Scholars and Citizens of First Grade

As I travel across the country offering workshops on race and equity in education, invariably I am asked, “How can I deal with challenging students.” Generally the person asking the question is referring to African American male students. The perception of African American male as troublemaker has a long history in this country and the more I learn about it, I am better equipped to understand teachers’ earnest questions about behavior and Black males and to work with them in making a difference. Here are some of the immediate steps I suggest we can take to ensure that African American students have a positive learning experience in their classrooms.

The first step is to remind ourselves that the negative behavior of a student on a given day is not the only story about that student, as Chimamanda Adichie explains in her talk, The Danger of a Single Story.

The second step is to be on the look-out for when that student is engaging in positive behavior both as a student and a citizen in the class. Sometimes when students have reputations of being  troublemakers, we have difficulty in noticing when they are participating in wholesome ways with their peers on the playground and offering thoughtful answers in classrooms. An adult who was out on yard duty one day said to me “I have to watch who I am watching when I’m out here. Who I’m watching will depend on who I see and what I notice.”

Our third step is to record, preferably on video, moments when those students are doing well in a variety of settings: composing letters on their computers or helping a younger student to develop a skill. This list could go on. We must be on the lookout for these moments.

The fourth step is to post  pictures of these students around the classroom so that these images become part of the environment on a permanent basis. They also become inspirations and scaffolds for those students whose behavior can be challenging.

The first grade classroom, in which we first implemented this through the professional development program, “Putting Race on the Table: Working Multiculturally,” has become an exciting place to visit. The teacher reported that the first change she noticed was in herself. When she started to look for positive features in the behavior of the African American boy she found most challenging, she began to see him as a different person. She began to feel differently about him.

She tells me that this youngster still has his days, but more often than not he is doing well as a scholar and citizen of her first grade class. The teacher also recalled that recently she happened to look up and see this particular student, who was waiting for his Mom to pick him up at the end of the day, staring at a picture of himself engrossed in reading one of his favorite books.  She heard him say, “I think I’ll get started on my homework now. Why wait?”   

Good question! Why wait?