© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Barbershop: Politics In The Classroom


Finally today, we are going to head into the Barbershop. That's our regular segment where we gather interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up today are from New York, Christopher Emdin. He's associate professor of science education at Columbia University Teacher's College. He's the author of the book "For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood And The Rest Of Y'all Too." Welcome back, Christopher Emdin. Glad to have you.

CHRISTOPHER EMDIN: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Joining us from St. Louis is Kevin Grawer. He is principal of Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in Maplewood, Mo. That's a suburb of St. Louis. Glad to have you with us, Principal Kevin.

KEVIN GRAWER: Hey. Super excited to be here.

MARTIN: And last but not least, Barbershop regular Jolene Ivey. She's a former delegate to the Maryland State House. She's the cofounder of a parenting support group, and last but not least, the mom of five boys. Good to have you back with us.

JOLENE IVEY: Great to see you, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, this is kind of like back to school for us, too. We've had a little bit of break from the Barbershop, so we're kind of getting our sea legs back. And I was thinking, you know, summer was not all fun in the sun, which is what we've gathered all of you here today to talk about because there was the tragedy in Charlottesville, Va., the white supremacist rallies which we've been seeing on TV, not to mention intense politics over health care, immigration, you know, up to and including last night's pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, which brought up all these questions around racial profiling.

And if your kids watch the news, look, it's been a summer of intense, divisive and upsetting for many people news. So kids who might be going back to school right now might be asked to digest some of these difficult topics, so we wanted to talk about how or even whether they should talk about these issues in school. So let me start by asking you all first, when it comes to these events, do you think they should talk about these issues in school? Jolene, do you want to start?

IVEY: Absolutely. I can't think of anything more important right now to talk about. And when children and young people are engaged, then they're more likely to learn. And these are issues that you just can't ignore. And I don't think it makes sense to not include them.

MARTIN: So, Kevin, we asked you because your school has some experience dealing with issues like this being where you are, like, when Michael Brown was killed and protesters and police clashed in the streets of Ferguson. Did you have those kinds of discussions in the school? How did you handle that?

GRAWER: Well, we surely did because we believe that, you know, not talking about race leads to misinformation and misinformed students, which adds to the current tensions we currently have in this country. So we went there. We tell our teachers, you know, in the start of the school year - we've only been in school three days now - but I told them, go there with kids. Some content areas are easier than others, but we need to go there.

For example, our United States government class, it's very easy because you can talk about right to protest, marching laws and open carry laws as well, which leads to students asking good questions like, what - why are these neo-Nazis allowed to have the right to march in the first place? Which ends up leading to a solid discussion. But yes, Michel, we definitely go there.

MARTIN: Do you try to - what's the word I'm looking for here? - manage it in such a way - I guess I'm asking, you know, because kids often say - they say - that's one reason we like kids - right? - I mean, that they say whatever's on their minds. Do you feel that - but some people might interpret whatever's on their minds as being assaultive to them. And you have a very mixed district, am I right about that?

GRAWER: We do.

MARTIN: So how do you manage that? Do you try to police that or what do you do?

GRAWER: Well, we want people to feel free to be who they are and speak their truth, but we do teach them how to do it. You know, I think the first thing you do as a school is you have a safe and supportive space where everybody feels they belong. That's key. Then they have, you know the ability to disagree with somebody and do it without being disagreeable. And we talk about the word love a lot at school. And when we say we love our students, we mean it. And we mean that we have a genuine concern about your well-being, and there's nothing you can do about that as a student. Students, in turn, feel that, and they tend to rise to meet our expectations because they know they have a place here.

We also have some things embedded within our system, our student group on race relations - we call it Score - is based on the theme that seek first to understand, than to be understood. And we also know that we speak in I statements. And if you keep this in mind that how you express your opinion directly relates to how your message is received and whom you influence. And lastly, I'll say that, you know, we do teach disarming skills because part of discussing race is being honest, but it's also being respectful and starting with your tone and voice and leading into how you start a disagreement with perhaps a question supported by facts.

Like one student told me one time - a white student - that hey, whites were the most discriminated group in our nation. And a young multiracial girl, I could tell her blood was boiling. And she could have jumped down his throat with layers of historical and current facts, from crime statistics, sentencing rates, et cetera, but she didn't do that. She said, you know what? Well, I hear your frustration, but tell me, what do you think when you see the statistics of white folks and people of color serving very different sentences for the same crimes? You know, she jumps down his throat, we get a different emotional argument or a shutdown, but she didn't do that, and it led to a much better discussion. We practice that.

MARTIN: Thanks for that. But Chris, let me bring up the whole question of what the teacher's role in this. And to the point that your book speaks to, in some schools - and many, I dare say - the teacher is a different race than the majority of the student body. Or there might be very different opinions or very different points of view within the same class. You know, how do teachers who are in that situation talk about these issues when they might have very different backgrounds and, you know, assumptions?

