At the beginning of the year, my 10th-graders demolished my classroom. Paper flew everywhere. Laptops lay strewn across the ground. There was nearly a fistfight over a desk.
The students were learning about imperialism and the goal of the game was to get as much “stuff” as possible. What they didn’t know was that the group with my sole White student got different directions than everyone else. His directions told him to claim property on the other side of my classroom while dropping a flag and screaming, “I proclaim this desk in the name of our country!”
Immediately, students saw him taking my property and they jumped into action. The lesson? Imperialism drives us to do crazy things without thinking of the repercussions of those that dwell there already — or in the words of one of my Black students, “Taking stuff felt good.”
Being intentional about empowering marginalized students to be bold, brave and unabashed is important, especially at this moment in Trump’s America. Teaching for Black Lives, a teaching manual compiled by three educators in the Pacific Northwest, offers some suggestions for solutions to raising the achievement and awareness of our Black students while creating a curriculum as diverse as our classrooms.
Why does this book matter now? We, as a nation, are letting down our Black students. According to the Washington state report card for the 2016-17 school year, the achievement gap between White and Black students is 25.7 percentage points in literacy and 27.1 percentage points in mathematics. In Seattle, the results are worse. Only one in three Black students is proficient in English language arts by the end of eighth grade, while four out of five White students are.
Edited by Garfield High School teacher and firebrand Jesse Hagopian as well as Dr. Wayne Au of the University of Washington Bothell and Dr. Dyan Watson of Lewis & Clark College, Teaching for Black Lives compiles tons of great ideas for addressing this yawning gap. But it does not address opponents’ concerns about alienating potential allies with a divisive curriculum. There are a few key themes throughout the book: reevaluating how we teach students, reeducating our teaching and leading staff, and restoring dignity to school discipline with restorative justice.
It becomes too much to chew on at once. The editors provide suggestions of what making Black Lives Matter in schools means: Stop closing schools in Black neighborhoods. Fund schools equitably. Support African-American studies programs and substantive multicultural curriculum (pg. 19). But again, the book’s lessons don’t address the potential opposition that White teachers or teachers who see no need for social justice might have. Lessons, projects and readings do nothing if we cannot change the White supremacist belief system many in our school buildings hold.
The highlight of any teaching book is the student work samples, and "Teaching" has many. Students wrote reflective poems on the deaths (read: murders) of Black men at the hands of police. The book also suggests a structured academic controversy in which students take on the role of formerly enslaved African Americans in the Reconstruction era.
Poetry and speech analysis come up again and again, a relief because the Common Core state standards require students to hone their speaking and listening skills. One assignment has students research natural disasters and digest them using Jay Z’s “Minority Report” as a guide. Students also have opportunities to go deeper on eras that history books brush off as “troubled times” but that, in reality, were distinctly anti-Black. These moments need to be reclaimed by teachers who want to give students a panoramic view of history.
“Teaching” reminds us of the importance of educating students with the complete story in mind — particularly when it comes to notable African Americans who had been lionized then subsequently accepted by White culture. The dominant narrative about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, for example, omits how he was the target of FBI spying.
To truly teach to save Black lives, the editors posit, we need to review what justice means within our schools, renew our commitment to relationship-building with students and reaffirm our belief that students belong in schools — not detention centers. As a Black male teacher at a school that uses restorative justice in lieu of exclusionary discipline, I’ve seen the success of this approach firsthand: Over the course of three years and with explicit funding from the city of Seattle Families and Education Levy, restorative justice has significantly decreased the likelihood of expulsion or suspension for students of color. Unfortunately, because restorative justice is such a hot buzzword, districts are willing and ready to throw money without supporting its core values.
Teaching for Black Lives is an excellent read on what some current thought leaders say about the Black Lives Matter movement and its implications in the classroom. However, it’s important to note that it's written for people who already subscribe to the basic tenets of Black liberation; it is not for those who are just beginning to explore their prejudices. Although written with the social-studies teacher in mind, it is a text that can be picked up and perused (rather than read cover-to-cover) for ideas to make education for Black lives actually matter.
Evin Shinn is a language arts and social studies teacher at Cleveland STEM High School in Seattle. He can be reached at @baritoneblogger on Twitter.