Liz Kleinrock: How Can We Broach Hard Conversations In The Classroom?

Sep 20, 2019

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Teaching For Better Humans

About Liz Kleinrock's TED Talk

When one of Liz Kleinrock's fourth grade students made a cringe-worthy comment about race, rather than change the subject, she chose to turn the moment into a teachable one — and start a conversation.

About Liz Kleinrock

Liz Kleinrock is an anti-bias educator and consultant based in Los Angeles.

Kleinrock earned her M.Ed in 2013, completing her thesis on social and emotional learning based on research conducted with her students.

She is also a published author with Teaching Tolerance, an organization that creates curricula for teachers. Her work has gained national recognition through a mini-documentary called Ms. Liz's Allies. She received Teaching Tolerance's 2018 Award for Excellence in Teaching, and currently serves on the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.


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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi in for Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about how we can teach for better humans.

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ZOMORODI: So school is where kids still learn spelling and times tables. But these days, it's also where they have their first conversations about big topics that even we grown-ups struggle with, topics like inequality and race.

LIZ KLEINROCK: I mean, think about how much media and how many messages adults soak up every single day. And kids are exposed to the exact same stuff that adults are exposed to.

ZOMORODI: This is teacher Liz Kleinrock. She develops school curricula. Before that, she spent a decade in the classroom.

KLEINROCK: Yet we have this misconception that kids tune it out or don't care or kind of gloss over when, you know, we have those conversations at the dinner table or when, like, the radio is on in the car. Like, kids pick up on all of it.

ZOMORODI: Some of Liz's students were interviewed for a mini-documentary specifically about how she helps them think critically about our history and how it relates to today.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Some people actually liked having slaves, to own slaves because they worked for them, and some people were just afraid to speak out for them or do anything to help them.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I can't imagine how it would be like if my family was gone. Like, if, like, you're - if you're just separated from your family - like, just - you're separated...

KLEINROCK: I have these kids who would never raise their hand in, like, a traditional reading or writing or math lesson. But if you ask them about Black Lives Matter or what's happening in our government, they all know something, and they all want to share.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: I mean, seeing all these videos of people getting discriminated because of their race, religion, orientation - it really changes my perspective of life.

KLEINROCK: So I think it's actually a lot safer to have those conversations, you know, upfront.

ZOMORODI: But having tough conversations upfront with kids is totally different than having them with adults in lots of unpredictable and cringeworthy ways. Liz Kleinrock tells the story from the TED stage.

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KLEINROCK: So a few years ago, I was beginning a new unit on race with my fourth graders, and I had the type of moment that every teacher has nightmares about. One of my students had just asked the question, why are some people racist? And another student - let's call her Abby - had just raised her hand and volunteered, maybe some people don't like black people because their skin is the color of poop. Yeah, I know.

So as if on cue, my entire class exploded. Half of them immediately started laughing. And the other half started yelling at Abby and shouting things like, oh, my God. You can't say that. That's racist. So just take a second to freeze the scene in your mind. There is a class of 9 and 10-year-olds, and half of them are in hysterics because they think Abby has said something wildly funny. And the other half are yelling at her for saying something offensive.

And then you have Abby sitting there completely bewildered because, in her mind, she doesn't understand the weight of what she said and why everybody is reacting this way. And then you have me, the teacher, standing there in the corner, like, about to have a panic attack.

Now, schools are often the only place where students can feel free and comfortable to ask questions and make mistakes, but unfortunately, not all students feel that sense of security. So as a classroom teacher, I have to make split-second decisions all the time. And I knew I needed to react, but how?

Consider your fight or flight instincts. I could fight or just change the subject and quickly start reaching for another subject, like, anything to get my students' minds off the word poop. So after standing there for what felt like an eternity, I unfroze. And I turned to face my class, and I said, actually, Abby makes the point.

ZOMORODI: I loved being in your head as a teacher. Like, I kind of felt like, oh, maybe that's what my teachers were thinking. How do you take an extremely uncomfortable moment and in a split second decide what to do with us? Like, what were the options, did you think?

KLEINROCK: I could chastise her and say, like, you know, that's just incredibly inappropriate. Like, you never ever say something like that - which is definitely part of the conversation that needs to be had about why that language is harmful. But if you don't explain why it's harmful, it doesn't really do any good. All the kid has learned is, oh, if I ever talk about this, that it's bad.

And something I didn't share in the talk is that that student who made the comment isn't white. She's actually a student of color. And I thought a lot, in that moment, about the way that I now interact with her is really also going to show - be a model for the rest of the kids, too.

I definitely don't think it's OK to shame people for where they're at, but it's absolutely necessary to question why people are at a certain place. And if this was truly her first time talking about it, yelling at her was going to leave a really, really big imprint.

Like, I even think about how I view myself as a math student because I had one teacher in elementary school who, like, made me cry when it came to math because I didn't understand and how I then internalized, well, I must be a really bad math student.

