States want to prevent schools from telling the truth about racism in America. Here’s what educators can do about it.
Rann Miller, Chalkbeat
It’s not enough to quote Martin Luther King Jr. and point to stories of Black success.
At least half a dozen states have introduced legislation to prevent the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools. Educators in states where such bills become law would be blocked from teaching about the racist roots of Western society, generally, and the United States, specifically, and how racism continues to plague us. Some states are trying to ban the use of the 1619 Project, as well.
To understand why Critical Race Theory, or CRT, and the 1619 Project — a New York Times magazine series about how slavery has shaped the U.S. — draw the ire of many Republican legislators, we can look to the late Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire for guidance:
Conditioned by the experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression. Formerly, they could eat, dress, wear shoes, be educated, travel, and hear Beethoven; while millions did [none of those things]. Any restriction on this way of life, in the name of rights of the community, appears to the former oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights.
But it is not oppression.
It is entirely plausible that the lawmakers passing these bills feel that any restriction to or challenge of teaching and learning from a Eurocentric lens is a profound violation of their rights and those of their constituents, specifically because they’re white. That would explain why so many white people levy the claim of reverse racism on CRT or the 1619 Project.
There’s anxiety regarding America’s changing demographics and perceived direction, but the reality is that, even in this increasingly diverse nation, power and authority remain largely in the hands of white people. Roughly 80% of all teachers and administrators in U.S. public schools are white. These are the individuals who set the tone for what is taught and how it is taught.
By contrast, white students make up only 46% of American public school students.
In New Jersey, where I live, where I’ve taught, and where I currently direct after-school programming, lawmakers have chosen to embrace the teaching of Black history with the passage of its Amistad Law, which mandates that all public schools teach Black history. The commission notwithstanding, white teachers comprise the the vast majority of those making curriculum decisions about Black History.
In the district where I currently work, of the six curriculum supervisors of curriculum, only one is Black, while 24% of our district students are Black.
There is a common and specific rationale among those who argue against teaching the truth of American history. It goes something like this:
While enslavement and segregation did happen. It happened long ago and was not instituted by anyone alive today. Black people, like Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, have succeeded in spite of racism. Therefore we can move on. … Besides, I don’t see color; as Dr. Martin Luther King said, I judge people based on the content of their character alone.
I’ve heard these arguments numerous times from colleagues and superiors alike who didn’t understand the need for things like culturally relevant pedagogy and culturally responsive texts, more Black and Latinx teachers, and a Black Student Union. I’ve heard it in personal conversations with white people. I’ve heard it from some Black people, too.
But as a teacher and student of history, I am well aware of the truth of our society’s white supremacist roots, its racist systems, and its white spaces. It is responsible, for example, for white teachers suspending Black children at disproportionately high rates.
I understand the trepidation white teachers may have teaching enslavement and segregation; some of my colleagues have shared that with me. Some have told me that they don’t want to offend. Others have said that there’s information they just don’t know.
I also understand that white teachers may be unaware of the systemic racism within the Constitution or the nation’s history oppressing Black and brown people outside of its borders, such as in Haiti and its role in overthrowing governments in Black and brown lands like Hawaii. I never learned those truths in school. Why would teachers and parents and politicians be comfortable with history lessons they were never taught and ones that debunk much of what they always believed to be true?
So what is the solution? Thankfully, there are some things that district leaders can do.
First, they must really invest in their professional development programs — ones that teach about historical truths surrounding white supremacy and racism and ones that teach educators how to apply this knowledge to their content area and the grade levels they teach.
Second, district leaders must identify teachers willing to teach — or willing to learn how to teach — these necessary truths to students in all content areas. It certainly doesn’t hurt to hire more Black teachers. Not that white teachers can’t do it, but speaking as a former Black social studies teacher, I wanted to teach about racism, enslavement, and the Africans who arrived in the Americas before African enslavement, and I wasn’t scared to do it.
In addition to hiring more Black teachers, hire Black curriculum supervisors and directors — those with the power to select and distribute culturally relevant and responsive texts, teaching strategies, and assessments.
State policymakers can attempt to outlaw what students learn. But they cannot outlaw what teachers learn, and they cannot prevent school districts from hiring more Black educators. This is a way to circumvent their legislative efforts.
