Helping Students Find Their Voice Through Writing by Pamela Fordham



If I had to provide a title for the first six months of 2020, I would borrow a few lines from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Like many people, I started 2020 ready to renew all the best parts of myself.


Even at work I felt energized as I prepared to teach my Race in America elective. I have taught the course for the past ten years, but the excitement I feel about creating opportunities for students to talk about race never gets old.


By March, the entire world had changed, and the phrase “new normal” was on everyone’s lips.


We settled into the pandemic, making lemonade out of the worst of times, but then things got even worse. By the time June arrived, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd had become worldwide household names.


Ironically, just a few weeks before the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, I had participated in a school Zoom meeting during which my "Race in America" course was removed from the schedule for the upcoming school year.


My colleagues in the meeting might say I did not fight very hard to keep the course, and I guess I would agree.


Even now, it is hard to explain why I ultimately just ran out of words (or at least the energy to say the words). Maybe the draining of my righteous indignation was triggered by the awkwardness of the silence that filled the Zoom meeting juxtaposing the footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s mother on the TV explaining why his death was a hate crime.


Although the Zoom platform might have been part of the “new normal,” there was nothing new or normal about the inhumanity that caused the world to cry out, “AMERICA, WE NEED TO TALK.”


Of course, I wanted to keep facilitating those talks with students, but as the sole African American teacher in my building for most of the twenty-five years of my career, I couldn’t read another line from the “angry black woman’s” script. I was waiting for someone else in the meeting to be “fired up,” but everyone else was waiting for me.


What I have learned from teaching "Race in America" is that conversations about race are often uncomfortable in a way that makes us not want to participate. Discussions about race that only make people feel guilty or ashamed are rarely productive in the long term.