It’s been three years, but Teresa Bunner still remembers the frustration felt by one of her high school students in Chapel Hill after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
The Caribbean-American student slammed her hands on a table and asked Bunner, who was an academic support specialist for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system, why none of her teachers were talking about the shooting of Michael Brown.
Bunner shared that story this week with a group of 30 Wake County educators as she pressed them not to shy away from talking in their classrooms about race and racism.
“For her to sit there and for nobody to be talking about it was comfortable for the teachers but created an uncomfortable and unsafe space for her as a black student who lived and had many male friends and family members who were black and were looking at a reality and realizing tomorrow that could be someone I know,” Bunner told educators gathered at the Vernon Malone College and Career Academy in Raleigh.
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“We get to stay comfortable, but we make that an uncomfortable place for our students and then we can’t figure out why they don’t want to learn in our classrooms.”
Bunner stressed the need for teachers to get out of their comfort zone as part of a series of training sessions this summer by Project READY, a joint effort by UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. Central University and the Wake County school system. It’s funded by a three-year federal grant.
Project READY is helping teachers learn to be more culturally competent about their diverse student populations. It will also provide classroom materials that are culturally relevant. The goal is to eventually offer a curriculum that can be used nationally to help improve education for minority students.
For now, the project is working with 30 Wake County schools that serve 32,000 students, the majority of whom are not white.
Educators attending this week’s training sessions are having tough conversations about race, according to Bunner, now a staff member of Project READY and the coordinating literacy teacher for high schools for the Wake County school system.
Wake is encouraging similar conversations among principals, students and the community following a series of highly charged racial incidents last school year. Some received national attention, including one in which a teddy bear was hung from a noose from the roof of Wakefield High School along with a sign calling for the return of the North Raleigh school’s former principal, who is white.
The training is leading teachers to reconsider what material they’re using in class. Research shows that using culturally relevant material can improve academic performance for minority students, according to Sandra Hughes-Hassell, director of Project READY.
Hughes-Hassell said English teachers can use “All-American Boys” in addition to, or instead of, “To Kill A Mockingbird” to discuss similar themes about race while also getting a black viewpoint.
When discussing people such as famous scientists, Hughes-Hassell said, teachers can make sure to mention more than just white scientists.
“Do the resources you’re using reflect the culture of the students in your classroom?” she asked.
Teachers are reviewing sample lessons such as “bringing social justice to chemistry,” which shows how educators can talk about how dangerous levels of lead got into the water in Flint, Mich.
Part of this week’s training has included how to make classrooms and libraries safe and inviting places for students. The group got advice from former members of Students’ Six, a program in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system that Bunner used to lead.
Teachers were encouraged to learn the names of their students so the students feel respected. Teachers were also told not to make cultural assumptions, such as thinking all Hispanic people eat tacos or all cultures are familiar with the use of rhetorical questions.
But what teachers definitely can’t afford to do, Bunner and the students said, is to avoid talking about race.
“Racism and race affects every student in the classroom, so to ignore it is to basically tell your students that they are ignorant, and you don’t want to do that,” said Jotham White, 19, a rising junior at N.C. A&T State University. “You have to be able to acknowledge that racism affects your life every single day.”