In part 5 of this 5-part interview series on the professional development blog PLTogether, education expert Nina Gilbert discusses the importance of teaching social justice and provides some insight into how to do so in her interview with Edthena founder Adam Geller.

Here is the transcript of that interview:

– Welcome to PLtogether Lounge Talk. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena. The video observation platform for streamlining feedback to teachers. Today, we’re talking with Nina Gilbert. She’s a former classroom teacher, former school launcher I guess I’ll say she launched a network of schools and now she’s the director of the Center for Excellence and Education and Morehouse College. Nina, thanks so much for joining us. Thank you for having me, Adam. So I want to kind of dive in here about one of the topics that’s folks’ mind. I think of it as on the front burner, instead of the back burner, which is kind of the topics of race and equity, which are always important as educators but how those are interconnected with what we’re seeing in the news. So I guess let’s remind ourselves how have things shifted for educators compared to a year ago when it comes to topics of race and equity and I guess maybe the choice of whether or not we’re even gonna be talking about this within our classrooms.

– So I don’t know if it’s shifted as much as it’s been magnified. I think topics that were once considered to be taboo, are talked about so frequently and freely on the news on even comedy skits of anyone watches Saturday Night Live or some other late night talk shows, race and politics are now just material for comics, right? And so there’s no escaping it. It’s front and center and most social media posts. So of course, to come into the school or the classroom and think that that’s not top of mind for students and teachers, we would be fooling ourselves if we think that that was the case. So I don’t think it’s shifted. I do think it’s not even the elephant in the room but it’s a herd of elephants in a very small room.

– I like the redirect you did there on my word shifted, you said magnified. Because I think shifted allows for some interpretation for somebody coming into it, to convince themselves that it wasn’t important before and now it’s important. And I think magnified, it says it was important. And we turned up the volume on how much we’re paying attention to it. So as teachers are thinking about how that’s going to play out in their classrooms, as school leaders are thinking about how they want to kind of shape what that learning looks like. I mean one thing that people might be thinking about is I need to talk about race from the lens of what we’re seeing in the news. And certainly that’s one angle, but I’m curious from your perspective, are there other ways that we could be engaging students on issues of race and equity that maybe are more generative for them or feel more productive for them or feel more within their locus of control?

– Yeah. This is hard, right? It’s really hard because if we go back to the the terminology around shifting versus magnifying the shift feels like, okay I guess we’ll talk about race now. And I do think that that’s how some people feel. And there’s this performance and this dance that I see often where not just schools but organizations, ed reform organizations are notorious for this, putting out this statement about all lives mattering. And we stand behind law enforcement but we also stand behind our sisters and brothers of color. Like, that’s a statement how do you operationalize your commitment? And I think, unless we are committed to listening like truly listening to people whether they are white police officers, or African-American males who feel targeted or mothers of color who are terrified every time their male son leaves home or school or work or their husbands or brothers. Until we have this commitment to listening to all sides I hate even using that terminology, but listening to all sides, all perspectives, all lived experiences. We’re not going to make any progress or the type of progress that we need because the schools will still be very polarizing places because adults who lead the schools and who teach in the schools, we’ve not been able to model what that conversation should look like and we’ve not had it modeled for us. So I don’t have an answer, but I love storytelling. I love giving students an opportunity to use journals to use art, use various ways to express themselves, their fears. I do think trauma informed teaching strategies and practices are important and not just around these racial issues, but even for students who have experienced other types of trauma during COVID, previous to COVID who were been assaulted or or abused in some way, or lost a parent. If we don’t give students an outlet, a way to express some of what they’re feeling they’re experiencing, it just bubbles up and explodes. And that’s when we see increased disciplinary problems, we see students who disengage from the learning process, teachers who have a very low tolerance and don’t know how to support a student who may have all of these issues that are related to trauma, are related to living in, I guess, the shadows of the systemic and pervasive racism and poverty. Like what does that look like? How does that show up? And then the divisive rhetoric we hear from our local state and national leaders, regardless of their party. Schools are a great place to start the healing. But without a curriculum, without a mandate, it’s not going to happen. We just continue with our standards-based instruction and testing when students are not even socially emotionally able to engage in learning, because there are so many other unmet needs that are non-academic.

– I’m reflecting on what you just shared. And I think there are two important buckets. I mean, one was the kind of really important support structures, making those available for students to process and deal with trauma and hurt and pain. Absolutely important. I think the other thing which struck me and that you pointed out was the feeling that some educators might have that it’s the performative conversation about race or the performative lesson. And so that feels like maybe a response to what’s happening right now. And I’m wondering if maybe is there an opportunity for us to do some work to kind of redirect that energy and attention into the broader conversation of social justice? I mean, how can social justice be part of what we’re teaching? So it’s not the kind of lightening rod style conversations that could result in classrooms which could be delicate or challenging to navigate without training. How can we redirect our energy as educators to focus on this question of social justice and motivate our students to learn about that and making the world a better place so to say?

