The Path to Empathy: Catching Up with Ms. Liz’s Allies

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The classroom is a buzz of opinions and perspectives. Teacher Liz Kleinrock tries to keep up, capturing the comments of her fourth graders on an easel pad at the front of the class. What has gotten all of these ten year-olds so engaged? It’s not sports, superheroes, or summer vacation plans. These fourth graders are tackling the subject of systemic racism.
Liz Kleinrock is an educator based in Los Angeles, California, who received Teaching Tolerance's 2018 Award for Excellence in Teaching, has given a TED Talk on building foundations of equity with young learners, and is the subject of the 2017 documentary Ms. Liz’s Allies. As evidenced in her film, Kleinrock is adept at facilitating the type of difficult conversations that would cause many an adult to fidget uncomfortably in awkward silence.
The particular conversation showcased in Ms. Liz’s Allies was kindled by a student asking, out of the blue; “Why are some people racist?” Yet Kleinrock, instead of shutting her student down to avoid controversy, embraced the moment as a learning opportunity; convinced that children are grappling with these issues just as adults are, and that meaningful social change starts by destigmatizing these touchy subjects with the free exchange of viewpoints and beliefs.

Ms. Liz's Allies from on Vimeo.

The Art of Guiding Difficult Discussions

Anti-bias lessons require mutual respect and inclusion. So how does a teacher bring their students closer together when the pandemic has kept us all farther apart? According to Kleinrock, an educator can begin by choosing one or two topics they’re passionate about, ask students how they feel, and let them point the way. 
In her TED Talk, Kleinrock equates teaching anti-bias and inclusion with how children are taught to read. They aren’t just given books. Words are first broken down into letters and sounds, and then fluency is developed through daily reading and comprehension questions. Likewise, educators shouldn’t just begin anti-bias lessons by tackling issues such as mass incarceration. Start with talking about the difference between fair and equal, or the difference between a punishment and a consequence. Children understand these concepts, and talking about these ideas can provide children with the foundation for headier discussions.

Ten Steps Toward a Less Biased Classroom

Inviting “taboo” issues into a curriculum can be daunting. But once educators free themselves from the pressure of having all the answers—and reveal that they too are participants in the learning process—the discussion becomes more collaborative.
Kleinrock’s approach lends itself to the following ten steps, as teachers begin having these conversations with students:

1. Self Reflection

Start by looking at your own identity, and how your personal biases and assumptions inform it. How you carry yourself can often influence how you are perceived by your students.

2. Cultivate a Safe and Inclusive Environment

Allow students to participate in the creation of classroom guidelines that address how everyone should respectfully communicate with one another. Foster an environment where students can make mistakes, and refer back to these class-created norms should issues arise.

3. Emphasize That One Individual Does Not Represent a Group

It can be difficult for a student who represents a minority group to shoulder the responsibility of representation. Emphasize that no one represents anything larger than their own opinion; no one speaks for a larger group of people.

4. Invite Inquiry

Find out what students already know so that you can help gauge whether they are grappling with facts, opinion, or conjecture. You can begin with a Mad Lib approach, asking students to complete sentences, such as “Right now, I’m passionate about_______” or “When I think about the injustice of ________, I feel __________.” This type of inquiry is also an opportunity to introduce effective research techniques, resources, and overall media literacy.

5. Call In, Don’t Call Out 

Shame is a roadblock to empathy. Establish the difference of “growth” versus “gotcha” with your students. “Calling in” is a desire to preserve a relationship, assuming with good intent that someone is willing to undertake the process of learning and unlearning. “Calling out” only creates a spectacle and will make students more resistant to expressing their feelings and perspectives. Check out this resource that distinguishes the two, and review it with your students.

6. Normalize Diversity

Integrate culturally diverse perspectives into all aspects of teaching. Read Latinx books not just because it’s Cesar Chavez Day, but because we value them. Celebrate African-American voices not just because it’s Black History Month, but because we value them. Find natural places in your curriculum to include diverse voices and histories, such as fairytales and folktales from underrepresented cultures.

7. Words Matter

Help your students to understand the terms around bias and race—and the distinctions between certain words, such as prejudice and bias—so that everyone is on the same page. The Anti-Defamation League has provided a glossary of common anti-bias education terms and definitions.

8. Don’t Erase, Don’t Rewrite: Understand History

Connecting current events to history can make appalling stains on our history such as slavery and segregation more relevant and less abstract. Take the issue of Confederate statues, for instance. This can fuel a powerful conversation about the statues’ historical connections to slavery, while reinforcing that—to truly understand the present—one must more deeply understand the past.

9. Activism, Not Slacktivism: Take Action

Talking is important. But to avoid feelings of hopelessness, educators need to encourage action. This could take the form of students circulating petitions; writing letters to elected officials; organizing school clubs around social issues; or participating in community work. Reinforce student activism with lessons involving social change movements, and celebrate their efforts to bring about progress.

10. Involve Parents 

Share the progress and insights of your classroom conversations with families. Explain the anti-bias resources or lesson plans you use, or invite families to watch you teach a lesson. Make the experience non threatening and inviting for diverse family groups and others in a student’s community.

Doing Students Justice

At the end of Ms. Liz’s Allies, Kleinrock’s fourth graders give a presentation summarizing what they’ve learned to a group of second graders (“The more small things you do to help others, the bigger an impact you make!” they declare in unison). The younger children aren’t squirming in their seats: they are literally leaning in, absorbed by the older children—much more so than if listening to an adult lecture. The glint in their eyes is more than mild interest. They are deeply curious about these topics and have so many comments to share and questions to pose!
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And, if these students and their brave conversations are any indication, justice may be closer than our daily news feeds would have us believe.


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