How can parents work with their children’s schools to ensure educators are playing a role in helping to raise anti-racist children? It has to do with a concept called critical consciousness. It starts with developing young people’s ability to recognize and understand oppressive social forces, such as racial injustice. It also includes engaging in actions that resist them. In this context, the word “resist” refers to actions designed both to build a better world and prevent negative forces from undermining your healthy development. These are both part of a concept called critical consciousness. In a two-part Q&A, Eden Pontz, Executive Producer at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication talked with Professors Scott Seider and Daren Graves, authors of the new book, Schooling for Critical Consciousness about this topic and more.
Seider and Graves studied five mission-driven urban high schools to see how educational environments can help develop and impact young people’s sense of critical consciousness. They worked with a framework that divides schooling for critical consciousness into several parts: 1) social analysis — the ability to recognize and analyze the ways racism works and systems in which it’s found; 2) social action — the wide range of activities one can be involved with in challenging or transforming one’s condition or community; and 3) political agency — the knowledge that taking these actions will have an impact in one’s community and broader world. Among other findings, students who became more critically conscious had positive outcomes such as greater academic achievement, higher self-esteem, and increased resilience.
In Part 2 of this Q&A, Seider and Graves explain what parents can do to bring this concept into their children’s schools, homes, and communities. When schools do this all young people benefit. To learn even more about what the duo discovered behind school doors, don’t miss Part 1: How Schools Can Help Teens Identify And Take Action Against Racism.
Eden Pontz: Why should parents be eager to understand the importance of incorporating critical consciousness into their children’s schools?
Daren Graves: Whether your child is white or of color and you’re a parent who’s interested in nurturing critical consciousness in your student, or in their anti-racist attitudes or behaviors, you should want your schools to be doing this work. Even well-intentioned schools and teachers could be sending messages that are in opposition to supporting parents who are interested in helping their young folks push back against systems of oppression. That’s because there are many ways that racism operates on an everyday basis that are a part of the fabric of life. School falls into that category. So, schools must be intentional about being anti-racist or doing things that help students analyze and push back against defective systems.
Scott Seider: Parents and caregivers are likely to be the primary and most important teachers in their children’s lives regarding critical consciousness development. For children of color, it’s a typical part of racial socialization for their parents to prepare them to navigate and challenge forces like racism in the world. Many parents will say they wished schools were doing more to support their efforts. I think that many parents of color, in particular, are interested in schools doing a better job of making sure that the curriculum equally covers the history of their racial-ethnic groups, literature, and more. I also think that many parents of color would appreciate schools engaging young people in opportunities to analyze and take action surrounding racism and other forms of oppression. White families and white youth may be less likely to have conversations about race and racism at home. For many white families, it is an uncomfortable topic. For those young people, school represents an incredibly important opportunity to be pushed to reflect upon how white privilege impacts how they move through the world. And the ways in which they can engage as allies in challenging racism and other forms of oppression.
Eden Pontz: For parents who want their children’s schools to consider adding these concepts and practices into schooling, where do you suggest they begin?
Daren Graves: Parents have lots of power. Not as much as they probably should, but I know the teachers and principals are often concerned with how families feel about how things are going. There are a few examples where, as a result of this particular moment, parents organized. They reached out to their school leaders, talked to the principal and the school superintendent, and made sure this was a priority. This is a transitional time where we are still trying to figure out what schooling needs to be. The Covid-19 pandemic is going to make it even more transitional. This is the time for parents, families, and community members to have a strong voice in the purpose and goals of the school moving forward. The students and the communities are the primary ones who should have the most say over what schools should be. As a parent, if you’re really interested in being a part of your child’s schooling, or your community’s schooling, you must step up and say something. And for a variety of good reasons, people are listening now. Take advantage of that opportunity.
Scott Seider: Parents should feel empowered to ask their teachers, “Tell me about the ways in which you are working to make sure lots of different voices are represented, and different groups’ histories are studied and how you’re helping young people make sense of the current moment that we’re living in.” I think those are very reasonable questions for parents to ask their children’s teachers and school administrators. And I think it’s useful for parents to be clear they want them to engage in these conversations and be exposed to the full breadth of history and literature.
