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Students are Leading the Way Combating Bias in Schools

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    Jasmine Ntori

Traditionally, Black History Month is a time to reflect upon, acknowledge and honor Black leaders who significantly changed and influenced America’s history. Just as it is important to honor those who came before us, it is just as necessary to acknowledge and spotlight those who are leaders today. During Black History Month, and throughout the year, we will profile a few of the many Black voices and EL Education partners who are making waves in education.

This blog is part of a series. Read the first and second blog posts in this series.

The Intersection of Race and Education

In my years as a student, I have experienced the way race can become a significant part of a student’s educational experience. For nearly all of my schooling, I’ve been one of the only Black people in the entire school. I’ve had teachers assume that I was rude or did not care about my education.When I proved otherwise, they told me that they were impressed or shocked because it challenged their expectation of me. In middle school, when I expressed an interest in joining the chess club a fellow student said, “You’re Black. Black people do not play chess.”

In the fall of 2018, I had the first opportunity to do something about the experiences that had become the status quo. I took a class called Critical Thinking About Race. We dug deep into issues like the history of race, social classes, how race affects us, intersectionality, and so much more. Some of the most impactful work began at the end of the class while completing our final projects. Our class was tasked with building a two-hour workshop to educate our teachers on what we’d learned. We sat down with our teachers and had deep, open, and honest conversations about the impacts of bias and how they show up in classrooms.

"Our teachers didn’t have to tell us that they heard us, we could see that they heard us." Jasmine Ntori, Student at William Smith High School

Teachers began instituting techniques to mitigate bias. For example, they introduced the “popsicle stick protocol.” When using this protocol, teachers randomly pull a popsicle stick with a student’s name on it instead of calling on students to eliminate preference or bias. During our workshop, we also explored blindspots with our teachers to make them more self-aware.

The Critical Thinking about Race class opened the eyes of students and teachers to all the ways race threads through issues like social class, implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and even police brutality.

Taking the Impact Beyond School Walls

The impact on educators didn’t stop with our own teachers. I, and the other lead facilitators, began doing workshops for teachers all over Denver. What started out as a project in our classroom was now making a huge impact for students and educators across the state. The peak of our work was having the opportunity to travel to Atlanta for the 2019 EL Education National Conference and do a masterclass for educators from across the country. During our masterclass session, we explained to educators that students want to be heard, but to get there, they need to know that even though you’re a teacher, you’re a human. We charged them to create a space where students know that everything they say is safe instead of getting defensive if a student challenges a behavior. In order for minority students to really flourish in the classroom, they need to feel like they belong. This cannot happen if the teachers and students are not exposed to issues around race such as intersectionality, micro-aggressions, implicit bias, and more.

The response was better than we could have imagined. The room was packed with educators eager to learn. They stayed after the session to ask more questions. I could see and feel the ripple effects of our work impacting schools across the country.

Looking Internally for External Change

As a black woman, I thought I knew all about race because of my lived experiences. However, through these experiences I learned something new about myself and other cultures every day. Instead of pointing fingers, we can look inward and fix issues within ourselves first. We ask ourselves: How have I contributed to some of the issues that have to do with race? How has race impacted my life? When it comes to race and racism, none of us know it all, but we can all make a positive impact.

Jasmine Ntori is a senior at William Smith High School, an EL Education Credentialed School. Her teammates in this work are Andres Sanchez, Cynthia Nava, Dom Wortham, Maxwell Cervantes, and Jesus Garcia.