We Love Illinois Schools

Race in America

January 12, 2022 Illinois State Board of Education Season 1 Episode 6
We Love Illinois Schools
Race in America
Show Notes Transcript

Have you ever heard of the "racial empathy gap"? Did your own education omit some important information? Is there anything you should know about the town that you live in? Hear our eye-opening conversation with Jessica Splain, a social studies teacher at Crystal Lake Central High School, who created a professional development course titled Race In America.
Our theme music is by José Rivera.

Hello, we are the Illinois State Board of Education, and we love Illinois schools! I'm Dusty Rhodes in the Communications Department at ISBE, and today we want to introduce you to Jessica Splain. She teaches social studies at Crystal Lake Central High School, and she has also created a professional development course that has turned out to be very popular among her colleagues. The title of the course is Race In America. 

SPLAIN: Well, the idea for this course came to me several years ago, actually, at one of the opening Institute days that year. Our administration was presenting data on standardized test score gaps between white students and students of color in our district, the idea being let's come up with some strategies to close that gap. I kept thinking, though, we can't close the education gap without first closing the racial empathy gap. And we do that by becoming overtly anti-racist teachers and examining our own implicit biases. We didn't have any professional development like that. You have to remember, though, at that time, anti-racism wasn't a topic that mainstream white America was talking about. Plus, I needed time to flesh out my ideas. So then the summer of 2020 happened: We had worldwide protests, which brought the topic into people's living rooms. And then with the pandemic and me basically staying home all summer, I had the time I needed to start designing this course and curating the resources. 

RHODES: You just said that closing the racial empathy gap was necessary for closing the achievement gap. I'm not sure I've heard "racial empathy gap" before. So talk a little more about it. And maybe give me some examples of what it looks like and how racial empathy impacts academic achievement.  

SPLAIN: The term "racial empathy gap" is something I came across a while ago in my psychology studies. It starts with an understanding of in-groups and out-groups. Our in-groups are made up of anyone that we see as having something in common with us. So people that we think are like us. We can define our in-groups based on a lot of things -- race, religion, language, social class, national origin, or you know, when I think about my students, what school you attend. So if you are in a district with more than one school, that rivalry between schools is really just our definitions of in-groups and out-groups. It could also be what sports kids are involved in or what clubs they're a part of.  

To build on this, there's the in-group out-group phenomenon, which basically means we view members of our in-group more favorably than out-group members. This actually happens at a biological level. So brain scans have shown that the same parts of the brain that light up when we feel sad also light up when we just see a person from our in-group feeling sad. So our brains actually show that empathy in action. The disturbing part, though, is that that same brain activity is not present when we see an out-group member experiencing sadness. So we biologically do not feel for them. And this is the racial empathy gap. The only way to close it is to redefine our in-groups and out-groups. This takes time. It starts with education, and education with the aim of humanizing the out-group. So much effort is made in society to dehumanize others and to reinforce our divisions, and we need to do the opposite. The other key to redefining these groups is to begin broadening our social circles. And this isn't always easy to do, especially given how segregated most communities are. But it needs to happen. 

RHODES: The way you structure your course is different from most of the others, which are just, you know, just several days, but all together. You teach your course over a period of weeks, and it's broken down into several parts. So explain the structure. 

SPLAIN: Yes, the structure is definitely unique. The duration of this course is 28 weeks, and it's divided into 18 sessions. Seven of those are synchronous and nine are asynchronous. And that's organized into four units. I approached this with the mindset that I actually wanted this course to make a difference, like to really impact and change people. So when I designed it, I wasn't really thinking about how long the course would be. I was just thinking about how to achieve that goal that I set. And so what I ended up with was, you know, it just happened to be that long. 

RHODES: I know there's homework involved. So is that why it's 28 weeks, or is there another reason? 

SPLAIN: Well, it's really both. There is a lot of homework in this course. In terms of PD hours, it's a 45-hour course -- the equivalent of a three-credit graduate course. And about 35 of those hours are spent doing work outside of class. There is another purpose, though. Studies show that the most effective trainings in any subject take place over time. I think with this topic especially, people need time to process. They need to be able to sit with it -- sit with any discomfort they might be having and kind of work through it, be able to make those connections and apply it to what they're seeing on the news or in their lives. And I think when you spread it out like that, over time, it's easier to digest, and then it becomes more meaningful, and it sticks with you longer. 

RHODES: Let's get to the heart of this and talk about the content of your course. 