Certainly, some will disagree with these suggestions, just as my children disagree with eating their vegetables. However, it doesn’t stop me from putting the vegetables on their plate, nor should we fail to teach the truth of American history.
Rann Miller is an educator from New Jersey. He is a former social studies teacher and a director of a local after-school and summer program. In addition, Miller is a professional development presenter and public speaker. His writings on race, education, politics, and history are featured in the Hechinger Report, Education Week, and the Grio. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
It had been two weeks since Terri Anderson, a teacher at The Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, had seen her 19 prekindergarten students in person. But on a recent Friday, they met virtually for the first time on Google Hangouts. The result: a cacophony of 4- and 5-year-olds on unmuted microphones.
“It was the best sound I had heard since all this had happened,” she said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the educational system nationwide, even preschool has gone online. But school closures threaten to undo some of the progress that Indiana has made toward improving pre-K access for low-income families to help bridge critical early learning gaps.
Many pre-K classrooms have temporarily closed alongside K-12 schools to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, demand has waned at some Indiana child care centers as more families are keeping their children home. The loss of pre-K classrooms has consequences: First, education advocates fear that school closures will worsen the disparities for students across all grades who don’t have access to technology and whose families have fewer resources to support learning at home. Second, families could find themselves without child care as they continue to work during the pandemic in roles such as health care workers, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, and custodians.
“One of the most important things children learn in a pre-K classroom is how to do school, how to behave with other children, how to self-regulate and be ready to learn,” said Maureen Weber, president and CEO of Early Learning Indiana, a nonprofit that provides and advocates for early education. “That’s one of the things that’s going to be harder for families to achieve independently.”
Because Indiana families have a lot of choices for where to go for preschool — districts, private schools, centers, homes, child care ministries — providers are tackling the challenge in different ways, both online and off-line.
At The Oaks, Anderson wanted the recent video meeting to be a joyful reunion for her pre-K class. She incorporated pieces of their daily routine, such as taking attendance with popsicle sticks that each had a student’s name. When she drew a student’s popsicle stick, she asked them to show the class a toy or something they had made at home, giving each a turn to speak “on the big screen.”
Anderson had them all hug their computers and give themselves hugs, too, wrapping their arms around their own shoulders.
“They need to be nurtured,” Anderson said. “They need a touch. They need a hug.”
Moving pre-K classrooms into the home also means teachers are supporting parents so they don’t feel stressed about their children “losing ground,” Anderson said. Teachers and instructional assistants regularly check in with individual students and families. The Oaks gives preschoolers 1-2 hours of learning each day, and more important than completing the work is instilling a sense of normalcy, she added. A lot of the key lessons are simple: Listen, follow directions, pay attention.
At first, parent Kelly McGary was worried when her son Sam’s preschool, Cooperative Play Academy on the city’s southside, closed its doors in early March. Sam had just learned to hold a pencil properly.
But now she’s less concerned after watching him video conference with his preschool class twice a week, and do engaging homework assignments, such as nature walks.
“I just have to put it in perspective. He’s 3½, he’ll be fine,” said McGary, a public health nurse. “Even if it lasts a few more months, we’re still interacting with him and providing for him. He has a safe place to play. I think he just misses his friends.”
At the Edna Martin Christian Center in Martindale-Brightwood, the approach to at-home learning has evolved over the last few weeks since the child care ministry temporarily closed its doors, said Alexandra Hall, director of early childhood education.
Teachers started by sending food home with students on the first day. Then, they started sharing learning resources. They gave students kits filled with art supplies, reusable writing worksheets, stories, and bubbles. Later, they decided they wanted to find a way to stay in touch with students in a dynamic, interactive way.
That’s how they started a series of 30-minute Zoom sessions throughout the day, mimicking a regular school routine.
“We figured if it works for adults, why wouldn’t it work with kids?” Hall said.
They hold virtual circle time and snack time. Families all gather for the video call with a healthy snack to show and share.
“That is what has just truly been a godsend during this time — to be able to look at people, even though you can’t touch them,” Hall said.
The online setting still allows teachers to be responsive to students. Just like in the classroom, “sometimes you have to throw your plan out the window,” Hall said — like when a student joined the video call in a superhero costume, prompting a show-and-tell that overshadowed the scheduled science lesson.
