District staff discuss ways to facilitate conversations about race in classroom

Edmonds School District educators (left to right) Rana Nakkour, Martin Louie and Nazia Junejo lead a panel discussion on race in the classroom.

Edmonds School District parents, staff and students gathered Friday evening to hear from educators of color about how to have conversations with students about race in the classroom.

As part of the district’s Black Lives Matter at School month of action, a committee of local equity and diversity leaders invited four educators of color to speak at a Feb. 7 panel discussion at the district’s Education Services Center. 

During the event, family and community engagement coordinator Sally Guzmán moderated and asked the panelists questions submitted by committee members who organized the event. The group had earlier that week hosted two other activities: one focused on black authors and storybook characters and the other on youth expression through art.

The first question addressed how teachers on the panel are handling the subjects of race and racism when those topics appear in the classroom.

This year, Edmonds-Woodway High School history teacher Martin Louie began teaching ethnic studies, which he said has allowed him to explore more about history than what is traditionally taught from a white, Eurocentric perspective. He said the classes have been liberating for the students as well as himself.

“As a historian, it’s really important to be able to understand the histories of all the people,” he said. “Especially people we have never seen in history books.”

Louie said his classes also give students a chance to see representation throughout history. According to district data, more than half of the district’s students are students of color. Louie added it is important for those students to feel represented in the class lessons, as well as by those who are teaching them.

“We are an inspiration to our students,” he said. “Our curriculum is changing and it’s changing for the good.”

Next, panel members were asked how they use new diversity training and education to help students affirm their racial identities.

In his response, Student Services Manager Wil Johnson said it’s not always easy for students of color to establish identities, particularly at the secondary and high school levels, when students are typically worried about fitting in with their peers. In middle and high school, students of color can feel like trying to establish a racial identity is alienating and can lead to behavioral issues, Johnson said.

“If you’re only one of the few and then you feel like you’re being singled out because of your culture and ethnicity, it can lead to a lot of negative interactions and behaviors,” he said.

Johnson added that he has appreciated the equity and inclusion training that has been offered at the district level and has seen its effectiveness when used.

Panel members were then asked how they use a race-equity lens when choosing supplemental curriculums to teach alongside the district’s other foundational curriculums.

After watching a TED Talk about how to change racial biases, Lynnwood High School teacher Nazia Junejo said she began with positive imagery. For instance, Junejo said each day she would use positive representations for people who are negatively stereotyped, like black males, to break down racial stereotypes. Each week, her class will select a famous black person from history to read about.

Additionally, Junejo said her goal is to educate students using a curriculum that they will be able to carry with them and use after graduation.

Guzmán then asked what kind of curriculum implementation would be needed to ensure black lives are valued and sustained in the future.

Lynnwood High School learning support teacher Rana Nakkour recommended the district offer teachers more restorative justice training. This training is based on a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior and is best accomplished through cooperative processes. Through restorative justice and building relationships with students, Nakkour said teachers would be able to correct student behavior and ultimately eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects students of color. 

“When you build a relationship with a kid you can figure out the issue right there,” she said.

Following the panel, attendees broke into two workshops — one that educated parents on how to navigate the appropriate district channels when dealing with racism at school and how to achieve an equitable outcome, and the other that taught parents how to have conversation with their children about race and racism.

–Story and photo by Cody Sexton

  1. Learn more at a free presentation this Saturday, Feb. 15, from 11-noon, at the Mountlake Terrace Library:

    “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Principal’s Office?” A talk about race, punishment, and how we can help all kids succeed in school.

    Beginning as early as preschool, Black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school. As many of these students reach adulthood, these punishments can lead to legal trouble, creating what some call the “school-to-prison pipeline” that affects many Black communities.

    Based on his extensive research and teaching experience, Dr. Daudi Abe demonstrates that the racial achievement gap cannot be solved without first addressing the discipline gap. Explore how all of us—citizens, educators, law enforcement, and others—can close the gap.

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