The events from the spring and summer of 2020 have made us reflect on many ideals we have held tightly in schools. The brutal and straight facts about the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have revealed harsh truths about what we discuss and plan for in our schools. Our position and stance in conversations can mean a world of difference to students’ outlook, participation, and beliefs about our society and their role in it.

Don’t Wait for Conversations—Start Them!

We are in the information age where people can create content or record and add perspective to the real-time events happening around them. There is an equalized ability for us all to be a part of the history being made.

The young lady who recorded the video of George Floyd’s murder was a teenager—you can hear her voice as one of the narrators of his murder. Take a second to put her participation in this event in historical context. We will be talking about his murder as a catalyst for social change for years to come, and her name and words will be part of posterity. Her recording is real proof that learners of all levels are getting involved in what is happening in the world and are particularly interested in race relations, community feelings toward people of color, and the effects of systemic racism. She is heard shouting in outrage at how Floyd was being treated, then how he was murdered. This is the thinking of our learners: They are involved, curious, and passionate. The conversations are happening. We can be proactive in leading them.

Don’t wait for the conversation to come up coincidentally in your classrooms; be the initiator and let students see the need for social conscience. Be a guide and example for leading real conversations about unconscious bias. Share stories about how people are treated, and most important, be the one who models how to listen earnestly and respond authentically.

As we are seeing now, it’s not just people of color who are getting involved in the anti-racist movement—all students who educate themselves and make the decision to do so are following their conscience.

Be Active in Planning Learning Experiences

In our education prep programs, we are told to value all the faces in our school by making sure we are reading stories with diverse characters, highlighting historical experiences from unique perspectives, and creating special programs that feature our heroes. But the stark realities of this past year have revealed a harsh truth—we aren’t doing enough.

In The Revolution: It’s Time to Empower Change in Our Schools, one of the three levels of global learning is global empathy. Creating relevant conversations and learning experiences from daily life takes authenticity to a place that truly serves our learners. It puts learning in context. It equips the activists in our schools with knowledge and talking points to intellectually engage in and change the world around them. Learners understand the importance of problem-solving by understanding the needs of the people involved, including backgrounds and perspectives.

Our learners’ empathy is an opportunity for educators to help changemakers sharpen the tools they need to make a change. We often focus on communication skills, but becoming better listeners to other students who are experiencing unfairness and biases in their community prompts students to be civic-minded and inquisitive about what needs to happen to make significant changes in the community. This is even more important in schools with less diverse populations. As they are witnessing protests and demonstrations, students in a school with little to no diversity can get stuck on why things are happening.

Imagine trying to describe systemic racist practices in a lecture or through a couple of clips from television—learning won’t go far. There won’t be any opportunity to build up curiosity and facilitate students to own their learning. This is where teachers are called to design learning experiences to build curiosity, create innovative ways to research using technology to connect with the world of researchers and social reformers, and begin thought experiments with how they can change the world. Teachers need to rethink standards and objectives to include not only what’s local or easy, but what is pertinent in society. As planners and designers, we need to create learning objectives using what our students are experiencing—personally or through media. These are the experiences that our students remember and talk about in years to come.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Activists in Your Classroom

In The Revolution, we talk about preparing learners to be activists by helping them find a cause and their voice to create positive change in the world. Barbara Bray writes about the activism stage being one of the last on the continuum of developing student voice (the last being true leadership). Are we creating conditions to empower students to be advocates for a cause, to have an active voice in changing lives and envisioning alternative solutions to problems?

We can set the stage for learning and accelerate thinking so that we are designing learning experiences and empowering learner voices. Students are mindful of injustice and unfairness. They are aware of our history of mistreatment and discrimination—what they are coming to grips with today are the years of impact this has had on their communities, friends, and families.

For those students who are so moved, they want to take action. I hear friends talk about their kids taking part in marches and demonstrations on the violence and mistreatment directed at minority groups. They are taking part in activist activities and learning about engaging in causes at a ground level. From lessons and values taught at home, they want to be a part of generational change. This exuberance comes to the classroom in how they share their accounts of involvement, their feelings, and the hopes of their actions. Their friends hear this involvement and want to take part.

When Glenn Robbins, the superintendent of Brigantine Public Schools in New Jersey, was principal, his students had an opportunity to study causes and create media to accelerate change. My co-author Darren Ellwein’s school students engage in worldwide conversations and presentations on plastics pollutants and in dialogues with different communities. In my previous school, every student participated in Compassion Projects, wherein they had to change a life, change the community, or change the world. In all of these cases, students study problems and take action including—but not limited to—making presentations, raising money or awareness, or creating events to draw attention to causes.

Today our students march in the streets and sit in to protest how the community is treating minorities and how people of color are being murdered at a disproportionate rate. We don’t really have a choice in having conversations about what our students are experiencing, directly or indirectly, in the world. We can’t protect them from life and struggles, but we can rest easy knowing we were part of their preparation to change it.

Derek McCoy is the principal of North Asheboro Middle School in Asheboro, NC, and NASSP’s 2014 Digital Principal of the Year. He presents nationally on aspects of leadership, teaching and learning best practices, equity and learner-centered schools, and is a co-author of The Revolution: It’s Time to Empower Change in Our Schools and 10 Perspectives on Learning in Education.

Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension Equity

Inspiring staff members, students, and parents to understand and resolve issues of equity.

You constantly can emphasize high expectations while also demonstrating respect for all students and faculty members. You can provide teachers with training related to effort-based learning and cultural competency so that they also hold high expectations for each student. You can challenge biases if and when they are stated by members of your community and work relentlessly to address inequitable practices or structures. In particular, you should ensure that discipline policies address student misconduct in a proactive, fair, and unbiased manner.

Equity is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.