Ars Poetica

April is Poetry Month and there is still one more week to celebrate!

There is so much good stuff to share. If you are looking for classroom inspiration try:

The Dear Poet Project 2021

Poems of Hope and Resistance

The Parkmont Poetry Festival for Students

Lift Every Voice

AAPI Women: Untold Stories Through Poetry Unit (Elementary/Middle)

This month I am reading:

Hybrida by Tina Chang

Amazon.com: Hybrida: Poems (9781324002482): Chang, Tina: Books

The Freedom Business by Marilyn Nelson

Love Poems by Pablo Neruda

Love Poems (New Directions Paperbook): Neruda, Pablo, Walsh, Donald D.:  8601200381955: Amazon.com: Books

I have not always been a fan of poetry, but I have always been drawn to it. I have been very lucky to collaborate with several teachers over the years who LOVE it (shoutout to Gini, Thu, and Becky!) Following their examples has increased my own appreciation, as well as my ability to authentically share poetry with students. Their best advice has been to stop trying to get it. Just let the words wash over and see what sticks. I do this now and find myself less frustrated.

For my next trick, I will share two poem drafts of my own (SCARY!). While I am not a poet, I do prefer poetry to “journaling” and find it an effective way to capture moments and feelings as they happen. Leaning into poetry has certainly improved my prose, as well as my overall ability to notice the minutiae of life and its impact on the senses. Poetry is about the kernel of a thing and when you don’t have time for a cob (P.S. I stole this metaphor from Jason Reynolds), I find it’s exactly the right bite.

Thaw

The woods shed winter

like the crispy skin of an onion,

the crackling crust breaking open and then falling away.

I am surprised by the snowdrops, which appear

out of nowhere – a herald.

My son and I step lightly around the mulch,

there is something now to disturb.

Days later come the daffodils,

yellow yolk middles with ivory and golden crowns.

They spray forth and lean across the path,

beckoning with promises of more.

Cherry blossoms come early to ensure they

are spring’s star.

As the snowy petals drift to the ground

Redbuds burst

above tulips,

which signal to the Kwanzan,

which pull irises and azaleas out of the wings.

Suddenly the sky that seemed so big

through the bare exposed branches

shrinks back.

The view is seized by

millions of tiny verdant leaves.

Facts

You are either lying to them

or to yourself

Which is it?

You have to decide now.

No sitting on the fence,

no double talk,

no side eye, no asides.

It’s time to be all in,

pull the sword, claim the throne.

The bags are packed and the

journey is the destination,

and anyways

you have long left the station.

Can’t you just see, honey?

You have already

arrived.

{Inhale}

I stand in front of the classroom and

tell my students, You are real writers.

{exhale}

I stand in front of the mirror and

tell myself.

Happy Earth Day 2021!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

April is for flowers and rain showers and celebrating our beautiful and bountiful Planet! I really loved the unit I taught on Earth Day last year so I’ve turned it into a Google Slides hyperdoc that any middle school student can do at home or school. They may need a little help with the research, but it is designed to be independently navigated. It has several different activities and you can pick and choose which ones to do or add your own! Click here to copy for FREE.

In my 6th grade humanities class, we were studying the United States government; its three federal branches; and how local, state, and national governments might work together. It turns out that the history of Environmental Legislation and the Earth Day Movement is a great angle from which to learn more about how citizens can influence and partner with our national leaders to do really impactful things. The environmental movement of the 1970s was a fairly bipartisan effort. It produced a slew of laws that we benefit from immensely today. Students can connect this study to the Paris Agreement or the Sustainable Development Goals too. There are tons of art and science connections to make.

Here are my favorite resources for follow up research and exploration (these are at the end of the slide show too):

OUR PLANET EXPLORABLE GLOBE

NASA CLIMATE KIDS

MISSION 1.5 SIMULATION GAME

ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT CALCULATOR

So check out the hyperdoc and let me know what you think! I hope to share more resources like this. You know. When I get some free time. 😉

Also don’t forget to tune into Earth Day Live on April 22 starting at 12pm EST.

P.S. If any of the links stop working just send me a message at the contact page on teacherlesley.com.

