuss discrimination against Muslims and how Muslim people can feel when those with institutional power, in her case TSA personnel, make unfair generalizations about them and discriminate against them.


Chapter 7 —  Discrimination: Prices and Choices
In order to understand responses to structural racism and violence, students need to see how institutional discrimination creates unequal resources and opportunities for some social groups and advantages for others. Activities in this chapter help students do this. They can then avoid blaming responders to structural racism, like Black Lives Matter activists, and are able to critique the roots of racist narratives in the media, national policies, and in their own experiences.

p. 178: “Blaming the Victim”
Through an experiential activity (a role-play in which some groups given fewer resources than others to complete a project are blamed for their inadequate results) students better understand how people denied resources and opportunities can be blamed for their situation and lack of success, rather than focus on the underlying advantages afforded some social groups and not others.

p. 202: “A Legacy of Racism”
Students develop the historical context for Black Lives Matter and its importance through personal, historical narratives in three powerful children’s picture books. Students better understand how white people have historically perpetuated a system of oppression to subordinate Black people throughout U.S. history.


Chapter 10 — Things Can be Different
Lessons in this chapter help young people learn about people who have stood up to racism, enabling students to better see the possibilities for them to act similarly.

p. 287: “Taking a Stand”
Through two powerful stories from Phil Hoose’s book, It’s Our World Too, describing young people who have taken a stand against racism, students consider how they can be allies with those experiencing discrimination.


Chapter 11 — We Can Make Changes
In spite of the power of current racist narratives, through activities in this chapter, students develop the skills and confidence to confront bias, bullying, and inequality in their schools and communities.

p. 323: “From Fear to Power”
Through a guided story, students examine internal blocks to confronting bigotry and learn a peer-supported strategy to stand up for their beliefs.

p. 325: “Confronting the Bullying Behavior and Bias”
Students explore how the context for bullying is often based in an “ism” and practice being an ally by responding to bullying behavior in ways that also address the discrimination.

p. 349: “Sharing Privilege: Everybody Gains”
Through short case studies of school and community-based situations where some young people benefit from privilege, like white privilege, students develop ways to change the structural inequality that provides that privilege, both in the case studies and in their own school and community.

Nancy Schniedewind is a professor in the Humanistic/Multicultural Education Program at SUNY New Paltz. She is the editor, along with Ellen Davidson, of Open Minds to Equality: A Sourcebook of Learning Activities to Affirm Diversity and Promote Equity.