– And so I think it’s around like defining what that means. And making sure the definition is really clear for all parties. So take social out of it. Like what does justice mean? So justice could mean that if I lived in a particular town in Michigan and my water is brown, but I lived 10 miles away in another town in Michigan and my water looks like it came from a place called Crystal Springs. That’s an issue of justice. Or some communities have cell towers and they cause cancer supposedly. And in other communities they don’t, or like if we take this social justice framework and approach and apply it to even like environmental justice like I think we all know that we all benefit from a cleaner planet. We all benefit when we pay attention to climate change. We all benefit when we have healthy food. So if we can help students, regardless of their race their political preference or those of their families, see in what ways are we all the beneficiaries when things are better and what would make that better? It kind of, I think take some of the vitriol out of the conversation around race because I don’t think that people see the conversation around race as being one that heals it’s one that points fingers that some people have been enabled. Other people have privilege. Other people consider themselves allies to people who can’t defend themselves. And so unless there is some training, and I don’t know who is properly equipped to do that training, I will say as a woman of color, I have experienced being in rooms where we’re talking about race diversity and inclusion and equity. And my voice has been muted. Like not that I muted it myself, but the other people in the room who did not look like me but considered themselves as experts on race, muted my voice. So it’s really hard for people of color sometimes to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, because we’re not consulted. But if we can talk about social justice in a broader way where we talk about making this planet a better place for all of us to live, I think that’s a great place to start especially when you’re talking about young learners. And as we develop conversations around more complex issues around equity and equality, which I think are two different things. Equity, equality, race, politics like I think that requires a different level of discourse and preparation.

– I was worried that I may have created like a, especially as interviewer here but I’m a white male. Like I wanted to make sure that I didn’t create like an opportunity for someone to misdirect or not tackle race by saying it was okay to talk about social justice instead. They’re related, but not the same things. And I’m still worried about that a little bit for someone that’s the watching this but what I think feels really strong to me and what you just shared was that, that kind of idea of orienting around something that can be more uniting as a pathway to all these other topics. It hasn’t taken away from the importance of dealing with any of those really challenging conversations. We do need to continue to have at all different age levels but rather than feeling dug in, and like you said, pointing fingers, it allows us at least to start taking steps in a direction. It’s not even about the right direction. It’s in a direction that we are agreeing upon. We should be heading to somewhere together. And so maybe that’s why talking about social justice in the classroom can be, again, not a substitute, but an opportunity for educators to feel like they can wrap their hands around that with their students, in the context of their community without also needing to have simultaneously like you said before, talk about all the elephants in the room that are definitely there.

– And it’s not gonna get accomplished in a nine week grading period. We’re talking about over 400 years of just, yes. And there are so many different perspectives. There’s some historically inaccurate teaching that has to be undone and unlearned that’s another whole thing. So when I think about culturally responsive teaching and making sure that we are being responsive to all of the students that we’re responsible for, understanding what it means when you’re talking to a student who’s indigenous heritage. And we’re talking about it’s Thanksgiving time and we’re going to talk about Christopher Columbus and the Indians. That’s what I learned in school growing up. Like we made turkeys with our hands and feathers and put it on our hats. And we talked about Thanksgiving in a way that made sense to us and aligned with my third grade and fourth grade textbook. But knowing that we now have a multicultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic student population especially where I live, those stories don’t align with the stories and the truths of those students who may come from an indigenous or native background. And until we are ready to grapple with that, and understand that it’s why it’s not okay to suspend the student who says, “My daddy told me Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America.” And that student not be suspended for gross disrespect. I’ve seen that happen. Like that’s what culturally responsive teaching is. Like being responsive to all of the cultures and backgrounds of everyone that you’re responsible for.

– Well, Nina, we are about out of time. So I wanna keep talking about this topic but we’re about out of time. So I wanna make sure we save a minute here for asking you our extra credit question before we wrap up. And that question is what’s something that’s changed for you personally or professionally that you hope will continue even when life goes back to normal pre pandemic normal, whatever that is, what’s something positive that’s happened that you hope will sustain?

– I would say, looking for multiple ways to engage with students. I find myself checking in with students via text now. I Zoom, I call, I send emails. I’ve arranged to meet students for lunch. We’re socially distant and all of that. But looking for ways to stay engaged because there were so much we took for granted prior to this. And so I’m always thinking about how to make learning experiences better, more rewarding, and more enriching for students. And I think that while COVID has been horrific is also required us to innovate and think differently about how we continue to make learning stick for our students and kind of deepen our relationships with the folks we care the most about.

– Great to hear. Awesome to hear about the… You’re able to bring more of yourself to the teaching it sounds like and kind of all the different ways to support students. Well, Nina Gilbert, it’s been great talking with you. Thanks for being part of our conversations. If you’re just joining us and wondering what we talked about before this, or who else I’ve talked to as part of PLtogether, head to for the rest of this conversation as well as many more. Nina Gilbert, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thank you, it’s a pleasure.