Talking About Race
Tue, 4 May 2021
Every educator wants to create an environment for all of their students to learn, grow, and, hopefully, feel comfortable in that process.
Some educators may suspect that the school environment or school policies disproportionately favor or hinder one group of students over another, and therefore may feel that avoiding discussions about racism could ensure more of a harmonious or comfortable learning environment. But we have to ask, who is most comfortable in that equation?
Conversations addressing inequalities head-on can be difficult and, considering the age of the students, maybe even scary. Enter anti-racism and the anti-racist classroom, where educators can identify – and more importantly address – societal and racial inequities.
In this video, we talk to fourth grade teacher Melissa Statz about the methods she uses to navigate and facilitate conversations about race and racism inside her classroom. After the video, read the essay to learn more about Melissa’s journey to become a brave anti-racist educator.
My Journey to Teaching About Race
by Melissa Statz
I very vividly remember the summer day in 2014 when I first saw the video of Eric Garner being killed by police repeating, “I can’t breathe.” I had just completed my first year of teaching fifth grade on the West Side of Chicago, in a classroom filled completely with Black and brown students. The only thing I could think about was how easily New York City could have been Chicago, and how soon my young students could be that Black man. When I watched that video of Eric Garner struggling to breathe I could think only of the kids I had come to know and love all year, who could be ripped away at any moment because of the color of their skin. Years later, when I watched the video of George Floyd being killed at the hands of the police, once again begging, “I can’t breathe,” I couldn’t help but feel the same way all over again.
The civil unrest of last summer is what led me back into the classroom in August 2020. After four years of teaching in Chicago I had been taking some time off to stay home with my two young children. After months of Covid, rampant racism, death, and loss, I felt a strong pull back to the classroom in the hopes that I could do something good. So I headed back into a fourth grade classroom, but for the first time in my career I was teaching in Burlington, Wisconsin, in a predominantly white, conservative community. It’s also the community I grew up in and the school district I graduated high school from 12 years earlier.
When I started I knew that racism would come up throughout the school year. Between the Black Lives Matter movement and the upcoming election, I knew that students would have many questions, but I never expected to jump into the conversation so quickly. During our first week of school, Jacob Blake was shot 7 times in Kenosha, WI, approximately 30 miles from Burlington. Within days I began to hear students discussing things they had seen or heard regarding the shooting and the protests that followed. They began asking questions and I knew that the subject needed to be discussed. A part of me worried that a lesson on racism and BLM may not be received as openly in Burlington as it would have been at my previous schools in Chicago, but I knew it was a teachable movement and the conversation was too important to ignore.
So I went home and spent my evening developing a plan for our Social Studies lesson the following day. I started the lesson by reading A Kid’s Book About Racism by Jelani Memory. The class sat outside on a warm summer day and discussed what racism is, what it looks like, and how it still exists today. Some of the few students of color shared their own experiences with racism or experiences of their family members. Many shared their confusion and frustration with how their friends had been treated and we discussed ways that white students could be allies to their classmates.
We then moved the conversation to the protests we’d been witnessing throughout the summer. We used an informational handout created by another teacher to discuss what the Black Lives Matter movement is, how it began, why it’s still important today, and ways we can fight systemic racism. The conversation was filled with questions, comments, stories, and ideas. Students who had barely spoken the first few days of school were eagerly raising their hands to share an opinion or ask a question. Our conversation included why people are protesting, how protests can sometimes turn violent, and the role of police in our lives. I taught the lesson multiple times that day, to each of the fourth grade classes at my school. Each conversation was different, but they all came back to the same idea that the way people of color are being treated in our country is wrong and each of us needs to help stop it.
I left school that afternoon feeling inspired by the conversations that took place between my students. At times it was uncomfortable, but nine year olds have the ability to very clearly see right from wrong, and it was encouraging to hear their perspectives. I was especially touched by the reactions of my students of color, who very openly and honestly participated in the discussion. Immediately following the lesson one of my Black students came up and thanked me for teaching the class about racism and another Black student gave me a huge hug. It truly felt like this short lesson had really made an impact.