Daren Graves: And I would add to that, it’s not just parents advocating for curricular issues. It’s also things like hiring issues in schools and ongoing achievement disparities in terms of assessments. There’s a lot of different ways in which these issues need to be hashed out. Either schools themselves or the parents need to advocate, or the schools must facilitate a way for the parents, family members, or caregivers to author their own spaces for engagement. Often what happens is the school will say they value family input. And then they’ll create these tiny little boxes where engagement is allowed to happen. But often, it’s the parents who have the most privilege who can do that and take advantage. We definitely want parents to advocate for their students and for schools to allow parents and families to do that — but we don’t want only those with the most power and privilege to take advantage while others don’t. Another key piece to this is for the school and the families to come together in a variety of ways in which the families can be engaged — as opposed to the more traditional parent-teacher conference night or relying on the parents to call. We need to think about ways to broaden the definition and scope of possibilities for parents and family engagement to happen.
Eden Pontz: It seems like there could be challenges and some potentially uncomfortable moments that could come through this schooling. Can you share an example of when the schooling practices worked and what you think made the difference?
Daren Graves: At one school, there was a relatively veteran teacher, a white man who was teaching an African American literature course to a group of predominantly Black and Latinx upperclassmen at the high school who improved his teaching in partnership with the young people in his class. A core group of the students in that class was also in an extracurricular class on debate. And they were doing amazing work in that debate class with this other white male teacher who helped them conceptualize issues and taught them frameworks to understand oppression. The short of it was the students recognized what they thought was a troubling way in which the literature teacher was approaching the work and having them engage the text in ways that didn’t feel authentic to the experiences. They wanted this teacher to own his whiteness as he was teaching Black students about African-American literature. And this teacher heard these students. We got to watch this class change as a result. We got to watch this teacher change his approach to have more of a reciprocal teaching relationship with his students who had expertise over this material in ways that he did not.
What facilitated that change was a few things. One was the debate class space when they were exposed to frameworks that helped them see the world differently. Two, I think there was a culture that welcomed the perspectives of young folks into the equation, whether in the classroom or the broader school community. And third, this was a veteran teacher — which may have made him more comfortable trying something different. But more importantly, this teacher is a white man who allowed himself to be vulnerable, and he allowed himself to think about his own privilege. That’s a big ask. To change your teaching in general, much less at the behest of your students — it was impressive to see. This example was not a top-down decision — it wasn’t only adults that led to change and said let’s do it. It was the young folks making this decision, and the school, creating spaces and the culture to facilitate students communicating to the adults.
Eden Pontz: How might parents incorporate aspects of schooling for critical consciousness into the home?
Daren Graves: The three components of our framework, analysis, agency, and action, are useful for parents or teachers with children of any age. As parents, we need to help our children be able to analyze the world. To figure out what the problems are. To understand that systems of racism and oppression exist and how they operate. And, we must give them a sense that they can do something about it. That’s the agency piece. Then, we must provide them the opportunity to take action. What we really want is some overlap between what’s happening at home and school. We’d love for young people to get practice in both spaces.
Scott Seider: I think that there’s almost no age that’s too early to get started. Ibram X. Kendi, an anti-racist scholar who wrote an award-winning book about racism for adults, recently partnered with a young adult author to write a version of that book for tweens. And then, he paired up with a children’s book author to write a book called “Anti-racist Baby,” a board book for young children to start thinking about racism and anti-racism. Even children as young as four or five-years-old are thinking about race, noticing race, and trying to make sense of racism. They are trying to figure out what Black Lives Matter is and what’s happening in the world. So this work can and should start far earlier than sometimes parents think.
Daren Graves: As a parent of two teenagers and one tween, a piece of advice that I would give is to find teachable moments. For example, there’s a lot of social analysis going on in social media. Sometimes, I want to run away from talking about social media with them. But when I engage in a conversation about what’s actually going on and do it from a non-judgmental perspective, I end up having these wonderful conversations about issues around race, Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, and a whole bunch of things that are happening in the world. These opportunities create really great conversations between my teens and me.
Daren Graves is Associate Professor of Social Work and Education at Simmons University.
Scott Seider is Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Psychology at the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development.