April 4th, 2012
07:01 AM ET

My View: How to bridge racial differences in the classroom

Courtesy Matt Manson

By Dan Brown, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note: Dan Brown is the author of “The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle,” a memoir of his first year teaching in the Bronx. He now teaches English at a charter school in Washington and blogs on education at TransformEd. Dan Brown did not write “The Da Vinci Code,” and he is OK with that. Follow him on Twitter @danbrownteacherTune in to AC360 at 8 and 10 p.m. ET for the special series "Kids on Race: The Hidden Picture”.

I’m white; 99% of my students are black. There are many other classrooms like mine across the country. According to the most recent census data, 84% of teachers in America are white and around 45% of students are not.

My students and I are coming from different places. I grew up in an affluent Philadelphia suburb; most of my students, born and raised in Washington, qualify for free or reduced meals. Both of my parents hold postgraduate degrees; many of my students, growing up in single-parent homes, are attempting to be the first in their families to complete college.

How do I bridge this gap between my students and me?

My high school English classroom in Southeast Washington is a place where my students and I investigate the concept of identity. Since race is a part of our identity, we explore it.

Ground rules

We must trust each other before a substantive exploration of anything can take place. I initiate a discussion about our expectations for each other, and then I make these commitments:

- I will do everything I can to build a respectful and safe classroom environment for intellectual curiosity and exploration of many topics, including deeply personal ones such as race.

- You can ask me anything. Also, I invite you to respectfully disagree with or thoughtfully challenge anything I say, especially on sensitive subjects.

- Our class will feature analytical discussions regularly and everyone will have opportunities to voice their thoughts aloud and in writing. I care about your ideas. We can all learn from each other.

- I’ll never say the n-word, even when it’s printed in a text. When we do encounter the n-word or other slurs, we can engage in honest discussions about the power of language.

Many voices

A curriculum featuring voices from the same race as the students is indispensable.

As a student teacher in the Bronx, where more than half of my students were Hispanic, I led a unit on Ernesto Quiňonez’s novel “Bodega Dreams.” One of my students, a Puerto Rican girl named Maribel, sent me a note telling me this was the first time she’d ever been assigned a book by a Puerto Rican author or featuring Puerto Rican main characters, and reading this book in class meant everything to her. Maribel’s participation and quality of work soared.

As a student, I’d been assigned so many books by white authors that it had never even occurred to me that someone could go through school without reading a single book in the voice of someone of my race. The effect of that glaring absence is a mindset of exclusion, of being locked outside the ivory gates of scholarship - exactly the opposite for which teachers aim.

In my class of African-American students, we examine a diverse range of legends such as Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, and we also wrestle with more contemporary black writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Octavia Butler. No race is monolithic, so a range of voices and genres is crucial. The eloquence in the diverse texts inspires great discussions and deepens our worldviews. In these texts, my students encounter people who look like them and who are giants.

It’s important that my class does not study African-American voices exclusively.

Diversity is enriching, and since we don’t have ethnic diversity in our de facto segregated student body, we can manufacture it to an extent with the curriculum.

When black students identify with Junior, the American Indian protagonist from Sherman Alexie’s brilliant “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (and they always do - that book is golden), the scope of their worldview expands. When they read Harper Lee, Khaled Hosseini and Shakespeare, they grapple powerfully with the universality of their journeys to adulthood.

Literature is a potent lens through which we can examine race and identity. Many of the differences that may initially define my students and me melt away with time, trust, and great books.

The limits

Book learning only goes so far.

Learners benefit profoundly from diversity, which means not having only white teachers every year. Also, 84% of all teachers are women, so there is a real chance that students might move through school exposed solely to white female teachers. If that is the case, something crucial is missing.

Students of color, especially ones aiming to be the first-generation college grads, need to interact daily with people like themselves who have walked the same road, and achieved success.

If I can contribute to building up my students for college graduation, they can be much-needed authentic role models for the next generation of kids from Southeast D.C. and elsewhere. Maybe they will even curb the persistent teacher gap. Each success is a chip away from the social millstone of segregation, and that’s a win for everyone.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Brown.

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Filed under: Curriculum • Practice • Voices
soundoff (63 Responses)
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  6. Jonquil

    Kids need to experience literature that doesn't just examine "The Human Experience" solely in a social or cultural/sub-cultural and urban context. We are joined by our utter dependency on this planet and this dependency is something that joins all "teams" or groups together, regardless of their respective, cultural experiences.

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    April 9, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  7. danielwalldammit

    I think it might be interesting to see a response or two from minority students discussing how they feel about teachers of different ethnicity.

