I don’t know the 13 principles of the Black Lives Matter movement but as a Black educator it is imperative that I empower all my students through positive reflections of themselves. My pedagogical philosophy is not based on social movements trending within society. For so long, myself and my people were always excluded from “the table.” My practice empowers me to provide the tools necessary for my students to bring their own seat to their table of choice. 98% of my students are students of color from various backgrounds, but one thing we all commonly share is a feeling of exclusion.
My presence alone is not enough. I strive to be a positive role model both in and out of the classroom. As a high school English teacher, I bring in various authors from different backgrounds so all my students have a chance to see positive reflections of themselves. We talk about and celebrate each other’s cultural backgrounds. I also attempt to make real life connections daily. When you can make a personal connection to what you are learning, it builds authenticity and value to your life. One example of when I attempted to bring history to life was interviewing a historical figure with my students. We were researching segregation in our society and the struggles people went through both in the past and also currently.
When discussing historical Black movements in the 1900’s there are a slew of names that come to mind. One is Rosa Parks. But, did you know that Rosa Parks was not actually the first Black person to refuse to give up their seat and move to the back of the bus? In actuality it was a teenager named Claudette Colvin in Alabama. What an honor and pleasure it was to reach out to Ms. Colvin herself. She lives right here in NYC! Due to failing health she couldn’t visit the school in person, but she agreed to do a live question and answer with my students. It was exciting to say the least.
For two weeks we did a deep dive researching the political movement sparked by her courage and the backlash she suffered. We also studied questions asked during interviews and the science behind open ended questions versus closed. My students worked in pairs before merging into groups. In pairs, we used the DOK levels as a model to assist us in framing our high level questions. Students also used those levels to assess the questions of their partners before sharing with the entire group. After sharing, groups decided whether the question “made the cut” to be officially asked and I wrote them down on each individual group’s chart paper. We brought the chart paper to our discussion so students could rehearse in their groups before the interview. Questions included: “How do you feel your actions have contributed to American society today?” “What advice would you give students today seeking to make a change in the world?”, “How did you feel when you were slighted by your own people? Explain”, “You made a courageous stand decades ago, do you feel society has changed much since then? Explain”.
Students worked cooperatively and so did Ms. Colvin! She was very candid and honest about that time period in American history. She explained that Rosa Parks was one of her mentors as was Martin Luther King Jr. Although she made a courageous stand, it wasn’t to spark a political movement, she was tired, both literally and figuratively. Tired of being treated like a second class citizen. She relayed how undignified basic life was for people of color. Something as simple as shoe shopping left her feeling small and invisible. They had to cut an outline of their feet on a brown paper bag and take that to the shoe store to purchase shoes. People of color were not allowed to try any shoes on. Ms. Colvin was also literally tired from being in school all day, as a 15 year old high school student.
She was feeling empowered that day after learning about other historical figures before her who courageously made history for boldly voicing their disdain for social and racial injustices encountered and endured in America. She said she felt as if those historical figures were pushing her down, preventing her from moving her seat. She was handcuffed and arrested on the bus for her “crime” and bailed out by the NAACP and MLK Jr. But they decided Ms. Colvin could not be the face of change. Two factors were used against her: her age and complexion. Not only did they feel she was at an unreliable age as a teen, but she was also of a darker complexion. It was decided that the face of change should come from someone older and with lighter skin, thus Rosa Parks was selected and used to spark a powerful political movement nine months later.
We were never taught that Claudette was among four other women who challenged the law in the Browder v. Gayle case that successfully overturned the segregated bus laws in Alabama. We learned that history taught in schools teaches us so much while not teaching us much of anything. So much is omitted, blurred and layered in political jargon that only confuses students of color instead of empowering them. Students read very little about historical figures that look like them and year after year only hear of the same handful of Black leaders that impacted society. What about the others? Why is there a limit in the first place? Sharing that historical moment with Ms. Colvin will be remembered for a lifetime. Although I am not sure how many historical figures I will have the opportunity to interview in the future, this motivated me even more to keep reaching beyond the status quo for all my students. They deserve it.
When teachers say “I don’t see color in my classroom, just students”, that sounds great and I truly understand what they are attempting to say, however that phrase alone still divides and excludes. We HAVE to see, recognize and learn from the cultural backgrounds of our students. See them! See their color! See their struggle and hear their stories. That is the first step in an antiracist and inclusive environment. Celebrate our differences while weaving in how we are yet still one in the same. I am them, they are me, we are one.