The main secret is that it doesn’t differ much from in-person teaching. You still need to do the personal anti bias and anti racist work required and these brave spaces will still require relationship-building. This entails going through your own peeling back of layers in terms of bias and identity. It also means inviting students to do their identity development activities through ‘get-to-know-me’ posters, worksheets, exercises, etc. If you already have identity exploration exercises, keep em! There are so many great ideas for building consciousness about identity among students.
After you’ve done some of that initial work and it’s time to start digging into the deeper conversations, there are often two challenges that arise. The first is being unable to effectively read body language. Body language usually helps us know how the lesson is being received and how engaged the student is. The second challenge is that we are now in their homes. Parents and other adults are around who might be stronger influences on their psyche instead of when they were apart from them in our classrooms.
Here are five tips for creating anti racist brave spaces in distance learning, considering the challenges above.
Communicate with parents/guardians/caretakers ahead of time. Often the issue with this group is that they are fully unaware of what is going on in their learners’ classes. They have no idea what the topics of exploration are. They can’t respond to something they know nothing about. One way I’ve addressed this in the past, is offering parents/guardians/caretakers with a brief (even bulleted) note of what’s to come for their learner. I might simply offer them a month by month or unit by unit topic list of what we’re discussing, why, and how. It can be that you send a book list home, with book covers included, so that there are no surprises later. Also keep an open lane of communication with them so that they reach out to you versus your administrator. I have found that this proactive communication remedies tons of pushback I would have normally received from parents/guardians/caregivers.
Replace body language reading with chat box check ins. You can reach out to students 1-1 and check in, or you can ask for periodical check ins from each student. You can have general social emotional prompts/questions to ensure engagement as well and make clear that they can talk to you about what’s stirring up for them. You can also create space for breakout rooms where you visit with small groups of students and do check-ins there, if you think that can be effective. It all depends on the group of students you have and your context.
Keep a virtual “word wall.” These are where key terms are defined and students can use the language (maybe include sentence stems) to engage in the challenging conversations. This can be a google slide where terms exist with definitions. You can save each slide as a JPG and post it in a digital class space. You can also send it to students so they can have it available. You can also keep this simple and ask them to keep these terms in their notebooks, too. The important part is for all to have a shared community language so that it is clear, appropriate and careful, and communicates ideas effectively. This shared language is also a great way for them to practice how to have these conversations outside of your class, which is how we build up their social advocacy confidence.
Include social emotional learning work that focuses on self awareness and social awareness. Students can stop and take inventory of their body’s reactions to the comments & the conversation through strategic pauses that you offer. One way you can initiate that conversation is, “I am wondering what emotions might be stirring up for you about…” Notice I said ‘what’ and not ‘if.’ As the conversation is flowing, you can include a pause and invite students to write down their body’s reaction by making observations of their feelings. For those that are open to sharing, it then becomes a group learning experience through social awareness. Students are then able to observe how the dialogue brings up tensions or opportunities. Teaching Tolerance offers great strategies in their resource “Let’s Talk” that you may want to consider.
Create a dedicated space and time for questions. This is for questions still lingering for students after the lesson and conversation. It might also be time for any new questions that arise. While this might seem obvious, the issue is that in-person these moments might simply come up organically as students walk out, see you in the hallway, bump into you after school, or stop by your class once the bell has rung. This isn’t available in distance learning. So, we have to be intentional. Accepting nonclosure is one of the protocols for Courageous Conversations and it’s also good practice for sitting with some discomfort throughout a learning process.The goal, though, should be to let them know they can always ask you and the door for conversation is open.
While distance learning is not ideal because most of us chose this profession to be in our rooms, with students, in person, and experience the richness of that work, we still have to do the anti racist work necessary. We must find a way to make it work via distance learning. Too much is happening in society for us to pause the conversations because of difficulty online. I don’t mean to minimize the struggle, but I do mean to maximize the need. If our lessons via distance learning have enough of an anti racist impact to stop the next Kyle Rittenhouse or the next Dylan Roof or the next Donald Trump, then we’ve done good work.
We’re in this together.