    April 8, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  8. jon

    Racial differences in the classroom begin at home. Having a single teen mom and an absent baby daddy does not prepare you well for school

    April 8, 2012 at 2:42 am |
  9. Josie Behnke

    This sounds like my english class in college, and yes we have covered a diverse range of authors, reading poems, short stories from different times, races, countries and some are not easy but all have good messages. I give this teacher props, with the teaching style maybe some of the students might have a chance in college.

    April 7, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  10. government cheese

    Liberals (schools) and media promote racism to further their political causes with shutting down debate by playing the race card.

    April 7, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • 60 year old man

      More money and less qualified teachers. As we all know blacks are dumber than the other races.

      April 7, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
      • Skip Turner

        You sir are an IDIOT!

        April 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • cuban4life

      you arguement that liberals promote racism to further their agenda is right wing consipiracy obsurdities you obiviously are a racist sir it isnt about that at all its saying the demographics are diffrent and hes trying to answer the question of how do i bridge the gap of my life experiences to theirs
      "those who are willing to believe obsurdities are willing to commit atrocities"

      April 9, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  11. Opie

    Mr. Brown, while I appreciate your article, I think it truly lacks perspective. I've taught "disadvantaged" American students in the past and I presently teach students in Aceh province of Indonesia. All of my students are Acehnese, they're all Muslim, and they all come from a developing country with standards of living far below almost any of the students you teach. For example, running water is a luxury here. I don't even have running water, I use a well and I'm a well paid foreigner.

    My students, however, are excellent. They are taking advanced maths and sciences that most American high school graduates cannot do. They all speak English, in addition to Arabic, Indonesian and Acehnese.

    Why do they perform so well? They inculcate respect in their culture. I am an honored teacher, not some clown hired to babysit a pack of brats. Their parents are almost always still together, divorce is extremely uncommon here. None were born out of wedlock.

    The problem is not a matter of "reaching" the kids, but the society in which they are raised. These kids I teach were born during a civil war and have lived through a tsunami that killed 200,000 people. By all rights, they should be a pack of monsters.

    Instead, they are somewhat sheltered. They're generally very innocent, they're not making babies and they're not doing drugs. It's the culture here, it's cohesive.

    That's America's problem and the whole reason why America's schools are failing. The material just isn't challenging enough, the students don't have enough school and quite frankly American students are disrespectful.

    April 6, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
    • TheMendicantBias

      Good comment. As a tenured prof ad UCSD, I could not agree more.

      April 7, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • Babs

      He's trying to do the best for his class, not change his country's culture. You can't even find the right direction to face, let alone tell someone he's doing his job wrong.

      April 7, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Gala

      Somehow, i agree with you sir. It's all about respect.

      April 12, 2012 at 12:42 am |
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  14. ms ella

    here we go again america is a filiting pot for hate a teacher job is too teach in dealing with some of these kids who parents are just that in name that dont care im black a women in live with this hate we not going nowhere our kids are not going nowhere so get over it black or white just teach .

    April 4, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  15. India Berlin

    Good to hear there are people in the profession who care about their students and make effort to offer a diverse curriculum. As someone of mixed race who looks white, I never felt connected in school because it was a one size fits all approach–we had little counseling. The only students who took A.P. courses were those with at least one parent with a degree; those of us who got into trouble on occasion or didn't participate in sports and have stellar grades, and didn't have involved parents were just left to fend for ourselves.

    Now I'm a public high school teacher and have taught in many different kinds of public schools. It is dang difficult to work in a school when 98% of your students are on Free/reduced lunch, have absent parents, have zero back up from parents, etc. Education begins at home, beginning with manners and responsibility. I've been able to connect with many kids because I struggled greatly in college–had to take remedial h.s. courses, had to work full time while studying full time, and took nearly six years to graduate. However, one determining factor for me was that I was always encouraged in my art throughout school, which made a huge difference. My love of languages, art, and history along with my annoyance with having to go to work at fourteen drove me to succeed. I explain these things to my students, and have a few each year explain how grateful they are to have been able to hear the truth about just how much work it is to really end up doing a job one loves or to be able to travel the world; some have told me they find it amusing that I told them I wasn't going to lie and tell them things were going to get easier as adults.

    What it boils down to is young people need to have consistency in their lives because many do not get it at home, nor from peers. Educators have a heck of a time trying to show students how to find their voices and their way by learning to ask the right questions. It is simultaneously fulfilling and draining–many in the general public like to criticize educators because of their own shortcomings and myopia. Often times people cannot fathom how draining it is to have 100-150 kids each day who all need a lot more positive attention than they currently receive. If everyone could work together as a team or as a village, we'd have far fewer problems in society today.