SPLAIN: The first unit is about psychology. I chose this because, you know, when you think about it, prejudicial attitudes that promote racism -- and discrimination -- are really creations of the mind. So we know that humans are not born with these attitudes, they're learned. And I say, you know, in this lies our hope, because what is learned can be unlearned. To do so you must be able to identify what's going on in your mind or, you know, maybe the mind of someone else; recognize it as a cognitive bias or thinking error; and then confront it. So, you know, if we can confront these things in ourselves and others every time we see it happening, eventually, the act of correcting these errors will become nearly automatic in our own brains. And this means our brains won't resort to those biases and errors anymore. 

RHODES: These cognitive biases or thinking errors sound pretty interesting. I think we need you to maybe give us an example or two of what you mean by that. 

SPLAIN: The in-group/out-group concept that I mentioned earlier is one example. Another is implicit bias. From the moment we're born, we start absorbing things from our environment. And that includes subtle and maybe not-so-subtle messages about race -- what we overhear from friends, our friends' parents, family members, classmates, teachers, things we see on the news, the way people of color are portrayed in movies or TV shows that we watch. You know, all of these things find their way into our brains. So just by growing up in this society, we've internalized these messages. And we aren't necessarily aware of it either. That's why we call it implicit bias. Even someone who is staunchly anti-racist probably has some degree of it, because it's really a reflection of the society in which we were raised, rather than our outward views. You know, our outward views, we would call those explicit biases. And this is what makes implicit bias so, so insidious, is that everyone has it to some degree, even those who believe in and support anti-racism.  

Cognitive dissonance is another example. Unlike implicit bias, this one is actually pretty easy to recognize when you see it happening. So dissonance is when two things are clashing, and it's often referring to unpleasant musical note combinations. Cognitive dissonance is when that clashing takes place in our brains. When our attitudes are in conflict with our actions, we experience cognitive dissonance. For example, I feel very deeply about this topic, right? So if I hear a friend or colleague say something racist, but I choose to be silent rather than confront it, this would create cognitive dissonance within me, because my actions would be contradicting my beliefs. What matters, though, is how people choose to deal with it. In that situation, the best thing for me to do would be to change my actions. But it's a lot harder to change your actions, because then we actually have to do something. And by nature, you know, we don't. We don't want to do something; we want to do what requires the least effort or what meets the least resistance, and that's usually to change our attitudes. You know, it'd be a lot easier for me to tell myself, "Oh, you know, what he said wasn't so bad," than it would be for me to actually speak up and confront that person. If I tell myself, "It wasn't so bad," then I feel better, and I can move on, you know, the cognitive dissonance is gone. The problem is that when we do that, we actually begin to move closer to those viewpoints. So as an anti-racist person who continuously does not speak up will eventually lose their anti-racist convictions. That's why awareness is so important. If we are aware of these concepts, then we can ask ourselves if our attitudes and actions are being influenced by them. So this is really about metacognition. Can we be more aware of how our minds work and why we think what we do?  

The second unit examines what it means to be white in America. So, I think you can learn everything you want to know about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but as a white person, if you aren't first doing some real self-reflection and analysis of your role in society, then there won't be meaningful growth. So this unit really requires teachers to be open and vulnerable. And once they complete this section, then they're ready to learn about the history. And that's our third and longest unit of the four. And it kind of just goes through the major components of systemic racism. 

RHODES: Let me stop you for a second. You just said the second section is about what it means to be white in America. And since people can hear you but can't see you, this is probably a good time to mention that you are white. So maybe tell us something about your background? Have you always been aware of what it means to be white? And if not, was there a lightbulb moment? Or was it something you discovered gradually over time? 

SPLAIN: I have definitely not always been aware of what it means to be white. I would say I was pretty oblivious to racism throughout my childhood, and even into my early 20s. But I was also a white kid growing up in the '80s and '90s, and in the Chicago suburbs. And so I think this was the norm. I mean, we learned about racism of the past, but in a very whitewashed way. And it was always a Southern problem. And it was never used to make connections to the present. So we grew up thinking racism wasn't a problem. So how did I get from there to where I am today? Honestly, that's a tough one. I, I think, just part of my personality, I've always been very open-minded and eager to learn about the world. I've always had this desire to, to explore, to learn about different people and cultures. And I can remember being 12 years old and just wanting so desperately to visit another country. I literally don't think it mattered which one; I just wanted to go somewhere. So this desire to explore the world and learn about the people led me to my first career, and that was at United Airlines corporate headquarters. And even though I never had more than two weeks’ vacation, somehow I managed to travel more than anyone else at the company, I swear. And during the course of these travels, I fell in love with the world. And I had this passion that I wanted to share with others. And this led me to a career change, to be a high school social studies teacher, because I wanted to be able to teach others about people and culture and, you know, debunk stereotypes that existed. So that was, I think, kind of the first part.  