EMDIN: I think the previous two comments really exemplify, you know, where we need to go. And then the question becomes, why don't we go there in particular spaces? And I think that's because of the point you raise, which is, you know, the cultural differences between the teachers and the students makes the teachers less likely to engage in these hyper-critical conversations. And so what I've been doing in my work and what I suggest is that the principal and the teacher or the school district leader and the teachers have these conversations before they get into the academic year.

So you have to sort of prepare the teacher for the fact that they have to be comfortable with who they're going to be dealing with and how they need to deal with them. So it's easy for us to say, you know, it's OK for you to go there with students, but if teachers are unprepared for how to do so, then it becomes a recipe for disaster. So I always say, you know, as events unfold over the course of the summer, over this last week before school starts, you know, every school leaders should be engaging in conversations with their teachers via email, writing them letters, sending them news clips so that the teachers are prepared for the landscape of what's going to happen in the classroom. And then they have to have professional development about how to know who they are, which is also as essential.

You know, a lot of times, we focus on what happens when we get into the classroom and we don't spend enough time on how you help teachers to be able to deconstruct what their perceptions are of the students and how they're reading the media. And so, you know, critical media literacy is not something that should happen in classrooms without teachers first going through the process of understanding what their position is as it relates to issues that impact the lives of young people.

MARTIN: You know, this is such a rich topic. We could actually spend an hour on this or more than, so I apologize for the fact that we can really just kind of glance at the surface of this. But I got to bring the parents back into this. We wanted to hear how teachers around the country are preparing to deal with these issues, so we gave a social media shoutout to educators this week. We got some very interesting responses, but this is one that stood out for us.

This is from Lori Grant Feliciano (ph), who teaches fourth grade in Indianapolis. She writes, I want to have an open dialogue but find that while kids are willing, capable and eager to talk, their parents often push back, saying they're too young. Jolene, what do you make of that?

IVEY: That is so common, really, on any issue. And it doesn't even have to be racial issues, but anything that's a little bit sensitive. I remember very well one of my children telling his kindergarten class that his mommy had a baby in her uterus. And the teacher came to me and said, I'm going to get calls. Please don't tell him to use those words. I said, but that's what it is. It's not in my tummy. I mean, what are you talking about? So I think that teachers are very sensitive because of the pushback they do get from parents.

MARTIN: Kevin, what about that? As a principal, what about that?

GRAWER: Well, it's valid, you know. However, I would say that you still need to definitely address, you know, as Dr. Emdin was saying - I'll steal one of his phrases - you know, he talks about being a social chameleon in this book for students, but I think our teachers need that 21st century skill too, when you only get it through practice and through, you know, maybe role playing.

But the challenge is, you know, in a school like mine, where we have, you know, a very diverse student body and a predominantly white staff, is many white teachers feel unprepared or unqualified to talk about race because they simply haven't had to deal with it that much in their lives. And that's kind of the essence of being white privilege.

But it's also - it's easy sometimes, you know, to forget, have some historical forgetfulness that hey, we've had 250 years of slavery and 89 years of segregation, 63 years of so-called free, open, public education. Therefore, we've got to acknowledge this fact. And you're not making excuses when you do that. You're creating a clear picture, which allows you to have a jumping point to attack of what was done.

And we always say to kids, you know what, you can be anything you want. But that hasn't always been the case in our country. And so the idea of a meritocracy where you get by with solely hard work is a challenge when you look at the racial and historical background of this nation. So we've got to teach teachers how to deal with that with our students.

MARTIN: Let me - I just have about a minute left. And, Jolene, this is such a deep topic, though, I wanted to ask you because you were present for an historical moment - as I said, a former Maryland state lawmaker - that there's been this whole discussion around the Confederate statues. You saw one of them come down, the one of Roger B. Taney in front of the Maryland State House. He was the judge who wrote the famous Dred Scott decision, saying that blacks have no rights which a white man is bound to respect - essentially, that blacks aren't human. Can I ask you what that was like to be part of that moment?

IVEY: It was wonderful because in 2007, when I was a freshman delegate and when I first saw this statue in front of our state house, I wanted to know, who is this statue with this place of honor? And then I figured it out. It was Roger Taney. And I was so horrified. And I was sure all I have to do is tell people who he is, what he did and we're going to get rid of it. Well, a decade later, it really took Charlottesville.

MARTIN: Some people say that's a teachable moment, you should have left it there so you can talk about who he is.

IVEY: Oh, there are so many reasons to take it down. And I'm really glad it's down.

MARTIN: All right. That is former Maryland state lawmaker Jolene Ivey. She's the mom of five and the co-founder of a parenting support group. Also with us, Christopher Emdin, associate professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. And Kevin Grawer, principal of Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in St. Louis. Thank you all so much for joining us, a rich conversation.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

EMDIN: Thank you so much.

GRAWER: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.