And this has a lot higher stakes than whether or not I could understand, like, a multiplication algorithm. You know, this is something that could really continue to follow her and determine whether she was going to be willing to engage or disengage from these conversations moving forward.

ZOMORODI: So in that five seconds, the weight of this girl's relationship to talking about race is on your shoulders. You reflect on that, and then you look at the kids in your classroom. And you look at her, and what do you say?

KLEINROCK: So this is a really important teachable moment because there is some truth and validity into what Abby is saying, that people have believed this. And some components of racism are fueled by thoughts and beliefs just like this. And that's why we have to talk about it. It's meaningful. It's, you know, terrifying and deeply personal, but we have to take these opportunities to learn.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

KLEINROCK: As I watch the conversation really marinate with my students, I began to wonder, how many of my students have assumptions just like Abby? And what happens when those assumptions go unnoticed and unaddressed, as they so often do? Conversations around race, for example, have their own specific language, and students need to be fluent in this language in order to have these conversations.

Now, I also know that these types of conversations can seem really, really intimidating with our students, especially with young learners. But I have taught first through fifth grades. And I can tell you, for example, that I'm not going to walk into a first grade classroom and start talking about things like mass incarceration. But even a 6-year-old first grader can understand the difference between what is fair - people getting what they need - and equal - when everybody gets the same thing, especially goodie bags at birthday parties.

Now, first graders can also understand the difference between a punishment and a consequence. And all of these things are foundational concepts that anyone needs to understand before having a conversation about mass incarceration in the United States. Some people might think that kindergartners or first graders are too young to have conversations around racism but also tell you that young kids understand how people are similar and different and what it means to have power when other people don't.

When we have these conversations with students at a young age, it actually takes away some of that taboo feeling when those topics come up at a later age.

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ZOMORODI: It's almost like you just make space in your classroom for things that are often shoved under the rugs, things that we don't make space for because it makes us feel uncomfortable because we don't necessarily have the answer of how to make it better. But you - you try to make space.

KLEINROCK: I try. And I try to also be very authentic with my students, when they ask a question that I don't know the answer to, to be very honest with them and not make something up or that I'm the authority on all things related to race and equity because I'm not. There's still so many things I'm unlearning and new things that I need to understand because it's hard to navigate by yourself.

And I think there's a lot of self-work that teachers need to be doing in unpacking their own identities and their understanding of what it means to have an anti-racist classroom. And if you're not doing that self-work, having the conversations with kids is going to be a lot harder because these are definitely parallel tracks of work that need to be going on at the same time.

ZOMORODI: I mean, I got to say, I feel for teachers right now. Not only are they pretty poorly paid, at least here in the United States, but they don't get a lot of respect from parents, from municipal governments. They work so hard.

How do you even begin to say to teachers, yeah, so also, you need to be exploring your own sense of identity? Could you do that please while you're also grading all the papers for tomorrow? Like, how do you even start to have this conversation with other teachers?

KLEINROCK: It's really, really hard. But I think that the curriculum and the lessons that I've created really tried to embrace, I think, diversity and equity and inclusion as a lens, not as a separate component of the day. Like, I'm not writing social justice time from 9:00 to 10:00 on the agenda. It can really be something as simple as, who are the authors and the stories and the voices that you're amplifying in class?

Like an example that I like to give is one of our curricular units is supposed to be about opinion writing. In the sample unit that comes with the curriculum, you're supposed to structure this lesson about what's your favorite ice cream flavor and why, which for fourth graders, to me, that just seems like such a waste of an opportunity - to have them write about something that's more important than that. But I think it also takes a lot for adults to be brave and have those conversations.

ZOMORODI: Well, yeah. Which makes me wonder, like, do you ever get pushback from parents who maybe feel uncomfortable with your methods or maybe, like, listen, just stick to, like reading, writing and arithmetic, OK? I'll handle the other stuff for my kid.

KLEINROCK: Yeah. I mean, I get a lot about education not being politicized. And my response to them is usually - I mean, education is inherently political - school funding, how much teachers get paid, which textbooks we use, which holidays we celebrate, like, who is visible in the classroom and who it isn't - those are all political decisions.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. I mean, it's really, like you said before, that kids already pick up on all of these ideas, political or not.

KLEINROCK: Yep. And, you know, I had one student who said that we have the right to have these conversations because it's going to be us. It's going to be our life in the future. You know, how can we be prepared if we can't even have these conversations or we don't even know what's going on? And he's right. He is absolutely right.

ZOMORODI: And that wasn't like an 18-year-old.

KLEINROCK: No, he 9 (laughter).

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

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ZOMORODI: That's Liz Kleinrock. She's an educator and diversity coordinator in Los Angeles. And that documentary about how she teaches is called "Ms. Liz's Allies." and you can see her full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.