Teaching can be a Tool to Dismantle Racism
After the police murder of George Floyd and the protests that erupted around the world, the overdue national conversation about America’s ongoing problem with systemic racism has become unavoidable. It’s a conversation my students and I have been having in our classroom all year. Now, as a steady subject of news coverage and social media posts outside the classroom as well, it is creating a moment that has powerfully illuminated the ongoing struggle for racial equality in America.
“Miss, we are really living through history right now!” one of my students observed.
I have been teaching United States history at the High School for Environmental Studies, a New York City public high school, for 18 years and every year it feels as though I am negotiating two things at once: I am sharing painful, even crushing truths about the American story while at the same time presenting this knowledge of our ugly history as a tool we can all use to take action and bring us closer to our nations’ foundational ideas — most especially equity for all, regardless of race, religion, gender or socioeconomic status. Although it can be a challenging and controversial balance, I consider it educational malpractice to shy away from teaching this complex history — especially now.
“Miss, we are really living through history right now!”
And if you are a white teacher like me — along with the majority of teachers in the U.S. — we must also spend time learning about the lived experience of the BIPOC students in our classrooms. The longer I teach, the more I learn about the power of just listening. Hearing student experiences, from the joy in their everyday lives to any racist encounters they may have had to endure informs my teaching in ways I could never learn elsewhere.
These conversations with my students lead me to my two guiding mantras when writing lessons: “Representation matters” and “If you can’t see it, you can’t dream it,” a concept that ensures my students learn about all sorts of different possibilities they may or may not have encountered in their own frequently under-resourced communities.
These principles have directed my work even as our learning has shifted out of the physical classroom and into remote learning, and I’ve sought creative ways to address this moment and the history of racism that preceded it. Centering Black voices in my lessons, I brought in the civil rights and Black Panthers expert Yohuru Williams to put current events in historical context. (Remote learning is the perfect time to invite guests to visit your virtual classroom.)
We watched the Rev. Al Sharpton’s eulogy at George Floyd’s memorial service and connected what we had learned in class to when he said, “George Floyd’s story has been the story of Black folks, because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being, is you kept your knee on our neck.”
We were also able to revisit the conversation around the criminal justice system and the COVID-19 pandemic that we had with a special guest to my class in March, New York City public defender Eliza Orlins, and then had a screening of the documentary film, “13th.”
I consider it educational malpractice to shy away from teaching this complex history — especially now.
I reminded students to apply what they learned about the Reconstruction period as well as the speeches they had read — from Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis — to the present-day landscape. Even though students were worn out from the pandemic and remote learning, they were more engaged than ever in the material. These lessons were the culmination of what we had been studying all year and many of my students later shared how tremendously empowered they felt with their new knowledge and engagement.
As the school year approaches, I plan to redouble my efforts to explore this rich vein of history, fitting it into the district curriculum and applying current events to the lessons. I encourage my colleagues to do the same. This is the moment that demonstrates why teaching is the most valuable tool to dismantle racism.
Republished with permission from the American Federation of Teachers.