But my first aha moment came after I finished the teaching program. And I was reading James Loewen's famous book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and, you know, in that book, of course, he goes through and looks at a series of high school history textbooks and kind of points out what's missing. So I realized, for the first time, just how much I didn't know. And at that point, it became my mission to fill in those gaps in my education. So for years, I was focused on just learning about the experiences of people of color. At some point, though, you begin to see how their experiences and their role in society is a direct consequence of your own role in society as a white person. So I began to contemplate that, you know, what does it mean to be white in America? And I started asking my students that as well. Once you wrap your mind around the answer to that question, then you realize that as a white person, you have a responsibility to do something. So it's not enough just to feel a certain way. I mean, I can say I support the Black Lives Matter movement, which is nice, but what am I going to do to help? So for me as a teacher, the answer is pretty clear. And I needed to create this course, 

RHODES: You said history needs to be the main component. Why is that? 

SPLAIN: I'm an optimist. And I really believe that most of the disagreements about issues of racism stem from a lack of historical knowledge. And that's something we can fix. I'm a history teacher, and most of what I've learned about this topic came from educating myself -- and that was after I graduated college -- to be a history teacher. So knowing that, I think most people could use a refresher when it comes to the history of race in America, and maybe not even refresher, you know, maybe it's learning it for the first time. Every present-day component of systemic racism has its roots in the past. And learning about that helps you understand why things are the way they are today. I think it also puts us in a better position to devise solutions, you know, solutions that will get to the root of it and not just Band-Aid solutions. 

RHODES: And there's so much history -- you developed a way to narrow it down. Tell me how you did that. 

SPLAIN: This was one of the hardest parts. I mean, there was so much that I wanted to include that there was just no time for, it really came down to choosing the topics that are the most foundational, the ones that have shaped our society the most and are the most interconnected. So I narrowed it down to these topics: housing, education, economics, voting rights, policing issues, and mass incarceration. These topics are not all equal in length. For example, we cover the issue of voting rights in about an hour and a half, but mass incarceration is closer to five hours of work. That's our last topic in the history unit, and we take that extra time to really focus on how, how mass incarceration is connected to all of the other topics that we've gone over. 

RHODES: Any one of those topics could be a course by itself. I have found myself trying to explain redlining to people who've never heard of it, and have, you know, no clue how it affects district boundaries. Are there certain historical artifacts that you have seen really open people's minds or help them connect the past to the present? 

SPLAIN: You're right, each of these topics could definitely be its own course. And side note: I would love to develop and teach those courses. But it was incredibly challenging to curate these resources in a way that would effectively educate teachers on these topics. I've tried to, I guess, make each topic interesting enough that people might be motivated to just go out and learn more on their own. So I kind of consider each one of these as a starting point.  

In terms of historical artifacts and resources, there's one that definitely stands out by far, and that's a document that I have from the 1920s. It's a brochure that advertises a new housing development that happens to be in the same town as our school district. So they see the map, they see the actual, like, lots of the buildings, the street names, so they can see where this is in town. And on the last page, it spells out the racially restrictive covenants. And so people read that, and I quote, "The ownership and occupancy of lots and buildings in these additions are forever restricted to members of the pure white race." 


SPLAIN: I mean, at minimum, it discomforts them. Some of them live in houses in that subdivision. And so that makes the topic of housing segregation and sundown towns very real. And it also provides a lot of that missing context as to, you know, why the town is still so white today. Another example, I think, would be the lynching photos that we examine when we discuss the violence that people of color face today and have faced throughout our history. I don't think most white people have been exposed to these before. And so when you're seeing crowds of people, including children, posing and smiling by the body of a person they just murdered, it's disturbing, and it's gut-wrenching. And then you ask, you know, what excuses did they make at the time to justify this behavior to themselves? How did  acts like this go  unpunished? And we use our knowledge of psychology to analyze this, then we asked the same questions of today's acts of violence. And I think this is where knowledge of history forces you to do some critical thinking about the present.  

