Districts, teachers seize Black Lives Matter moment for curriculum inclusivity

Fueled by the police-involved death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd and other Black Americans, as well as prolonged shutdowns that have widened equity gaps, Black Lives Matter is making its way from street rallies to curriculum.

The reinvigorated movement sparked a significant wave of interest from teachers nationwide who want to know what they can do to help implement change. Case in point, the free, online “Abolitionist Teaching Book Club 2020” grew from a 30-teacher webinar book club chat into a 10,000-attendee five-day teacher conference in a matter of weeks.

“It started with a small group of teachers talking about how we, at a majority White school, can help our Black and brown students feel supported,” said Jasmine Lellock, a co-coordinator of the event and an English teacher at Newton South High School near Boston. “The fact that it caught on so quickly speaks to the fact that we are in a threshold moment. We were at home quarantined. People had the time to watch TV and see the brutal killings that were televised. The moment was right, and the interest in the conference just spread.”

Held Aug. 8-13, the conference boasted attendees from all 50 states and eight countries. It is the brainchild of Joana Chacon, a fellow English teacher at Newton South, and focused on Bettina Love’s book “We Want to Do More Than Survive.” 

The book discusses abolitionist teaching techniques that resist White supremacy in the education system and in society. It also looks at how to establish new systems to level the playing field for minority students.

Embracing books by authors of color

At Newton South, that means embedding this concept into curriculum, starting with English, said Brian Baron, head of the 25-teacher department.

The department’s first step will be to only teach books by authors of color this year, with some exceptions including Shakespeare. With continued uncertainty about the format of the upcoming school year, all teachers will be teaching the same books at the same time — making it easier for the department to deliver a consistent message, Baron said.

“We made a commitment to address racial injustice,” he said. “We are also looking at how to engage our students of color into extracurricular activities. How do you recruit in a way that’s welcoming? Too often, kids get the message that ‘this activity isn’t really for you.’ We want to change that.”

Meeting students where they are

Baron also expects much of the teaching will be done online this year, so teachers must temper their disciplinary expectations.

“Some teachers will be bothered by students turning off their camera on a Zoom call, or by students dressing informally,” he said. “But those are things we need to accept. We need to take students where they are at and not get into disciplinary actions on a Zoom call, because those are the types of actions that tend to target students of color.”

Baron said these changes are receiving positive feedback from both teachers and administrators.

“People are excited about this,” he said. “Ten years ago this would have been a problem because we would have had all White, male authors. This is part of a conversation that began a long time ago.”

The education industry’s rapid transition from in-person to online has helped break down barriers between schools with different types of student populations. “It’s a lot easier to meet with other department leaders over Zoom,” Baron said. “We have a good community, and now we can recreate these barriers and talk with both urban and suburban schools.”

Lellock appreciates connecting with urban schools, as her first teaching job was in the culturally diverse Randolph High School in Randolph, Massachusetts.

“It took me a while to get caught up to speed about being culturally responsive and recognize my own whiteness and White privilege,” she said. “It was something that we, as teachers, talked about every day. But Newton is a different population and not as diverse. The thinking is that since it’s a liberal, progressive city, we know what we need to do, so we don’t talk about it.”

Setting standards around social change

Curriculum changes are taking place in other parts of the country, as well. Many districts are in the midst of redesigning curricula to be more culturally sensitive, including Essex Westford School District in Essex Junction, Vermont.

Its curriculum changes will focus on setting essential standards for K-12 around social justice through Teaching Tolerance, said Erin Maguire, director of equity, diversity and inclusion for the district. It will also develop specific instruction related to those standards that will include teaching about systemic racism. Professional development will be provided for culturally sustaining pedagogy, as well.

“It’s a tough time for teachers who will may be educating remotely,” Lellock said. “We are readjusting our curriculum, perhaps meeting students for the first time on a screen, and we are suddenly becoming woke and we need to fit that into our teaching. You don’t want to mess it up and do more harm than good.”

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