I feel a little lucky because I think I got to know Jennifer Susko before the rest of the counseling world saw her brilliance. We met through Instagram a few years ago and I realized quickly that our school counseling styles had a lot in common. And then I learned that she’s extra smart and amazing; Jennifer integrates social justice and anti-racism work into all parts of her program. Including her core curriculum. ASCA asked her to speak on it this past summer, and she just delivered a session for California’s school counselors as well. Lucky for us, she agreed to write a guest post talking more about it!
ANTI-RACISM IN SCHOOL COUNSELING
Antiracism has become quite the buzz word recently. As school counselors, though, we should have been engaging in this work all along as it is embedded in our ethical standards. Such transformational change within systems is mentioned several times in our job description and ethics according to ASCA, and that is what we need to keep at the heart of our antiracism work in our schools.
So, where do we start to ensure that our counseling services play a role in transforming oppressive systems and healing marginalized students? Well first, we have to work on ourselves. We need to increase our own understanding of racism, anti-racism, and our biases. (Note from Sara and Jennifer: We recommend Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and So You Want to Talk About Race?) Moving from theory to practice is the hardest part, but for me as a school counselor, it is also the most important element.
WHERE TO START
First , here are some steps to consider when planning to deliver anti-racist school counseling services. Lest anyone call me a hypocrite, this is not a checklist! However, I recognize that guidance is always helpful when trying something new.
- Review the standards. Look for where you see links between Teaching Tolerance Social Justice standards and ASCA’s Mindsets and Behavior standards. What social emotional skills can also easily tie in a TTSJ element to promote sociopolitical consciousness and antiracism? Note from Sara: Click here to download a (free) copy of the ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors crosswalked with the Teaching Tolerance Anchor Standards.
- One approach that has been extremely helpful to me in terms of designing antiracism classroom lessons at the elementary level and to make all this work more manageable and meaningful is starting with a unit on Identity. It lays a strong groundwork that lets your students feel safe being who they are and gives you a way to refocus students if they ever forget their role in keeping their school community anti-bias and antiracist. If you start with identity, you can always refer back to what you learned about being inclusive, accepting and loving.
- Choose a “hook” but make it justice-focused. Often you can use a great counseling lesson plan you already have on an important skill and then add in an additional social and racial justice piece that goes right along with the counseling skill and objective. It also enhances the lesson by adding in opportunities for students to use their voice about things occurring in their world, increases engagement and hopefully skill development since the information is more relevant to students’ lives than Clip Art figures. Think of the SEL/counseling skill you are teaching and brainstorm how you can use what is going on currently in the world or locally and/or an event in history where antiracism discussion would be promoted. Think of how incorporating that historical or current event can aid you in meeting objectives of M&B standards chosen and facilitating important antiracist dialogue. For example, a conflict resolution lesson could close with a discussion of the real world conflict that folks have between Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day. You get to introduce students to something important that people argue over and then give them a chance to voice their thoughts on who should be celebrated in our history while explaining the harmful erasure of Indigenous People. Another concrete example could be using Sara’s coach yourself resource on CBT and, since the graphics are sports related, opening with a discussion on what is currently going on in professional sports related to Black Lives Matter.
- Design developmentally appropriate lesson activities focused on the social and racial justice “hook”. Use research for how to address conversations about race and racism depending on level/age. Always remember to include Black beauty, joy and pride; not just struggle so that students understand their identity and develop a strong sense of self-love and empowerment. I use this chart to help guide my planning when deciding on discussion topics and books to incorporate at the elementary level.
Also really helpful are these notes from a lecture given by Louise Derman-Sparks, expert and author in anti-bias education.
Here are three more specific examples of what my lessons might look like:
SELF-TALK AND THE SELMA MARCH
Once we’ve made racial justice the foundation of the lesson through the book and discussion, we can ground ourselves in further discussion about Black history and justice as we learn vital and related SEL skills. For my unit on test and general anxiety, we read the book As Good as Anybody. Through the book, we learned about the Selma march for voting rights. The overall aim of the unit was to teach how to use self-talk when we are extremely nervous or scared about something coming up in our lives. We talked about how the marchers in Selma were not successful the first few times they tried to make it to the Capitol. We discuss what the marchers might have been thinking and saying to themselves to make themselves go back to try again even when it was so frightening. The kids start to understand what self-talk means this way. (Side note: We do make a huge distinction between marching for voting rights and the terrible things the marchers endured compared to being nervous about say, a basketball game or being in a play or taking a test. But the kids generate ideas for what they could say to themselves when they’re scared and begin to understand the overall concept of self-talk).