Another resource that I think is really interesting, especially for us as teachers, are excerpts from these old history textbooks that I have. So I have, I think, about maybe seven in my collection, and they date from the 1880s through the 1930s. And I collected these at old used bookstores, various places, and I got them really to test out and apply the concepts from James Loewen's “Lies My Teacher Told Me” book. I wanted to see if I could identify the biases in these old books. You know, did they reflect the attitudes of those eras? So, you know, no surprise, they absolutely did. You know, we find overt racism, only teaching white stories and, you know, through a white lens. One example, is just the way that these textbooks talked about the KKK. And basically, you know, to paraphrase one, they said the KKK's mission was to prevent Black people from stealing and committing other crimes. And this was a book from 1913, but that same sentiment was reflected in another one I have from 1931. And these were from mainstream publishers. The 1931 book is Macmillan. So it wasn't like these were some, you know, extremist publications, you know, they were mainstream. And then you think about it: We're still connected to that era. So the oldest people who are alive today learned from those books. And so, you know, we'd like to think of that as, you know, distant past, but really we're still connected to it. So, you know, back to critical thinking, we have to ask ourselves, you know, teachers 50 years, 100 years from now, what would they think about the resources that we're using in our classes? So again, we as teachers need to think critically about that. 

RHODES: You've talked about units on psychology, on what it means to be white, and then history. Is there another unit after history? 

SPLAIN: The last unit is about action. I ask each teacher to determine what their role will be. I tell them that for me, it was the creation of this course. I took all of the sadness, frustration, anger, stress, hopelessness that I felt over these issues, and I channeled that energy into developing lessons that I hope have made a positive impact on people. 

RHODES: So what kind of reactions have you gotten? 

SPLAIN: The reactions from teachers and staff who've taken it have been phenomenal. I'll admit, I was really nervous the first time around. I had no idea what the reactions would be. But they've been great. Thankfully, I've had no pushback or negative feedback from anyone. That could also be due to the fact that the course is not mandatory. So anyone who has signed up for it is making a choice to do so, because they want to. I could see, you know, perhaps if it became mandatory, then maybe I would start to get some different feedback. And it is just available for staff to, you know, teachers and anyone who works in the district. So it's not something that we make public. And so, you know, it's, it's really just internally, people are aware of it. And it's not something that anyone outside the district would know about. 

RHODES: So way back at the beginning, you said you wanted to design this course with a goal of making a difference. Do you feel that you've accomplished that? 

SPLAIN: I think I have made a difference with the teachers who have taken the course. A handful of them have shared with me how they've incorporated information from this class into their own classes. So one colleague of mine who took it last year knew after she took this class that she definitely wanted to incorporate something on an ongoing basis into her own English classes. So she is currently having her students read the student version of “Stamped,” and they read a little bit each week. And so she's kind of stretching it throughout the year. Another teacher, last year, tried out a lesson in which she connected the racism in “To Kill a Mockingbird” to present-day racism. And then, you know, she and I also had a conversation just looking ahead. Does she have the flexibility to maybe swap out that book for one that teaches the same lessons, but through Black voices? And then, you know, if not, well, how can we ... go deeper with “To Kill a Mockingbird” and talk about, you know, when this book was published, and how it still kind of teaches racism through a white perspective, and I guess just be, just increase critical thinking? I think I've also had teachers say that they're just more self-aware, when it comes to discipline in the classroom. Knowledge of things like implicit bias has made them stop and ask themselves, am I responding to behavior issues differently when they involve students of color? So awareness is a big first step.  

I think I've made differences in attitudes as well. There's an end-of-the-course survey that asks for feedback, and the responses have been incredibly moving. One teacher said it was the single best piece of professional development he had ever taken. Another teacher wrote, and I'll just read this to you: "To say that this class has opened my eyes is an understatement. It has changed not only how I view the world, but also how I view my place in it. There are serious problems in our country, and I was blissfully unaware of their extent and my role in them. Whether my ignorance was intentional or unintentional, a product of my education or my upbringing, I now have a clearer understanding of the struggles people of color face every day and the systemic problems interwoven into our politics, our workplaces, and our communities from a national to local scale. More and more from my time in this class, I'm seeing the injustice and beginning to feel more prepared to work towards solutions." So this kind of feedback makes me feel really hopeful. That said, I want to see more teachers and staff complete the course. We're just under 50 right now, and that's mostly teachers but also a lot of guidance counselors, one building principal, one dean, and one district HR employee. Fifty is good, but I don't think it's enough for meaningful change. I would love, you know, if I could double or triple that number, you know, then we have a stronger collective voice. And if I can get more administrators to take the course, then we have support for the systemic changes that we need. 

RHODES: Well, Jessica, thank you for telling us about your course. And thank you for all the thoughtfulness and work and heart that you put into it. 

SPLAIN: Thank you so much for having me. It's been great talking with you. 

RHODES: That was Jessica Splain, social studies teacher at Crystal Lake Central High School, talking to us about her professional development course, Race in America. If you've enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe. If you have colleagues or friends who might want to hear it, please share. You can find a transcript of this conversation on ISBE.net. Thanks for listening.