    I recently read it costs about 50K for each prisoner per year; lack of education costs the U.S. in numerous ways from outsourcing to welfare; and mostly instead of offering solutions, people prefer to argue politics instead of creating solutions.

    On another note...
    It's also interesting that if 84% of all teachers are women...makes one wonder why the pay has remained so incredibly low, it's in vogue to teacher bash, people complain of 'greedy' teachers and parachute pension plans (yeah right–we pay into the system and are ineligible for SS even though many pay into SS via second jobs, are cheated out of SS for a deceased spouse, etc.) and many are anti-union, Makes for some valid questioning as to why teacher morale is at an all time historic low.

    April 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  16. rokon

    Ground rule: " We must trust each other before a substantive exploration of anything can take place." If this is the ground rule then you already achieved the goal.
    In fact the goal should be to find a way so that both black and white trust each other.

    April 4, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  17. robcosystems

    What if race was ignored completely? What if skin tone simply became a way to describe the recognizable difference between two 20 year old men named John? As long as we continue to make race an issue it will self-perpetuate. As long as 'whites' continue to deliberately teach their children and peers that the magnitude of melanin in the skin is a valid measurement of character and capability; and as long as 'blacks' continue to teach their children and peers that they are betrodden and culturally superior to everyone else, then the perception will be the reality for each group. Let's get rid of groups. We complain about the police and government profiling us, but the truth is we profile each other all the time.

    April 4, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • stoneyfromnc

      as long as the black community continues to use welfare and violence the way they do; nothing will change. too many of them are disgraceful americans and bring down the entire race. that tends to happen... when such a big percentage falls into a "type" then i would say it is not stereotyping.

      April 7, 2012 at 7:31 am |
      • Kimberly

        Are you an educator? Is this your opinion or do have facts to back up your assertion regarding your perception of the black community? 80% of my family hold college degrees. They are bankers, tenured professors, firefighters, civil engineers,police officers, engineers, builders and contractors, lawyers, corporate directors, a state senator and a federal judge, and a few teachers. This is just within my family who are black. Perhaps your view of a "black community" is a bit limited.

        April 9, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
  18. ytuque

    The students are being poorly served by a white teacher who thinks because of their dark skin they need to be propped up with black and Hispanic American writers. The white and asian kids are getting Shakespeare.

    April 4, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • mema

      Ytuque apparently you can not read, they are reading Shakespeare as well. Why is it that when someone can come up with an approach that can possibly be a learning tool people like you want to talk it down? Perhaps you feel they should focus only on white authors and not have a more diverse cirriculum. Its most refreshing to see a teacher taking such a personal interest in his students. Teachers can have such a profound effect on our children.

      April 4, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • Bridget

      Your comments are beyond ignorant. Don't post unless you have something meaningful to contribute. How do you know what is being taught in which classes? Dan Brown should be commended for using Hispanic and African American authors in his classroom.

      April 6, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Dennn

      I think you have totally missed his point and have only seen it from a persepective of inequality. If the student isn't interested in the subject and therefore doesn't read the assignment at all, what does it matter if they're reading Proust or the Sunday comics? If there is no interest, there is no participation and no learning. If they can identify with the subject matter they might actually learn and then they can read the classics in college if that's where their coursework takes them.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  19. tina

    found this to be very interesting. I wish That there were more teachers like this out in the country. I live in a small country town and my stepson is looks white but is actually mix. He has grown up not really knowing what racism is, The teachers out there will make a racist comment and then say"I'm just joking". He didnt understand why i would get so upset when he would tell me the racist comments a teacher or classmate would say. He is under the belief that everyone thinks that way.There are some things that i find offensive that they say. I myself am multicultral. I have grown up in bigger cities and have seen first hand racism. Teachers are suppose to be key word there suppose to bias, teach equality. I wish there was a way that teachers once a year or every other year have to take a sinsitvity course or a course on diversity in the classroom.

    April 4, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  20. yourcreditissues

    Reblogged this on Yourcreditissues's Blog.

    April 4, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  21. The truther

    There is radical differences because of religion. If all those kids became atheists, there wouldn't be any radical differences.

    End religion, end radical differences

    April 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • mema

      Why are athiest so hatefull? When you make radical comments such as this it only serves to show how ignorant and inappropriate athiest are. You attempt to turn an otherwise wonderful story into a platform for your mindless propaganda.

      April 4, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
      • Maya

        And stereotyping all atheists as hateful isn't mindless propaganda? What was that Jesus said about casting the first stone?

