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How Should Schools Talk About Race in Today's Climate?

photo of University of Akron College of Education

About 100 people were at the University of Akron’s College of Education tonight to discuss ways that educators can engage young people to talk about race.

The panelists frequently said students from middle school through college want to discuss social justice and race in the face of the NFL’s “take a knee” controversy and recent sexual harassment allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby.

John Queener teaches in the university’s psychology department and says the first step toward fostering conversation is to create a safe space in the classroom.

“The more we’re able to do that in a classroom setting, I think the more students are able to learn. Not only about their own perspective in a deeper manner, but also learn perspectives that are different from their own, which I really feel like is the core of being educated.”

Queener added that he feels the topics of race and social justice are more relevant than ever given recent controversial statements by President Donald Trump.

Akron high school teacher Erin Saul was on the panel; she teaches a class on black history every semester. She’s white, and many of her students are black. Saul says that’s shown her some important ways that educators can engage students to talk about race, regardless of ethnicity.

“You have to be able to confront your own position of privilege. If you are not a person of color, if you come from the overarching hegemony that’s in American society, you have to go home and look at: What positions have I been in where I haven’t had to be uncomfortable because of the color of my skin or my biological sex or my sexual orientation?”

Saul adds that teaching this semester has been different from years past, since she’s slightly behind in the curriculum due to the constant stream of news stories about social justice that students want to talk about.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.