Productively Discussing Black Lives Matter with Students Is Possible

  • Ayodele Harrison reflects on how the learning environment and relationships within schools can affect the student experience.

  • Educators have an obligation to prepare for conversations about race by doing some self-reflection, first.

  • Student conversations about BLM and Black Lives Matter should not be discouraged. Instead, teachers need to anticipate the situation to ensure that the discussions promote growth and learning.

Students are going to have questions about the Black Lives Matter movement, police violence, and ongoing national conversations about race. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

So, how does a teacher prepare? The answer does not lie in a good lesson plan.

The best way to prepare for the eventual conversation about race within the classroom context is for educators to first have an honest conversation with themselves and their school community, according to Ayodele Harrison.

As a senior partner of education at CommunityBuild Ventures, Ayodele is committed to eliminating racial disparities by creating impactful and racial equity-driven leaders and organizations in his firm. Prior to his role at CommunityBuild, he was a math teacher in multiple states across the US, and even in South Africa. He draws on his experience as an educator and a black male to offer advice to educators navigating these topics.

In this interview, Ayodele offers advice on how to approach and engage in conversations with students about Black Lives Matter and race. We also talked to Ayodele about creating safe spaces for black male educators.

Ayodele was interviewed for the teacher professional development resource portal PLtogether. You can watch part-2 of the 4-part series of the interview above, and we have shared some of the highlights below.

Preparing for a conversation with students about race and Black Lives Matter

black lives matter student discussionsThe topic of race is not one that can be ignored this year, according to Ayodele. The killing of George Floyd and others by police, alongside Black Lives Matter protests in many communities, has created an external pressure for these important topics to be on the agenda in classrooms. Whether or not a teacher wants these issues to come forward within classroom learning, these topics will be present in conversations among students.

When asked how educators should prepare for this topic, Ayodele warned, “The first conversation that you have about it shouldn’t be with your students.”

Ayodele advises educators to evaluate the conversation with yourself, as an educator. Figure out where you stand, first. Then discuss this within a community in which you can grow and connect with to better your understanding of the movement.

Educators should be able to come to a place of understanding about the BLM movement to connect what’s happening now with the context and history that has brought us here. “Don’t feel pressure to provide answers to student questions too quickly,” he says. Ayodele reminds educators that each person will have a different connection based on their own identity. 

Ayodele said he believes it is not beneficial for educators to promote discussions regarding the topic with students before having developed a perspective and role within the movement. Also, there does not need to be a formal plan or process to bring up these issues with students. Readiness will come in the form of understanding one’s own context and beliefs; this self-prep will help teachers authentically engage with students when the timing is right. 

The key, Ayodele said, is to not stop or ban BLM student conversations in the classroom. Instead, it is about learning openly and understanding and growing together — teachers and students.

It’s ok if teachers do not have answers about race

Ayodele reminds us that no one has all the answers. What is happening within our country as it relates to race and Black Lives Matter is complicated. Openness about this limitation with students can itself be a tool for authentically guiding students through their own learning. The conversation can shift to learning and processing together instead of seeking truth on these tough issues from a teacher.

To better prepare for BLM student conversations, Ayodele suggests the use of role-playing with colleagues before engaging with students on the topic. It is important to prepare ourselves by developing our own perspective, determine how we want to convey it, and practicing the language that is most beneficial to use with students.

“We have to model this idea that I don’t know everything,” Ayodele said. As educators, we have to be ready. “I used to think that I needed to know everything when really, I needed to know how to guide a conversation, providing a structure to welcome voices and have young people think about what they’re saying.”

We must establish norms for our communities, even when virtual

One factor complicating how to talk about challenging topics like Black Lives Matter and race this year is that, for some teachers, the conservations will happen within virtual classroom spaces.

When asked for some tips to translate the shift from a physical environment to a virtual environment, Ayodele stated that he encourages educators to incorporate community agreements as part of their routine. 

“We have to be able to sit down and talk about what it means to be in this community,” Ayodele said.

He believes that implementing community agreements and guidelines into any classroom, physical or virtual, allows an opportunity for each of us to grow to be our best selves in the classroom community.

Ayodele reminds us that it is important to remember that in a virtual space, it is about taking time to grow the community and those standards. Ayodele knows that when teachers give students a voice to express themselves by creating the right community, and this will ultimately promote growth.

Although building community standards is a priority in a virtual environment, Ayodele stresses that it is important to continuously monitor and build those agreements as we move through the school year to apply any modifications that may be needed. The idea is that a set of community agreements is an evolving document that can change with the community, the learning context, and the world around us.

Like what your reading? Read our related Lounge Talk interview with Amy Tepper and Patrick Flynn about the shift from traditional to distance teaching and coaching. 

Also – check out this related article with Ayodele Harrison about creating safe spaces for black male educators to connect. 

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