Propel McKeesport elementary teacher Timesha Cohen said she is uncomfortable talking about race in her classroom. But, she said she knows it’s vital for her students.
“They see me more than they see their parents. If I'm only focused on one aspect, then they're missing out on the world because some of them might encounter, you know, different group of people, different race, and different social standings,” she said. “So I want them to feel comfortable and confident to walk in those because they've been educated and they're knowledgeable and not be ignorant.”
Cohen has attended a professional development series for the past several months at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, to help teachers practice ways to address racial issues in their classrooms.
The Empowered Educators series started in 2017 by the museum’s associate curator of education, Hattie Lehman. Each session draws a theme from one of the art exhibits. A few dozen educators - from administrators to social workers – view the art and then sit in a circle to workshop a lesson that they could use in the classroom. Lehman says art helps teachers think of themselves as curators of their own content.
“So by the critical thinking prompts and the discussion problems that we utilize in Empowered Educators, we hope that translates to their classroom as well. And gives them that empowerment of vocabulary and a greater understanding and empathy for the students that they encounter each and every day,” Lehman said.
A few years ago the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Urban Education surveyed nearly 400 teachers and found that many felt unprepared to address modern instances of racial violence. A majority of educators nationally are white women. One of the Empowered Educators facilitators, Jawanza Rand, is a doctoral student with the center.
“It became very clear that there was a big issue around teachers and educators capacity and ability to talk about race and racialized violence and racism right in schools with their students,” he said.
Rand said participants are faced with uncomfortable topics. But they’re asked to challenge ideas and not people, be present, embrace discomfort, assume good intentions and keep stories confidential.
“We recognize that the work that we're doing can't be done unless we all start on the same page, at least in terms of community energy and openness and willingness to grow and learn together,” he said.
Re-imagining Black history
In February the educators visited the museum’s new exhibit on the work of Pittsburgh photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris. They were asked to research an image to deepen their own understanding of black life in Pittsburgh in the 20th century and re-imagine the stories they tell during Black History Month.
That session inspired Cohen to introduce her students to his work for a few weeks during February. Then, on the last day of the month she asked them to bring in their own photos of their families and friends. Cohen asked her students to find similarities between the historic and modern photos.
Most of the students in the class are black including 10-year-old Laina Jackson who read the reflections her classmates wrote.
“We love to take family pictures. We both take baby photos. There are black and white people together in some pictures,” she said.
Cohen pointed out the images of joy and celebration that often contradict the stories told during Black History Month.
“We talk about slavery, we talk about Martin Luther King, Malcom X, but we forget that just living our lives we contribute to history,” she said.
The students said that the collections show the shared the human experience. That’s exactly what Cohen wanted them to take away from the lesson. People from different races may have different lived experiences, but ultimately they have the same motivations.
“I want them to see that we are literally the same people. Our skin is just different,” she said.
Cohen teaches fifth and sixth grade math and said the lesson fit well into her work because the images showed black business owners and professionals.
“If a person owns a business, they manage their money really well. And so it allows me to show them like the things that I'm working with right now. They can transcend into this life that you might want. And it doesn't mean you have to be a basketball player. You can own a store. You can run for government. A lot of kids, if they don't see themselves in these lifestyles, then they don't think they exist,” she said.
Connecting with students on a personal level has also changed the culture of her classroom. She said being vulnerable with them and talking about issues that can be uncomfortable have made the class a more welcoming and trusting place.
As for the Empowered Educators series, that’s the kind of connection they’re looking for. Most meetings are well attended, but facilitators say they’re measuring success by the feedback from educators who say the sessions have challenged their own thinking.