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Advocacy for Children of Color in the Classroom

Authors: Tiffany Hall (@DrTiffanyHall) and Stephanie D. Jacobs (@MsClassNSession)


In our quest to educate the Whole Child, we must remember that this applies to every child. SCASCD and the Emerging Leaders are committed to engaging in relevant and timely topics. As we explore the current topic of advocacy for children of color in the classroom, it is imperative that we honestly reflect on our practices, our beliefs and our actions when it comes to supporting all children. It’s time to do some soul searching. As you read, take a self-reflective look at the 5 tenets of the Whole Child Initiative:

  • Healthy: Have we created an environment that supports the mental health and well being of students of color?

  • Safe: Do students of color feel emotionally safe and motivated to learn?

  • Engaged: Do we actively engage students of color in the learning process and make them feel connected to a larger community?

  • Supported: Do our students of color feel genuinely supported by qualified, caring adults?Challenged: Are we up for the challenge to prepare students of color for 21st Century employment opportunities and lifelong success?

Whose responsibility is it to advocate for students of color?

YOURS. It is your responsibility. Schools must advocate, parents must advocate, and students must be empowered to advocate for themselves. Educators, if you have one student of color sitting in a classroom of your school, you have an obligation to be the advocate that they need. We all bear the responsibility of changing a system that has consistently reinforced practices of racial inequality. According to Counseling Today, schools can be a place where students “continue to face numerous microaggressions along the lines of colorism, sexism, and classism” (Griffin 2012).

In an increasingly diverse world, it is important for students to connect to what they read and learn. To educate the Whole Child, we know that each student has to actively engage in learning and connect to the school and broader community. Through no fault of their own, many educators are not equipped to address the tough issues of racism, oppression, and discrimination. Many believe if the child is respected all will be well (Boutte 2008).

In speaking with my school counselor recently, she mentioned that she intentionally used the IGP process to advocate for students of color to inform their parents/guardians of options beyond middle school. When I taught high school sociology, Dr. Gloria Swindler Boutte, from the University of South Carolina, came to teach a lesson on social inequality. Since I prided myself on being open-minded and willing to address the hard issues, it was eye opening for me. She sat ten different students in seats at the front of my classroom. Each was to represent a different racial and gender group. She dropped Tootsie Rolls in front of each child explaining their demographics and how many examples they see of themselves in what they read in schools, people like them who teach them, etc. When I went home that night, I paid attention to television shows to see how many Indian people were represented, how many African Americans, how many Asians. Now this was ten years ago, but the numbers were very low. I thought no wonder test scores are the way they are. We have built an educational system on assimilation. Students cannot relate to the material they read or to the people who teach them if the learning is not culturally relevant. The African and Asian cultures make up approximately 75% of the world population (2006). How much of what students learn today reflects these cultures?

Why do students disconnect in some classrooms?

In educating the Whole Child, we know that each child learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults. The research points to some overarching issues which include: lack of trust, lack of communication, and lack of representation. One educator admitted that when he tried to reach out to his African-American students, there was a wall that kept them from opening up fully and completely. The educator recognized that there was a lack of trust because for years schools made claims of being inclusive and creating diverse environments that didn’t fully exist in reality. And students knew this. Everyone knew this. He was asking them to trust him with their most vulnerable feelings and experiences when for years they had to learn how to navigate a system that had forced them to remain hidden (Strauss 2020).

Becoming culturally responsive in our pedagogy is more than just an integrated read aloud during class. We have to do real work as educators to examine our own intentional and unintentional biases with culture. I’ll give you a personal example. Over the course of my career, I’ve used the term “broken” a variety of times to describe a child coming from a divorced family. It never occurred to me until I sat in an auditorium soon after my divorce and a teacher said, “I teach children from two-parent homes. I teach children from broken homes….” I literally teared up. I thought my children are not broken. In that moment, I also recognized my own unintentional bias I had had for years. Being from a two-parent home and having one of my own for so long, it never occurred to me the connotation of the words we used so often. The moment reaffirmed what Dr. Boutte shared with my students so many years prior - ”students' learning should be rooted in their own experiences and needs”. As Ellison stated on culturally relevant pedagogy (2008), “[I]f you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit [no pagination].”

Crucial Questions and Hard Conversations

In order to continuously improve ourselves to be more aware, we have to leave room for the hard conversations and to be culturally sensitive to others. In today’s climate, there continues to be a growing focus on racial inequity in schools and a continuous achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts. Some may begin to ask some very crucial questions: How do students of color experience life in schools on a daily basis? How can I help change the experiences for students of color? Will things change and provide opportunities for positive outcomes? How can this change occur in “a society that holds onto policies and systems originally developed to keep [students of color] from crossing the invisible line of success” (Griffin 2012)?