For our next lesson, we use Sara’s lesson about the power of our thoughts to practice changing our unhelpful thoughts to helpful thoughts. The students are engaged because they’ve been presented relevant, important content, and they then bring up the marchers as we discuss how to do helpful thinking. Then for the last lesson in the unit, we study murals created by local Atlanta artists the year the Superbowl came to our city. The murals all had to have a social justice theme. After we learned about the local BIPOC artists and their work in our very own city, I brought an art teacher in who taught the kids street lettering techniques, and they then created their own mini mural which was adhered to their desks or notebooks. The self-affirmation they painted on their mini mural would motivate them to change their unhelpful thoughts when they felt anxious or needed something to make them feel proud of themselves.
Why is this unit anti-racist?
Using this book takes an opportunity to teach a vital event in Black history that doesn’t get enough time in the curriculum for various reasons.. Further, we define injustice, so they know what it looks like and discuss some options of what to do when we encounter it, practicing the active stance of antiracism. We also discuss the difference between just laws and unjust laws and explore through a closing circle how racism does still exist today and how even young people can help fight it. We illuminate groups working now to combat it-like BLM, BYP100 and United We Dream-even though it’s scary and hard sometimes. Lastly, the unit introduces kids to incredible Black artists and their work, so we’re not only focused on Black struggle but also on Black genius, beauty and creativity in our world. This is a crucial element to include in antiracist program services so that we safeguard and foster our Black students’ self-love.
COMMUNICATION SKILLS AND ADVOCACY
Another approach that has been helpful to me in designing antiracist lessons is making sure to find others in my school and/or district who are doing racial justice work and collaborate. The link that came to my mind was to work with our Social Studies department, because the department is doing excellent Culturally Relevant work. Since learning about the three branches of government was a standard my 3rd grade students were currently learning, I knew I could collaborate with the teachers and work to help the students understand how our legislative branch makes laws. Then, I could tie that into using our voices to communicate and advocate for what is best for our community. We discussed who to communicate with about enacting racially just policies and learned about young people who got involved in advocating to make the world better
The book we used for this lesson was The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson. The book tells the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, the youngest known child to be arrested for a civil rights demonstration known as the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963. Following the read aloud and discussion, I used my collaboration with the Social Studies department to help students write and deliver a 1-minute speech on topics of importance to them. Students practiced communication, advocacy, and listening attentively to speeches. To practice those social-emotional skills further, I also arranged for my kids’ legislator, Representative Erick Allen GA D-40, to speak to them during our field trip to the Capitol about his career and the importance of getting involved. Some students raised their hands and gave 1-minute speeches to the legislator about issues they were concerned about in the community and ways they would like to see things change.
Why is this Anti-Racist?
This lesson built on what we already knew about injustice and unjust laws by getting more into what we might do if a law or policy leads to racism/injustice in the world. This is where we practice “asserting ourselves if necessary” which is part of the M&B standards of this lesson. When might that apply differently to a kid who isn’t white? They may need to assert themselves when they experience discrimination to preserve their positive racial identity and not experience harm. Sometimes we need to teach them to assert themselves instead of control themselves. This lesson teaches students how to assert themselves diplomatically while boldly challenging unjust policies through their speeches.
Sara’s Upstander lesson is also excellent to use when designing antiracist curriculum. Students need to recognize that racism occurring in schools is (sometimes) a time to stand up for people and speak out when someone is hurting others (or get help if it is not safe). When I teach her Upstander lesson, I add in the children’s book, The Name Jar. It leads to an excellent discussion of anti-Asian racism and gives us opportunities to practice how we could stand up and speak out for someone like the main character in the book when we witness racism, bias or discrimination.
From this lesson, I developed a small group. Many of my undocumented students from Central America commented frequently throughout the lesson that they felt they did not belong in school like the main character since they were also victims of discriminatory comments from classmates like, “go back where you came from.” Their informal commentary from that classroom lesson indicated to me that I should conduct a needs assessment to determine how many of my students were suffering in this way. Based on the results, I designed a small group for affected students called Chicas Poderosas (Powerful Girls). We spent our time building confidence and pride in their cultural identity and role playing how to combat discrimination. I was grateful that my classroom lesson led to meeting more specific needs of my students, and I would not have known that struggle of theirs if I had not focused on antiracism-oriented lessons.
WHEW! So. Many. Good. Ideas. One of the things that jumps out at me most is how many conversations likely came up in these lessons that wouldn’t have otherwise – conversations that really needed to happen. Thank you, thank you to Jennifer for taking the time to share her knowledge with all of us!