On Saturday, March 6th, I attended the Annual Anti-Bias, Anti-Racist Conference hosted by the Educators’ Network for Social Justice. It really stirred up some intense feelings and provided some serious food for thought.

The keynote speaker, Sonia Nieto, is a noted author, speaker, and Professor Emerita in the field of multicultural education. She spoke about her research for a new book, in which she focuses on teachers who are thriving in an environment of diverse learners (linguistically, racially, and socioeconomically). One of my favorite concepts that she brought up was this: Successful teachers have a sense of mission, in that they feel that they are doing something vital and meaningful by being in the classroom. However, it is a mission not in the sense of “sacrificing for these ‘poor’ students” but rather a mission in the sense that teacher and students follow a communal calling to pursue and reach their classroom goals. This really resonated with me. Often when I say that I teach in an urban school, I get the, “Oh, you’re a saint” reaction. But that’s simply not the case–I don’t see my work as a “sacrifice”. I do, however, feel compelled to give of myself everyday, knowing that my students are giving of themselves, too, to keep our class going. The everyday work of counteracting prejudice, poverty, and other social hurdles is a mission we all must recognize and buy into.

Sonia Nieto was incredible, and left me hungry for more knowledge in the breakout sessions. What I wanted most was practical strategies that I could implement in my classroom the next day. Strategies that would help me to understand my own position of privilege, and that would encourage greater respect, tolerance, and interaction between my diverse students. Lately, I had been struggling to keep my seniors from taunting each other with racial slurs and making comments about a homeless student’s odor. I was dying for something beyond my everyday messages of respect, professionalism, and compassion that would help us work on this problem. Unfortunately, I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for in the first two sessions I attended. I picked what looked like the most relevant titles in the program, but I was disappointed in the “historical overview” type of presentation that I found. It was important, urgent information that was presented, but it was information that I (and I’d argue any informed teacher) already knew. I know about the issues. I want someone to tell me how to better help fix the issues! Luckily, the third session was presented by one of my former mentor professors; I guessed that she would deliver, and she did. She modeled an activity for exploring bias and assumptions about authors based on their names and countries of origin. It was what I was looking for–an activity and rationale that I could immediately put into action in my classroom. Thank you, Donna!

While I came away with many of the same questions I had going in, I feel like the conference just brought home the point that educators everywhere need to work harder at making their classes places that actively resist social injustice, and that many methods remain to be discovered! (I still maintain that the best place to find such things is Teaching Tolerance at Tolerance.org. Rethinking Schools also has excellent social justice teaching materials.)

All in all, one of the most remarkable things I took away from the conference was simply the physical experience of being at the Indian Community School in Franklin, WI. It is one of the most beautiful, serene, organic, and dynamic works of architecture I’ve ever seen. Take a look at some of the publicity photos from the architect (Antoine Predock) by clicking HERE. A private elementary school for the local American Indian population, this is a place that just captures the imagination and seems to have sprouted right out of the landscape. I felt so inspired just being in the building and thought to myself, “just think how much more comfortable and happy my students could be just by virtue of being in this building!” Every kid deserves a school like that. It reminded me, again, of the importance and impact of aesthetic environment on learning potential. While we don’t always have the financial means to build a show-stopping school, we can create a physical enviorment that stirs pride in our students. And we can–must–create an ideological environment where students act as one united human family. Let’s keep working on this, teachers!