Multi racial teenage pupils in class one with hand up

When Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel recently spoke about the criminal justice reforms he backs, the audience asked him many questions. One person asked him about how teachers teach about racism in schools.

Superb question. Hummel wasn’t the best person to ask. But a superb question.

We asked the Bend-La Pine Schools. We can’t say we can answer the question comprehensively. It did lead us to some answers. Most are encouraging.

Lora Nordquist, who was named the district’s interim superintendent, told us the state has fairly robust standards around issues of racism and multiple perspectives of historical events.

“I think our areas for growth (as a district and a nation) are 1) many of the available instructional materials are ‘watered down’ in terms of content, so they’re not great resources for staff; and 2) sometimes, teachers default to material they’re familiar with, which may not reflect our most current understanding of issues,” Nordquist wrote in an email.

Not perfect. But an admission that all is not perfect. That’s good.

Nordquist added something we found intriguing. The district has invited author Matt Kay to speak — virtually — to staff at a training event in August.

Day is an English teacher of eighth and ninth graders at a school in Philadelphia, the Science Leadership Academy.

He is the author of ”Not light, but fire: How to lead meaningful race conversations in the classroom.” We can tell you we think the book’s introduction is worth reading by everyone. And while the book is crammed with suggestions precisely aimed at helping teachers, there are good insights for anyone leading meetings and discussions about challenging topics.

We wanted more. We spoke to him last week. He said the first decision the school administration has to make is if the district is going to be an anti-racist space or a space where racist ideas still have weight and power.

He isn’t suggesting there aren’t questions about race that cannot be debated. Kay also wants racial discussions to be more than just shining a light on what is known. Things should be different after educators “and their students have wrestled with the great ideas,” as he wrote. “It is not light that is needed, but fire,” the quote from Frederick Douglass where Kay got the title of his book.

Kay doesn’t pretend he discovered the magic elixir for teaching racism in the schools. He said people will still be fighting racism 50 and 100 years from now.

He is trying to give teachers better tools to chip away. But efforts like bringing in Kay and the commitment of the district’s teachers and staff to improve their craft do make a difference.

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