Forget the classroom for a sec.

Race and ethnicity are the hottest of all hot-button issues everywhere all the time forever. (And no, we're not forgetting about socioeconomic status and sex and gender. Click on 'em for more.)

But in the classroom, there are a few particular moments and types of scenarios when race and ethnicity can become a bigger issue than it already is:

  1. Teaching a book, historical event, or other topic that involves some troubling issues relating to race or ethnicity. Uh, how do you talk about it?
  2. Students of different racial or ethnic backgrounds have trouble seeing eye-to-eye. How do you help them share perspectives?
  3. Students of different racial or ethnic backgrounds really have trouble seeing eye-to-eye. How do you prevent a real conflict from breaking out?

We are pretty impressive people here at Shmoop, but we sure as heck can't solve all those problems. But by giving a few tips on dealing with potentially controversial situations, we hope we can help diffuse some of those conversations—or maybe even open up new ones that will help students of different backgrounds find ways to communicate. And that's just what this old melting pot needs.

  • Don't wait for difference to come up in a controversial way. Bring up cultural backgrounds and incorporate learning about each other's histories from day one. That will help students of all stripes (or polka dots—not trying to offend anyone) get to know each other as individuals. Which means that when the time comes to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird, it will be easier to focus on the issues in the book, not the elephant in the classroom.
  • Set ground rules. And be a broken record emphasizing how important they are. Whether you're talking about your students' different backgrounds and opinions or discussing immigration, it's important to have rules about how to talk about tough issues. Listen to each other; respect others' views even if you don't share them; don't make assumptions about where other people are coming from; ask your classmate to clarify or explain their view if you're not sure you get it—things like that.

    After all, it's so much easier to remind a student to take a peek at the list of rules than try to explain what's intolerant about what they're saying when they don't have a framework for thinking that way. It probably won't avert every dilemma, but it's a good start.
  • Talk about talking about race. Don't you just love when things get meta? Seriously, though, before you launch into a discussion of colonization ratios or Farewell to Manzanar, introduce the issues that might come up, and have a class discussion about why those issues can be difficult and what they have to do with our world today.

    Tolerance.org's article "Talking About Race and Racism" presents a sample discussion of the book The New Jim Crow with a central question, learning objectives, key words, and a whole lesson plan that could be adapted for other issues, too. Carefully pre-planning your discussion along these lines can help preempt a lot of questions and conflicts that might come up, and it can make for a much more meaningful learning experience for your students, too.
  • Foster a culture of inquiry and compassion. If students have a misunderstanding (or heck, if they just have a conversation, for that matter), encourage them to ask each other about their perspectives and why they might think a certain way. This might be confusing to younger kids, but you're never too young to start thinking about—and questioning—the assumptions behind a way of looking at things. This could be one of the items on that list of ground rules, by the way.
  • Why so serious? Break the ice. All that "culture of inquiry and compassion" stuff doesn't have to be one deep and dismal conversation after another. Incorporate light-hearted activities for students to get to know each other in a way that involves elements of their background (how does your family celebrate X holiday?) and aren't so likely to lead to disagreement.
  • Conflict management 101: where are you coming from? Yes, we sort of mean "where do you come from" with this. Because in conflicts that have to do with racial or ethnic tension, a lot of the time the crux of the matter is that the parties involved don't understand the other perspective, or are relying on stereotypes and assumptions instead of asking what the other person means.

    Sure, every issue is different—and difficult. You can read up on conflict resolution tips and discipline in more detail, but our main suggestion: try to get each party to cool off, say where they were coming from, and make sure that you and the students address the stereotype or issue.

    So, how to foster better interaction, even cooperation, among people who aren't used to working (or playing) together?
  • Two words: collaborative projects. Cooperative learning is used to teach students to work in teams, and research has shown that that kind of collaboration can help ease tensions and create a more positive relationship among students who otherwise didn't get along—or didn't have a reason to try. So whether there's a built-in conversation about race and ethnicity or it's totally unrelated, grouping students who may not work together can lead to eye-opening interactions and even friendships that may not blossom without the push.
  • Ready for something tougher? Incorporate conversations about race and ethnicity where you might not think they belong. Sure, it's a no-brainer if you're talking about the Civil War or reading Bless Me, Ultima. But creating opportunities to talk about difficult topics where you wouldn't necessarily expect them can help students feel more comfortable addressing those issues as issues in our society. H. Richard Milner talks about bringing race to math and science classes—with discussions of crime and the number of streetlights or distance to police stations, for example—to make the point that these discussions can be more meaningful to students than a made-up scenario. And they can spur conversations that students really want to have.
  • Plan activities to get students to look at an issue from multiple perspectives. This doesn't have to relate to questions of race and ethnicity directly. Talking about how weddings involve a scavenger hunt for the bride in Russia and take three days in parts of India can raise some eyebrows and show students very different views on something they may take for granted as a certain way. You don't have to talk about what is specific about Russian or Hindu mentalities or whether that's right or wrong (or whether right and wrong are even possible descriptors for the situation). But any time you bring in the idea that something one person sees as normal and natural might be totally bizarre to someone else—well, that's a win for tolerance and acceptance.
  • Don't stay silent just because it's easier. We totally get it—it can be daunting to bring up discussions that could potentially lead to more controversy, instead of to everyone holding hands in a circle singing kumbaya. This Tolerance.org article discusses the difficulty of talking about race—whether you're one of few non-white teachers in your school or whether you're in the majority and want to bring up racial concerns in a sensitive way. A lot of schools either tacitly or explicitly discourage discussions of race in the classroom. And if you're at one of those schools, be careful how you go about the issue. But wherever you are, helping your students see the issues surrounding race in our society, and giving them skills to discuss those issues in a caring way, is one of the best teaching successes you can have.

The issues that can come up around race and ethnicity are many, and the path to preventing or solving them is more than this list can cover. But even the first shred of understanding is a step in the right direction.

In general, when race and ethnicity become divisive, it's usually because of an inability to see things from another's perspective. By creating a community that encourages exploring others' perspectives even when there's not a conflict or controversy, you'll make it that much easier to address those toughies when they do come up.

And that means you'll be helping build not just better students, but better world citizens, too.

We know, kinda cheesy.

But when it comes to stuff like this, a side of cheese can help stick the melting pot together.