        April 4, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
      • some guy

        @maya, why are you atheists quoting jesus? i thought you didn't believe in him

        April 5, 2012 at 1:06 am |
  22. James Landrum

    Interesting article from a young teacher (don't know how many years he as been at it, or what other experience he has other than this one class). It is an English class, though, again, we don't know what grade. I would hope that in addition to reading that he's focusing on helping his students learn to write and communicate their thoughts clearly and effectively. And I liked the comments by Ms. Vargas, they were thoughtful and clearly communicated, certainly better written than some of the folks that are calling her out.

    April 4, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Maya

      Didn't you hear? If you tell someone that they should use correct grammar and spelling, you are an elitist. If you tell that to an African-American, you're a racist.

      April 4, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  23. Emme

    I have read the article and comprehend the point being made. But by giving us your personal background it has the earmarkings of the great white hope saves the inner city youth. I know plenty of African Americans who also are from affluent post graduate single and two parent homes. We play water polo, attend the Met, travel extensively and give of our time to causes such as the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. If you are so concerned with your students interacting with academia that is representative of them why not plan a field trip to a Howard University or another HBCU

    April 4, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • yourcreditissues

      I think you get good teachers from every background, not just black teachers for black students. I think, Emme, you reveal some of your inherent SE Washington racism against white people with your comment, more than you help anybody. Get ready to accept us all, not just black ones. We are all here and trying our best, the most of us anyway. You will be better off if you see goodness where you can find it, not just according to color, Emme. The world is now so dark and full of evil. If you find somebody doing a good job in a classroom, praise God and the teacher, and keep on trying to rid yourself of your own inherent hatred of white people, so common in SE DC. Wes from Ca.

      April 4, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  24. DEEDEE

    i went to an art school and i had this really cool teacher – Mrs. Horne. No one was written up in her class and the administrators would ask us why. and we would say she makes it fun, but you learn. She introduced us to authors from all over the world. and when 9/11 happened she specifically taught us about authors from the middle east so we would not develop a prejudice against a whole group of people and see the beauty in all. she told us that studies show that most adults can only pay attention for 15 min and then they start to wane. So she would switch things up when she saw our attention waning. That seems like a small thing, but i have had teachers that saw half the class asleep and kept on their boring speech.

    April 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  25. Gimme some

    Yeah, while we are trying to teach diversity in a touchy-feely warm fuzzy atmosphere created inside a classroom, kids around the world are excelling in math, sciences, and computer technology and leaving our kids in the dust.

    April 4, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  26. Heidi

    As a future teacher, I have already collected or purchased books for children of many ethnic backgrounds. It is my opinion that ALL children, should be taught from the diverse authors and teachers. These books tell of people that are Asian, African-American, Latino, Native American, African, etc.
    It is very sad that Americans seem to be the only group (as a whole) that does not have knowledge of what is happening in the rest of the world. No wonder foreigners look at Americans with contempt and disdain for refusing to try to know about someone else.
    Hooray for the author of this blog!!! When I complete my M.Ed. degree, I hope to teach diversity in any school.
    p.s. I am African-American, from a single-parent family, and the first to complete college.

    April 4, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  27. Samantha Vargas

    I believe that most of this article is completely unrealistic- I do not think that coming from a certain racial group will affect you in the educational situation you are describing. I qualify for free and reduced meals, if I go to college I would be the first in my family to go, I am Hispanic, I am female and I am a Gifted and Talented Student. My teachers do not need to go out of their way to change the curriculum to help me relate my background relation to a subject is not based on diversity or culture it is based on interest and drive of a student. You can set so many different students from different backgrounds next to each other only half of them would be interested if you taught them about their heritage instead of contemporary American culture. Reading a book made by a Hispanic Author or with a Hispanic Character is no different than reading Huck Finn to me, yes I can say I eat that too when the character is eating posole, but that does not make me relatable to that character or want to read it more. My favorite book is " The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien- I do not base my favoritism of it on his background as a white child growing up in Minnesota – but the diction and styling he uses to describe the Vietnam War. Most of my teachers are white, yes, but I do not learn better from a teacher who is Hispanic or a teacher who teaches in a way that connects to my culture, I learn based solely on their teaching ability if they draw my attention. I believe the "Racial Gap" in American Education on this particular subject has been closed as we entered the new millennium- now children face the problem of if they can afford that education they strive for and teachers how to combat the media's corruptive influence on their student's interest. I may change this opinion later- but right now I believe that this is not an issue.

    April 4, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Tim

      Good for you, Samantha Vargas. I suggest you read this ariticle over and over again. Based on what you've written, you completely missed his point!

      April 4, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
      • PRW

        Right on Tim...