These issues that students are facing are similar to the issues that parents face. African-American and Latino parents cite the same concerns: lack of trust, lack of communication and lack of representation. In a study conducted by a counselor, it was noted that there was a disparity between educators' views of parent involvement of African-American and Latino parents. The parents in the study felt their involvement was focused on home-based and community-based activities because of a feeling of not being welcomed in the school environment. For a particular group of African-American mothers, they felt as though their ideas were not valued, they felt that teachers (and other school staff) did not display a genuine interest in making them feel welcome, and they noted a lack of representation of people of color in leadership positions (Griffin 2012).

Whole Child Culturally Responsive Strategies

  1. Classwork that allows for students to critique, deconstruct, and reconstruct cultural perspectives versus a mentality of assimilation to the “majority.”

  2. Classroom libraries with diversity grounded in students lives (racial, religious, socio-economic status, etc).

  3. Learn about students and learn from them.

  4. Normalize high expectations that are attainable for all students.

  5. Have a multi-cultural, anti-racist, and pro-justice environment.

  6. Create emotionally safe classrooms.

  7. Through social emotional learning support, teach students explicitly how to be humane and value one another.

What should we advocate for in today’s classrooms?

❖ Advocate for purposeful community involvement. Is there a respected person in the community who can help bridge the gap between home and school?

❖ Teach parents how to be an advocate by demonstrating how to effectively communicate with school stakeholders about their concerns.

❖ Schools should be committed to intentionally hiring teachers of color.

❖ Schools must develop practices to retain teachers of color which might include the following:

➢ More autonomy

➢ Higher levels of input in decision making

➢ Similar representation in school leadership

What are some benefits to advocacy for children of color in the classroom?

The results of research studies tend to support consistent claims that benefit students of color, especially when they are exposed to educators who look like them. Some of these benefits include (Lopez 2020):

❖ Changed perceptions about the students’ abilities and behaviors

❖ Higher levels of motivation

❖ Higher achievement goals are established

❖ Greater access to culturally sensitive lessons

❖ Reduction of negative stereotypes


In conclusion, we should not forget the most important voice of all. The voices of students. Our classrooms today should look vastly different than they ever have in the past. Student voice and student choice should be at the center of instructional practices. We must allow students to take on leadership roles that result in real change in the school environment. When we give students the space to be advocates for themselves, the circle becomes complete with a team on the right side of change. Open, honest dialogue among educators, parents, and students is a step in the right direction. Of course, we won’t solve the world’s problems overnight, but the dialogue may be what is needed to begin the healing process. As you navigate the waters of this tough topic, be sure to check out the booklist we have compiled from author and speaker Baruti K. Kafele.


Boutte, Gloria. (2008). Beyond the Illusion of Diversity: How Early Childhood Teachers Can Promote Social Justice. The Social Studies. 99.

Boutte, Gloria & Kelly-Jackson, Charlease & Jr. Ph.D., George. (2010). Culturally Relevant Teaching in Science Classrooms: Addressing Academic Achievement, Cultural Competence, and Critical Consciousness. International Journal of Multicultural Education. 12.

Griffin, Dana (2012). The Need for Advocacy with African American Parents. Counseling Today.

Lopez, Adriana V. (2020). Why Hispanic Teachers Are Integral to Addressing Racial Disparities in Education. BeLatina.

Strauss, Valerie (2020). The Often Ugly Reality Black Students Face in Our Schools. The Washington Post.

Book List:

(20 titles shared by Author and Speaker Baruti K. Kafele)

Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles by Janice E. Hale-Benson

Black Teachers on Teaching by Michele Foster

Can We Talk about Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation by Beverly Daniel Tatum

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice by Geneva Gay

Do Not Kill the Seed Before It Grows by Norbert Whitaker

The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children by Gloria Ladson-Billings

From Rage to Hope: Strategies for Reclaiming Black & Hispanic Students by Crystal Kuykendall

Honoring Our Ancestral Obligations: 7 Steps To Black Student Success by Chike Akua

How to Teach Math to Black Students by Shahid Muhammad

Infusion of African and African American Content in the School Curriculum: Proceedings of the First National Conference Editors: Asa G. Hilliard, Larry O. Williams, and Lucretia Payton-Stewart

Keep Your Head Up! by Corey L. Rhodes

Learning While Black: Creating Educational Excellence for African American Children by Janice E. Hale

Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life by Baruti K. Kafele

"Multiplication is for White People": Raising Expectations for Other People's Children by Lisa Delpit

Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom by Lisa Delpit

Recruiting and Retaining Culturally Different Students in Gifted Education by Donna Y. Ford

The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom Editors: Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy

What Is It About Me You Can't Teach? Culturally Responsive Instruction in Deeper Learning Classrooms by Deborah Rosalia Esparza, Eleanor R. Rodriguez, and James A. Bellanca

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum

Young Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement among African-American Students by Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard III

About the Authors:

Tiffany Hall serves as principal of Leavelle McCampbell Middle School in Graniteville, SC in Aiken County Public School District. Connect with Dr. Tiffany Hall @DrTiffanyHall on Twitter.

Stephanie D. Jacobs serves as Instructional Technology Coach at Brooklyn Springs Elementary School in Lancaster County School District. Connect with Stephanie @MsClassNSession on Twitter.



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