Copeland and Jen Dryer
School of the Future—Manhattan
How do racial and cultural tensions between students impact classroom
How can teachers help students break down barriers formed by differences
in race and culture?
I don’t wanna sit next to Ariella. She’s racist.”
“Yeah, she’s a nigger hater.”
exploded into our respective ninth grade Humanities and Spanish classrooms
one week in November of 2003. A verbal melee ensued and all teaching
for the remainder of the class was thrown out the window in an attempt
to address this palpable racial and cultural tension that had been
brewing in this one class since the beginning of the year. It started
with comments as early as September, such as, “Hey, everybody’s
favorite Puerto Rican is here!” and “Why do you think
I’m rich? Because I’m White?” (The answer was “Yes”).
is the goal of the landmark case Brown v. Board of Ed., then School
of the Future (SOF) is its utopian vision. A small public school in
Manhattan’s tony Grammercy Park, SOF serves students in grades
6-12 from all five boroughs of New York City. SOF is part of New York
City’s Region 9 schools, and was formerly part of Manhattan’s
Community School District 2, renowned as one of NYC’s wealthiest
and highest performing districts, and one that invests time and finances
in extensive professional development for teachers and administrators.
Although most students reside in District 2, which extends from Chinatown
to the Upper East Side and from Greenwich Village to 59th Street on
the West Side, many come from other parts of the city. Most SOF students
stay from middle through high school, although some leave and are
replaced by new students who apply and are interviewed before earning
acceptance to the school.
usually top off at 25 students, a class size cap much lower than its
counterparts in NYC. With approximately 600 students in seven grades,
SOF is very diverse, in terms of race/culture, socioeconomics, physical
ability and academic ability, and has a strong Inclusion program for
special needs students who are mainstreamed into the classroom. Students
at SOF travel from class to class in cohorts, so that, with the exception
of high school foreign language, in which their class is split in
half among French and Spanish and combined with half of another class,
they stay with the same class groupings all day. These class groupings
are generally given names by the team of teachers teaching them. The
class in which the “racial” outbursts described briefly
above was aptly named “Fire,” as part of the four classes
in the 9th grade, named Earth, Wind, Fire and Water.
ethnic breakdown of the student population at SOF is 38% White, 22%
Black, 25% Latino, 15% Asian, and 10% other (including South Asian,
West Indian and Middle Eastern/Arab). Approximately 40% of SOF students
qualify for free lunch, while other students have vacation homes outside
the metropolitan area or travel extensively with their families. Then,
of course, there are many whose socioeconomic standing falls somewhere
in the middle.
public schools in NYC seem to have become resegregated (Southern Poverty
Law Center), SOF is committed to maintaining its diversity, which
is central to its basic philosophy. As a result of the small class
size, extensive time in the same class groupings, and collaborative
work environment, students at SOF know each other quite well and tend
to interact with others of different backgrounds regularly. However,
although it would seem that all these structures in place at SOF would
foster a genuine sense of tolerance and collegiality of students of
different racial and ethnic backgrounds, we soon realized that diversity
may not be enough.
with this one particular class cohort (described above), “Fire,”
drove home how crucial it was to step back and take stock of students’
attitudes towards and perceptions of their own and others’ race
and culture, and how this impacted the dynamics of the classroom.
It also drove home the fact that we needed to implement some type
of intervention in order to reestablish an environment in which students
could feel safe to learn and in which we could be able to effectively
teach our students the required curriculum. We further realized that,
as educators, we were never really trained how to deal with racial
tensions in the classroom and how to act before those tensions become
real obstacles to learning. This study of our students’ assumptions
about and attitudes towards others of different cultural backgrounds
was just as important to our own development as educators as it was
to our students’ development as human beings living in a multicultural
Data & Analysis
We collected data through various surveys of students in the class
and personal journal entries recording our observations. We began
by collecting baseline data around our students’ perceptions
about race and culture, and their comfort level communicating in meaningful
ways across “cultural borders.” We also asked students
to name four to five classmates they worked with best and four to
five with whom they were least comfortable working with, and why.
The data collected
was analyzed in varied ways. The students’ work partner preferences
were collected twice, once in February and once in June, and were
analyzed using a sociogram, coding students in the class by both gender
and cultural background. We assessed whom students wanted to work
with and did not want to work with, using both gender and ethnicity
as markers. We chose to separate gender from ethnicity to see if there
was any correlation along gender and racial/ethnic background. Twenty-two
students, out of 25 in the class, completed the first seating preference
survey, and nineteen completed the second survey in June, as the result
of three absences and three students who had moved away or gone on
vacation before the end of the year. Twenty-four students completed
surveys on their perception of and attitudes toward race and culture
in the school and classroom.
The data collected
was surprising at times and gave a great deal of insight into the
way that students saw and understood themselves and their colleagues.
There was a distinct disparity between the way students defined others
in the classroom and the way they defined their own cultural background.
Most students tended to see others in “cultural clumps,”
such as “Caucasian” or “Black,” whereas when
they self defined, they tended to be more ethnically specific, describing
themselves, for example, as “Polish” or “Jamaican.”
This idea is supported by research, such as that by Laurie Olsen,
which suggests that school is the place that “racializes”
white students. Based on their survey responses, students also seemed
to feel more culturally isolated in the classroom than they did in
the school as a whole, which, we surmised, contributed to the marked
cultural tension in the classroom.
work partner preferences similarly yielded interesting results. When
noting why Black and Latino males were unfavorable work partners,
many reasoned that they “goofed off” or “fooled
around” too much. Some students of color used similar racially
coded language, noting that White students were “annoying”
or that “we just don’t get along.” After our interventions,
we repeated this survey, and there were some significant changes,
along with a much lower incident of such racially coded language.
The most significant change occurred among Black males, whose popularity
as workers rose 9.2%, which was significantly higher than their representation
in the class. Asian males also gained 6.3% in their popularity, over
100% increase from the February survey. In least popular work partners,
the June survey results were much more ethnically dispersed, as it
became clear that students were less prone to use cultural background
to determine work partner choices.
work partner preferences
- Teachers need
professional development relating to their own assumptions and practices
around issues of race/culture.
pertaining to cultural and racial border crossing should be imbedded
in public education (SS or advisory classes), whether in a diverse
or more homogenous environment.
- New York City
DoE should actively engage strategies to build a more diverse teaching