Honoring the brilliance of students of color and American Indian students on Day 1 and throughout the year

At this start of this school year, we know we couldn’t approach our “Back to School” message as business as usual. To all of the teachers, school administrators, and students and families —We are hurting, too. 

We are hurt by the negative messages about immigrant students, Black students, families of color, on and on….It doesn’t matter if these words of hate or racist attacks come from top leaders in our government or a student’s ignorant words in the classroom or a white teacher’s implicit bias;  if our aim is to build school communities of belonging and inclusion, the entire context is toxic, and it’s hurting our students.

That’s why we are offering something different: the counter-narrative to honor, lift up, and celebrate our students.

As you begin this new school year as an educator, administrator, parent, or community member, these important resources and tools can help you celebrate and honor students of color and American Indian students in the classroom on Day 1 and throughout the year.

1. Sharing counter narratives is essential.

At MnEEP, we offer an unapologetic reminder of the brilliance and resilience of our students of color and American Indian students and communities, because we can only counter hateful rhetoric and racism by lifting up our students’ worth, dignity, and brilliance and sharing those narratives with one another. 

This new narrative is about the Mexican immigrant or Somali immigrant or Southeast Asian refugee student not “lacking English skills” but instead bringing cultural assets and native language skills to the classroom with their peers.  This counter-narrative stresses that Black students bring top skills and energy to their school communities —to be included with dignity rather than unjustly suspended and/or excluded.

The rich history and backgrounds of American Indian students expand how we think about this country’s original people and what it means to honor indigenous lands, languages, and cultures. Asian American students are not one monolithic community, but come to the classroom with rich and diverse experiences, whether as a fourth-generation Japanese American born in the United States, a Chinese or Korean adoptee who grew up in Greater Minnesota, or a recent refugee escaping oppression from Burma.

2. Everyone belongs in our school classrooms—and this leads to more learning.  

We learn new things and new ideas in community with one another. Linguistic, racial, and religious diversity only makes that learning more expansive, taking students to new heights every day. Knowledge gained by diverse and inclusive classrooms is about collective liberation. The more we assert as educators that we “learn better” with one another, the more those messages are heard by students, families, and even the political candidates running for school board or national office.

These messages create a new civic compact to build a stronger community and healing for racial justice.

3. Race equity action is about our individual actions within systems change.

At MnEEP, we talk a lot about systems change, processes for collective Equity Plans, and policy changes. We urge you to also think about your own language and counter-narrative dialogue in these historic times. Large systems change must rely on the participants and community members to shift and use counter-narratives in their journey in education. 

4. Teachers can be change makers and justice heroes.

Dear Teachers, from Dr. Rose Chu: Thank you for choosing one of the most important and noble professions—even when the profession continues to experience a “reputation” problem, where the public narrative often revolves around everything that is wrong about it. Yet we know day in and day out, teachers get up in the morning and embark on the most amazing journey to bring out the brilliance in every student, and help every student realize their hopes and dreams. 

Sure, we are humans, we make mistakes; we may even unintentionally do emotional harm to a student because of our own biases and ignorance about systematic barriers and historical trauma that some of our students and families endure for generations. Yet we must build our own power and agency to take command of our profession, and continue to hone our craft and aspire to be culturally responsive to our students in all matters of teaching and learning. 

Teachers are change makers, nation builders, and justice heroes. Regardless of all the “stuff” that gets dumped on us, we have the power to make a lasting imprint on every student who is in front of us. Despite the brokenness experienced all around us, we can and must find the hope in the struggle to envision a better world our students can see and build with our support.

Hence, it is unrealistic to avoid the topic of race with our students if we are committed to the vision of a different future. Though is a difficult subject, we don’t need to feel alone in facing the challenge. 

The following educator resources help us exercise our muscles in being comfortable with the uncomfortable—both to expand our own knowledge and skills about race and racism, and to design learning opportunities for all students to be critical thinkers about the past in order to reimagine a different future for themselves and their communities.

TeachPlus: https://teachplus.org/news-events/publications/tools-and-resources-teaching-about-race-history-and-other-issues-related

The Anti-Defamation League: https://www.adl.org/education/resources/tools-and-strategies/teaching-about-racism-violence-inequity-and-the-criminal

Facing History: www.facinghistory.org/educator-resources

Teaching Tolerance: www.tolerance.org/topics/race-ethnicity

If you come across other great resources, please share at rchu@mneep.org

5. We must act in unison to build belonging.   

To Our Fellow Educators, from Dr. Jon Peterson: Our purpose, dare I say our “oath,” as educators is to support the growth and healthy development of young people into adults who can acquire the knowledge, and more importantly the wisdom, to meaningfully engage in civic life and continue creating a more civil society here and abroad.

The cornerstone of any healthy democracy, and the future of our representative form of government and way of life, situates itself in the hands of our children and at the collective feet of the adults that are teaching and learning with them each day in our schools. We need to maintain focus on our children, keep them safe, and support their learning.

In that spirit, our student learners and especially our POCI student learners and their families, need to know that they belong in our schools and in our communities. 

We educators must remain steadfast in our purpose in creating communities of belonging where all students, from all backgrounds and walks of life, are validated and affirmed, both in the language that we use and the relational practices that we in engage in with them and each other.

In these challenging times of hate-filled rhetoric and xenophobic behaviors, the voices of our POCI students, their families, and our Black, Brown, Native, Indigenous, American Indian, Asian, LatinX, LGBTQ, and White community members and accomplices in the racial justice movement, must be accounted for in increasingly self-determined and intentional ways. We need to work together to create the conditions that support all children being safe, all children learning, and all children belonging. 

Below are questions that may be used with your students and by your students to help engender meaningful dialogue in your classroom, and help build a greater sense of belonging in your classroom, school, and/or community.   

  1. What are all of the problems that you see going on in your school, your community, and/or your world?
  2. What is the number one problem you see going on in your school, your community, and/or your world?
  3. What you have you tried, if anything, to address the number one problem?
  4. Have any of your efforts to address the number one problem shown any promise?
  5. Have any patterns emerged as a result of you trying to address the number one problem?
  6. Imagine that, tonight, the number one problem went away.  What would tomorrow look like for you, your school, your community, and/or your world?

The future or our democratic way of life depends upon our capacity to accomplish this task as educators and it is ethical and just thing to do. We are in this together and need to act in unison so that all know, that all of our children belong. We must walk with children this school year in community —centering their talents, joy, and racial justice to create a better world.

 “There is a relationship between the joy essential to teaching activity and hope. Hope is something shared between teachers and students.  The hope that we can learn together, teach together, be curiously impatient together, produce something together, and resist together the obstacles that prevent the flowering of our joy. In truth, from the point of view of the human condition, hope is an essential component and not an intruder.” Paolo Freire, Brazilian educator and philosopher.


MnEEP uses a race equity lens to transform school communities. We have 5 Big Bold Goals to address race equity and leadership, school climate, teacher diversity, English language learners, and college completion. To sign up for our e-alerts, please email us at info@mneep.org.

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