Racially homogenous classes partner to develop empathy

Dive Brief:

  • An all-black class in urban Memphis, Tennessee, partnered with an all-white class in a rural part of New Jersey so students from different races and cultures could get to know each other and become friends, Melissa Collins, the 2nd grade teacher who spearheaded the project, writes for Edutopia.
  • Collins, who is African American, grew up in a mostly white Memphis neighborhood and wants her students to get to know white people, and she wants students in mostly white communities to get to know her mostly black students. She wrote she recognizes that the unknown contributes to racism and bias, adding teachers must work harder to connect students to those of other races.
  • To find a partner school, Collins used the platform Empatico, which includes social-emotional lessons to develop communication and empathy skills. She said working with classes composed of students from different races creates opportunities to talk about compassion, empathy and respect.

Dive Insight:

Collins, mentioned in the bullets above, sees signs cross-racial classroom partnerships may instill empathy and understanding with participants. A student asked Collins if racism had ended because she had white friends in New Jersey who love her. The teacher told the girl that racism had not ended, “but it can end with you.”

In more diverse classrooms, teachers can set up safe spaces to talk about sensitive topics, such as racism, and set rules that promote respectful dialogue and inclusiveness. Educators can also teach students to disagree respectfully and ask questions about how others are feeling.

If there are only a few students of color, or no students of color, in a classroom, their voices can be included through videos and articles. Teachers can also bring guests into the classroom through Zoom videoconferencing. In majority white classrooms, they also shouldn’t expect the few students of color to share their experiences if they aren’t comfortable doing so.

A virtual reality program called 1,000 Cut Journey seeks to give non-black students an opportunity to understand what it feels like to be an African American male. Through VR, a participant can feel that they have become someone else. The technology can immerse players in games, but the hope is that the VR technology can also help develop empathy.

Administrators also can work with staff on how to respond to racism. Whitney Weathers, an assistant principal at Manual High School in Denver, tells her white colleagues to “stop asking black people to grieve publicly.” William Anderson, a teacher leader at Manual, wishes adults would use common sense when broaching the topic. 

To further develop understanding of African American culture, Texas will likely add an African American studies course to its curriculum in fall 2020, making it the second ethnic studies course after a Mexican American studies class. The new course timeline would begin pre-slavery so students can learn Africans had a culture before they were brought to America.

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