My feelings of hope and encouragement were extremely short-lived, because within hours my lesson was shared on a local Facebook “Buy, Sell, Trade” page with a caption about how I was indoctrinating fourth graders. Within minutes the post had hundreds of engagements with the majority of people loudly and aggressively expressing their concerns. I read the comments for a couple of minutes before I had to close my computer. The comments were racist and full of hate. It was hard to reconcile the fact that this was the community I grew up in and some of these people I had known my entire life.
At school the next morning I met with my principal and the district superintendent to explain the context for the lesson. I explained myself and they expressed their concerns. It was clear they wished I hadn’t brought BLM and racism into the classroom, but they also said they understood the curiosity of the students and how the lesson progressed organically. My superintendent informed me that a statement would need to be made to calm the community. His message made remarks about the lesson being an individual decision and not part of the district’s curriculum. He went on to say, “While we are committed to creating more opportunities for conversation, we seek to do this from a neutral perspective. We have reminded staff to use supplemental resources that are age and developmentally appropriate without religious or political influence.” While the intention was to put out the fire, his comments instead fueled the flames.
After this initial statement threats and harassment began for my family. People began publicly posting photos of my children online with threatening captions about me. Community members began sending emails or direct messages harassing me. A Facebook hate group was created titled, “Burlington, WI Joined Parents & Community Against A Rogue Teacher,” for community members to join together to get me fired. Parents spread lies about me and threatened my family. Members posted photos of my children, then posted photos of their guns minutes later. Members were encouraged to email, call, and show up at my home daily. This is just a fraction of the harassment we received from the Burlington community in the weeks immediately following my lesson.
All of the harassment intensified until an upcoming school board meeting. Right before the meeting, a local journalist asked if I would be willing to be interviewed for our city newspaper. At first I declined, remembering the advice I had been given by administration, but ultimately changed my mind. I didn’t feel that I was being publicly supported by my district and it didn’t seem fair for everyone else to tell my story without my input. I decided to answer some questions so that I could fully explain my lesson and it’s importance in my classroom and every classroom. In the days following the article, people finally began to reach out to me in support instead of with hate. Colleagues, community members, and even some of my former teachers who still teach in the district had read the article and wanted to send encouragement. The handful of parents in my classroom who supported me from the start continued to advocate for me.
While I was finally starting to feel some support from the community, the members of the Rogue Teacher Facebook group had decided to all attend the school board meeting to push for my firing. In response, our local social justice organization that I am a member of, the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism (BDCR), put out a public service announcement calling members of the community to attend the meeting and speak in support of my lesson and teaching. The meeting brought hundreds of people into our high school gymnasium to discuss my lesson plan, and the bigger topic of anti-racist curriculum in our schools. The public comments started with a barrage of hateful comments about me, my teaching, and BLM, but amazingly a huge number of allies came out in support, and the conversation quickly turned to the need for anti-racist teachers and instruction. The meeting ended with a statement from the Board President stating that one lesson did not define my teaching career and that this was not a fireable offense.
Throughout all of this, I continued to meet regularly with my administration. During this time the superintendent shared some of his own growth and learning. Through conversation with the National Equity Project, an organization hired by the district to help address inequality in our schools, BCDR, and after talking to families of color in our community, he realized the harm and bias in his initial public statement. He expressed to me that he would be writing a new letter to the community and eventually released a powerful statement in support of Black and brown students and denouncing racism and harassment. This statement sent a strong message to our community and the harassment finally slowed down. Around the same time, national news outlets began picking up the story. This attention brought with it a huge network of teachers, parents, students, and everyday citizens surrounding me with support and love.
In the aftermath of my lesson many people have asked me if it was worth it or if I would do it again. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had some very low moments where I wished I could take it back. Nine months later, parents still continually challenge my teaching. Community members frequently post about me online. I’ve lost friendships over my beliefs, and I’ve had disagreements with my administration. But even so, my answer is still absolutely yes. I know what type of teacher I am and who I want to continue growing to be. I am proud of the lessons I teach and the conversation it is sparking. I believe these open and honest conversations have led to better relationships with my students and have allowed them to consider different perspectives than they’re used to. I now have a class filled with 9 and 10 year olds who aren’t afraid to ask hard questions, who know they can discuss issues they’re interested in, and who feel safe and welcome in my classroom. At the end of the day, that is exactly the type of teacher, and person, I want to be.