        April 4, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
      • runnerinaugust

        Tim, I totally with you on your response to Ms. Vargas. She totally missed the point, and I would suggest that she devote more time to the study of reading comprehension.

        April 4, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
      • Heidi

        THANK YOU SO MUCH for this comment, Tim. Samantha is obviously out-of-touch with reality.

        April 6, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  28. EWOBI

    Educators that make learning interesting and involve the students are what education is all about.

    Interesting that George Washington Carver was not mentioned. He is more well know as a Scientist and Educator. It seems that his life wisdom is often overlooked. He was a wise and determined man with focused purpose.

    April 4, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  29. hemo

    bottom line. white protestant americans are the only ones who belong in our schools and universities

    April 4, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Heidi

      Your poorly written response, if given credit, allows for the majority of the country to be ignorant. If you have it YOUR way, non-WASPs will not be educated. People without education will be a burden to society or enslaved to those with qualifications. You're an idiot if you really believe what you wrote.

      April 4, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • yourcreditissues

      Hemo–I hope you said this in sarcasm and not as your actual opinion. I really hope so. In case you are one of the white racist types I grew up around, even here in the LA area, you need to get over it now. God made everybody and every color, race, gender and type. They are all worthy of honor as teachers or in any profession or job. They (we) can all operate in any cultural or social environment as long as we make it our business to understand the people we are teaching, just as Dan Brown did. Get real Hemo.


      April 4, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  30. Peaches

    Hats off to you. This blog was inspiring to know there are teachers out there trying to make a difference in the community. We know there is a big gap out there for African-American children. I am one of those single female homes with two children. Luckily, I was able to send both kids to private school to get a better education. I too struggle to work with my children with their homework and extra school activities. We as parents still need to be apart of children's education. We can not just leave it all up to the teachers to do our work as well. My son will be the first to go to college to achieve something better for himself. I try to keep my kids grounded be involved in postive activities in the community and church. We all know it takes a village to raise kids. I plan to share this information and authors you listed on the blog to see how I can get these books to the youth in my church and get more people involved in our communities in Omaha, Nebraska. Keep up the positive work your doing!

    April 4, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Bridget

      @Peaches–It is too bad you think you have to send your children to private school to get a 'better' education.

      April 6, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  31. Paul Aleman

    Most media whether in actual paper form or in online virtual reality....will censor some reader comments sent for publication. I agree that those comments which are injurious and libelous should not be posted. But many comments are censored because the newspaper has taken a political position and will not condone comments opposing their political position....this applies to CNN as well.

    April 4, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  32. Cody from High School

    It is such a relief to see that diversity can be overcome and I've never been more proud of a school system or teacher for even making the attempt to bridge such a large and controversial gap. I hope teachers everywhere are inspired by this message and through that we could all make a better world.

    April 4, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  33. Syl

    Thanks Dan Brown for including different views into a childs life, this will open their eyes to see the forest instead of the tree in front of them.. Great Job..

    April 4, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  34. Terry

    Bravo! Acknowledging the problem and giving a damn is the first step. If we could get even half the teachers in the country THAT far we would see a dramatic shrinkage of the racial achievement gap almost immediately.

    And frankly the other half needs to be fired. *TADA* – we just made room for more teachers of color.

    April 4, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  35. Phil in Oregon

    Literacy is definitely a way for the students to rise above the crowd of rappers. My son is currently suspended from school for calling a girl a ho, a word they toss around like it means nothing. Trouble is, too many teachers put in their 8 hours and run off to do other things. Don't give a rat's rip about the students, just want their paycheck and benefits. Those teachers are raising another generation who will do even less and expect even more.

    April 4, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Ken

      Phil, just because some of us put in our 8 hours doesn't mean that we do not care. It means we too have a family to take care of when we leave the school. Moost of us desire to do more outside of the classroom, but we cannot neglect our own children to raise other irresponsible parents children. We do the best we can with the resources given us and the parental support given to us while we are at work. What we need is support from the home. We need mothers to help support their own children and fathers to do the same. Cut out the curse called single-parenting and you have just improved our schools about 95%.

      ...from a black educator. Thanks!

      April 4, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
      • Ken

        Typo: Should have read "most". Thanks.

        April 4, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • kiki

      Parents raise children; not teachers.

      April 6, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  36. Dion

    keep up the good work sir. i am not a teacher nor do i have any teching experience, but i have always felt really good when a teacher or college professor introduced literature in a diverse way. if there is anything that will help to shrink the gap between those of different backgrounds, that is the way i would choose to go about it.

    April 4, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • The truther

      become atheist, end racial differences

      April 4, 2012 at 4:35 pm |