Even when e-learning isn’t as accessible, pre-K classrooms are finding ways to keep learning. For the five Indianapolis sites of St. Mary’s Child Center, where 93% of children come from low-income families, administrators are mostly focused on basic needs, such as directing families toward food resources.
Teachers are posting videos where they read stories, sing songs, or go on scavenger hunts. They’re encouraging families to find “teachable moments” but aren’t stressing academics.
“Children are such natural learners,” said Diane Pike, director of outreach and professional development. “If they are allowed to explore and communicate and ask questions and have that support at home, they’re going to be OK for kindergarten.”
March is Reading Awareness Month and a fitting time to discuss literacy in the United States, particularly among urban and minority families.
The impacts of literacy begin at a very young age—reading to children increases their vocabulary skills and improves reading comprehension. Faltering literacy rates among youth have a dramatic impact on where we end up later in our lifetimes.
Statistics provided by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, say that two-thirds of kids who aren’t reading well in fourth grade will end up on welfare or in jail and have a 78% chance of not catching up to their reading benchmarks. Sixty percent of juvenile delinquents and 80% of adult inmates are illiterate.
The Value of Education
Although learning disabilities (such as Dyslexia and ADHD) can impair one’s ability to read fluently or at a higher grade level, Clark Atlanta University professor Torrance Stephens says poverty often leads to illiterate youth and adults. “[One of the] main misconceptions is that these people don’t value education,” says Stephens, who has worked in public health and education and with minority literacy in the US and Africa for 30 years.
“What I have found is that from the elderly black and white women I worked with in my earlier years, to the women of child-bearing age I worked with in Nigeria, to the ex-felons, they all valued education and knew its importance. But in each case, economic factors led them to leave their formal education.”
Stephens, who has published several books including The Legacy of the Bush-Obama Keynesian Dialect and Income Inequality in America, remembers an elderly African American woman explaining how she left school in fourth grade to sharecrop and help her family. Her story is similar to that of many ex-convicts he has worked with who indicate, “they had to assist in providing for their families, thus school would have to be a loss and they hit the streets hustling.”
The National Commission on Adult Literacy says that reading from a young age is one way to keep our society from losing the important skill of reading. A report published in March 2015 by the Pew Research Center on Hispanic Trends showed that 80% of blacks had visited a library or bookmobile in their lifetime compared to 83% of whites. But with high school graduation rates topping out at roughly 50% in urban areas, it’s clear that frequency among racial and economic groups are not the same.
College graduates and those with household incomes over $100,000 are most likely to frequent a public library. Children who don’t have examples of avid readers in their life are less likely to become literate on their own.
It may appear strange that literacy is still inaccessible to some Americans in an age where the Internet has brought so much content to our fingertips—content which usually must be read. The vast majority of Americans from the poorest urban areas to high-scale suburbs have cell phones, granting them access to a gold mine of information, but Stephens suggests that real-world examples are still missing.
“In this instant culture dominated by emoji’s and 140-character thought spaces, reading—real reading—that requires thinking and comprehension takes a back seat. The challenge of getting people to read in an increasingly television-dominated culture is a major difficulty,” he says.
“I saw everybody around me reading daily; everyone had a library card and we were in the library weekly. I know parents tell their kids to read, but I don’t know if we as African Americans really encourage our kids to read, or even set the example. I suspect if you tell your kids to read, and watch the NBA or some music awards show, they will replicate your behavior and learn by example, especially if they never see you pick up a book.”
Making a Difference
The Read Aloud campaign challenges parents to read to their kids for 15 minutes every night before bed, something that 13 million children won’t experience on a daily basis. The 10-year campaign challenges families to “Read Aloud for 15 Minutes. Every Child. Every Parent. Every day.”
It’s an important task that sounds simple but can be incredibly difficult in an urban home where one or both parents may not be present and problems in the surrounding area can negatively affect the learning environment. There are also countless programs geared toward reading awareness and combating illiteracy, including AmeriCorps, Literacy Partners, The Wallace Foundation, and local programs run by state and city governments.
Over 2 million New Yorkers alone cannot read, which limits employment opportunities, quality of life, and makes it virtually impossible to pass good reading habits to children. Stephens says that many people believe literacy programs are daunting, but taking classes at a local program is a great way to overcome the challenge of illiteracy. Many programs are volunteer-run, and always in need of more hands.
