How to Avoid Colorblindness All Year Long

Guest blogger Jennifer Henderson shares: I don’t have any lessons for Black History Month. I don’t have any articles, videos, or coloring sheets. There’s just something about focusing on racial equality, social justice, or the color of my students’ skin for only one month a year that always seems a little… well, racist.

I have the honor of working with amazing educators every day. Jennifer Henderson, a teacher and coach in Aurora, Colorado, is one of those amazing educators. She has a passion for teaching and learning in ways that support ALL students in maximizing their gifts. This year she has chosen to prototype a culturally responsive teaching project to connect academic learning with the real-world interests of students. It is an honor to share her words here:

I don’t have any lessons for Black History Month. I don’t have any articles, videos, or coloring sheets. There’s just something about focusing on racial equality, social justice, or the color of my students’ skin for only one month a year that always seems a little… well, racist.

I hope that I use the entire year to make sure my classroom is filled with books by authors from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures. I want my students to explore the writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Julia Alvarez, Chief Joseph, and others all year long.

However, I do have some advice for anyone who works with a diverse population of students.

Don’t be color-blind. Look around and notice. Notice everything.  

Notice the colors and hues of the faces you see in the Honors and AP classes.

Notice those in the remedial classes.

Notice the faces of students who are sent to the office as well as those who stand on stage to receive awards.

Recently, I sat in the Winter Pep Rally at my school. My school is very diverse, with white, Latino, and black students each making up about 30% of the student population. At the pep rally, I found myself experiencing both pride and dismay:

  • I was proud that some of the loudest cheers were for the two male cheerleaders, and that the royalty court consisted of students with every color of skin imaginable.
  • I cheered when six of the top athletes came out with dunking skills to rival the Harlem Globetrotters.
  • I was dismayed when those same young men, all black, left the court and the students with the best GPAs were called. Not one black face among them.

So this February, my advice is to take that first step and notice.

We can all open our eyes and our minds a little more and see the truths—both good and bad—that make up the school lives of our students.

I am not naive enough to believe that my students are living in a world that epitomizes Dr. King’s vision. In fact, amid recent events, my students may live in a world where badges represent injustice and being “color-blind” means to turn away from the reality of inequality.

In any case, it is my belief that my students are living in a world that is moving swiftly towards unrest and controversy of historical proportions.

But, as educators, school is our domain.  

School is where we make sure that our students can dream, and where we provide them with the tools and pathways to reach those dreams.

But in order to do this, we must first open our eyes to the possibility that we, unwittingly or not, are acting as a barrier to those dreams:

  • Telling the pretty girl that she should try out for cheerleading.
  • Assuming the student who speaks only Spanish is not a proficient reader, writer, and scientist.
  • Believing that the court is the only place where black students can shine.

So this February, stop being color-blind and take a look around.

Then, be brave and begin the much-needed conversation. Are we making sure that we push all our students to academic success? Are we listening to the dreams they have for themselves, or are we forcing them into the dreams we believe they should have?

It might be upsetting, and it will probably be uncomfortable. But a little bit of discomfort can go a long way to making big changes—the kind that open up a multitude of paths for all of our students to reach their dreams.

Jennifer Henderson has been teaching for 19 years, from fourth grade through post-secondary. She currently enjoys a hybrid role as a Teacher Partner and 10th grade English teacher in Aurora, Colorado.  Jennifer is a virtual community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality and a group leader for the Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI).

This blog appears as part of the work of CTQ-CO’s culturally responsive team. Learn more about their projects here.