This March, contact your local library or government and ask about ways to get involved with your community’s literacy efforts. Help promote a literacy campaign, give to a reading organization, or become a tutor. The Literacy Information and Communication System has an online directory that lists reading advocacy programs in your area.
Why is reading awareness so important? “A country’s wealth is almost directly related to a country’s literacy rate,” Stephens explains. “Literacy is the ability to read and write, which are strong predictors of individual monetary worth and future lifelong earning potential. Two, literacy is a very strong protective factor against getting arrested and/or involved with the criminal justice system. On an individual level, greater literacy is positively associated with increased cognitive development such as better problem-solving ability which means the more reading exposure the longer brainactivity will remain robust.”
If young people are to engage in democracy and society, young people need to learn how to respectfully disagree. Yet, educators often find it challenging to lead discussions on contentious issues.
Based on my experience as a middle school social studies educator, I’ve discovered that there are ways teachers and others who work with young people can show them how to deal effectively and respectfully with controversial topics – as well as what controversial topics to take up. Though the list of seven ideas I have created below were designed with educators in mind, they are applicable beyond the classroom.
1. Avoid personal attacks
In my former classroom, we had a mantra: “We address the ideas, we don’t attack the person.” When a person feels attacked, they stop listening.
Collectively determine what respect looks and feels like within these types of discussions. For example, a student may raise their voice as they passionately discuss a topic, but that can be perceived as yelling. Have a conversation on students prior to discussion on tone, style and how to engage in a topic when it becomes heated.
The educator’s role as a facilitator is to ensure that students maintain respect for their peers as they passionately express themselves. Making this investment will pay off tremendously for any discussion you have, whether in a classroom or another venue. If young people don’t feel like their viewpoints will be heard and respected, they will likely not speak up.
2. Try easy topics first
Before you dive into a more contentious topic, practice the skills of debate and disagreement with a topic such as school uniforms or cellphone use in classrooms.
A critical element of disagreement must also be empathy. Lived experiences often shape beliefs. Allow young people to share their experiences and their rationale. You may not agree, but you can be sensitive and try to understand their perspective. Remind students to seek to understand without focusing on being right.
3. Introduce familiar as well as new topics
To engage students, select social issues that young people are passionate about. This allows them to utilize their own experiences and knowledge as a frame of reference. It’s important that you truly know and ask your students what they’re interested in. Do not make assumptions. At the same time, recognize that there are topics or issues students may not aware of such as racism, global warming, indigenous and LGBTQ struggles for justice, and that this can be an opportunity to introduce them to narratives outside of their lived experiences or interests.
Be mindful when discussing issues that are connected to young people’s lived experience. Understand that certain topics can evoke strong emotions.
4. Keep discussions structured
Effective discussions are structured, whether it is a formal debate or Socratic seminar where students facilitate their own learning through group discussion rooted in shared texts or sources. No matter the format, establish and communicate clear rules. This will make it easier for you as a facilitator to enforce the rules of engagement and respect.
5. Have students prepare
Students should be prepared for the discussion, which means they should have read, viewed and researched multiple sources on the topic. It’s important to emphasize that students understand the topic from various viewpoints. Allowing time for students to prepare will ensure that all students will be able to contribute and engage in the discussion.
6. Take politics head on
Election season provides an array of topics to analyze, which will provide lots of material to inform student opinions for the discussion. With the midterms, students can discuss and evaluate candidate platforms as they relate to various social issues and their proposals for change. Ballot measures and amendments such as abortion in West Virginia, transgender rights in Massachusetts, and voting rights in Florida are vital to evaluate as well. Have students read and question the ballot. There are many social issues embedded within ballot measures and examining them prepares students to be informed voters when they are a little older. The midterms can serve as a springboard, but you can continue having these discussions throughout the school year.
7. Examine social movements
The complexities of social movements such as women’s suffrage and civil rights are not highlighted enough in middle school and high school curricula. There is usually a focus on leaders and not the long-term collective actions of individuals.
Examining historical and contemporary social movements like pro-choice and pro-life, Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, and the LGBTQ movement, provides fertile ground for diverse individual and collective perspectives of an issue. Students can analyze the websites, news articles of social movements, or engage in a pro/con exercise to grapple with perspectives of a social issue. Questions can be posed to students such as: “Why are people organizing?” or “How does each group see the issue differently?” You could facilitate writing projects to legislators and activists or design a research project where students investigate the purpose, perspective and civic actions of a social movement. A lot of insight can be gleaned from social movements that can enhance discussions. More importantly, young people can find ways to engage in civic action themselves beyond the classroom.
March, in many ways, has become the month of women. Each year, the month is set aside to pay homage to women who have been world changers throughout history and acknowledge the impact of women on present-day society.
Within Women’s History Month is International Women’s Day, a yearly campaign that encourages solidarity on issues related to women and girls. This year’s theme is #BeBoldForChange: “a call on the masses to help forge a better working world—a more gender-inclusive world,” according to the International Women’s Day website. In the spirit of this year’s theme, women and men across the United States are encouraged to #BeBoldForChange by staying home from work.
On the heels of the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, women, men, and children came out by the millions to protest a man who has been criticized for being misogynistic, sexist, and hostile toward women and immigrants during the Women’s March in January. On February 16, a nationwide Day Without Immigrants was organized to stand in solidarity with those who are often mischaracterized as criminals, “illegals,” and over-consumers of the United States’ economic resources. This year’s “A Day Without A Woman” protest intentionally overlaps with the global International Women’s Strike and International Women’s Day during Women’s History Month.
“A Day Without A Woman” protest is a one-day international strike from paid and unpaid work and a one-day freeze on spending at non-women or minority owned businesses. Women make up nearly half of the United States’ workforce but continue to earn less than their male counterparts. The goal of the strike is “to highlight the economic power and significance that women have in the U.S. and global economies, while calling attention to the economic injustices women and gender nonconforming people continue to face.” Women and men were encouraged to wear red as a symbol of “revolutionary love and sacrifice” and participate in any way that they can.
“I have taken the day off from my 8-to-5 office career but I am also a business owner,” said Ronisha Sanders, who participated in the strike. “I have orders to fulfill and brides to meet for cake tastings as well as speaking to a young group of ladies about what it means to be a black female business owner. That is all today! I am also wearing my red in solidarity.”
“I will be participating by not buying anything and wearing red,” said Alanah Dillard, a youth and family therapist. “I am not able to stay home from work today, but I will be having a staff meeting and spending time addressing the importance of recognizing this month and this day.”
Like Dillard, all women and men across the country are not able to take off from work to show their support. Organizers have recognized that some workers do not have the option of refraining from work for a day, particularly those with jobs that “provide essential services” like the medical field, as well as women and men who face “economic insecurity” and literally cannot afford to lose a day of pay.
A Day Without A Woman is a testament to the major contributions of women in paid, unpaid, and unnoticed labor capacities. According to the Center for American Progress projections, a total of $21 billion (in GDP) could be lost if all women took off work for one day. Although the idea of all working women in the country staying home from work is improbable, the potential impact of the strike is not only economic.
“I work in a predominantly woman-dominated profession [mental health counseling and social services] so to have women not show up to work would make a huge difference,” Dillard said.
Education—a field typically dominated by women—has already been affected. Some public school systems such as Prince George’s County, Maryland, have closed after hundreds of teachers and school staff members requested the day off.
As young professional women, both Dillard and Sanders acknowledge the importance of A Day Without A Woman through the perspective of their livelihoods.
As a resident manager for the YMCA, Dillard works closely with young adults and has noticed the need to continue to empower women and fight for female equality and respect.
“I was told by two African American male residents, ‘I don’t have to respect you. You are a woman and you can’t get me a job unless you are a white male, so I don’t have to do anything for you.’ This is why these strikes are important. In this day, these comments are made with no hesitation—and by kids born in the 2000s.”
For Sanders, the strike and call to support women and minority businesses strike a personal chord.
“For me, this strike is a solidified push against Mr. Trump, [and a call] to be bold in pushing for change when it comes to women inequality. As a young, minority, female business owner, I pray and hope that other women know their worth and that their purpose collided with destiny,” she said. “I hope we women never question who we are. The sky is the limit. I hope that supporting women-owned business continues even after this International Women’s Day.”