Heavy Is the Wait

It’s a difficult time. I am currently reading and writing a lot about slavery while presenting a ton about lynching though my work with the Montgomery County Lynching Memorial Project. My English classes are also deep into the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird. They already know Atticus and Tom lose. There continue to be mass shootings and attacks on East and South Asian-American communities. The border situation has not been resolved and too many children are in government custody under unsafe conditions. Meanwhile, the recent officer involved shootings of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo, as well as two local men named James Johnson and Dominique Williams, continue to reverberate. Oh, and this week we should receive a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial.

I am hella tired.

If you need to teach about the trial (the irony of teaching about a trial while teaching about a trial) there are a lot of great resources out there. Many educators and schools are sharing really helpful ideas on Facebook and list-serves. This video has great advice from Dr. Z, a child psychologist:

And here is more from:

The New York Times

AmazeWorks

Minneapolis Public Schools

PBS Newshour

I am fairly sure my self care plan does not involve a full lesson rehashing the tragedy and rage around George Floyd’s death, but like this article from Learning For Justice reminds me, I can’t say nothing.

This all reminds me so much of when I was 12, the same age as my students, and growing up in Los Angeles County during the Rodney King trial. I remember the grainy video footage and can picture the four officers in court. I remember them being acquitted and I remember my city being on fire. Did we talk about it in school? I don’t know. What I do remember is that my family and I went downtown soon after Reginald Denny was attacked. We drove by Florence and Normandie; things were already charred. At some point, we went to the airport, maybe to pick someone up. You could sit in the waiting area near the gate then. While we were there, I saw Spike Lee, whose film Do The Right Thing alluded to the types of explosive violence that becomes possible when tensions around injustice simmer for too long. I went over to him and asked for an autograph. He was patient when he asked if I had a pen and appropriately exasperated when I did not. I went back to my mom to ask for one. After signing whatever random piece of paper I gave him, he got up. Apparently, his guests, Jesse Jackson and Maxine Waters, had arrived, and they all left the terminal together. Years later, I saw Spike again under very different circumstances, and I wanted to ask him if my adolescent remembering was accurate or something I made up after watching too much TV. I thought about it too long, the moment passed, and now here we are again, awaiting a controversial verdict and possible riots. Have things really changed so little in the past 30 years?

Yeah, I’m hella tired.

Monument and Memory: How the Word Is Passed

I am currently in a training workshop with the Zinn Education Project, having received an advanced copy of Clint Smith’s forthcoming book, How The Word Is Passed. Part reflective memoir, part travelogue, part historical text survey, part poetic response, it takes us on a road trip to the places in the United States and abroad that memorialize slavery. I love the way Smith verbally paints the places he visits in vivid landscape and the people he meets in precise portraiture. We are along with him for the ride. He also shares personal history, familial connections, and internal ruminations. His notes reverberate; my own experiences traveling to  places like these and teaching this history bubble up from the depths of my subconscious. I have many other books about slavery in America, but this one is unique. 

The workshop has gathered a mighty group of educators, and we are being asked to consider how this book might inspire us and how it might inspire the students in our classrooms. 

Clint Smith is a poet and an educator and a lover of history. We are kindred spirits.  Not many people know that my masters degree is in museum education. I did not intend to become a classroom teacher; I wanted to work in the kinds of places Smith writes about. I wanted to shape the narratives that people encountered outside of the classroom, outside of their childhoods, during their freetime, and on their vacations. Almost 15 years ago, I interned at the New York Historical Society during the mounting of its exceptional exhibit, Slavery in New York (you can still access a version of the online exhibit here but the Flash elements are no longer supported).  The primary goal of that exhibit was to remind old and new generations of New Yorkers that, while New York City was not the South, from the beginning there was slavery.  That enslaved people were integrated into the earliest groups of settlers. That they built Wall Street. That they sought freedom among the encampments of both British and Patriots troops during The Revolution. That they were integral fibers in the tapestral history of this metropolis and that their bodies still lay beneath the streets.  

It’s strange, but I forgot about that experience until the workshop facilitator asked us to craft a response to Smith’s writing and I began this post. Giving tours to school children at NYHS was a precursor to giving Saturday Academy tours of Seneca Village with the Central Park Conservancy, which begat teaching 4th graders at Dalton about the Amistad, Olaudah Equiano, and The Gullah. We visited the African Burial Ground, which is also mentioned in Smith’s chapter on New York’s racial history. After I moved, I taught about slavery to 6th graders as I shared my family tree during our culture project and to 8th graders on a spring break trip to South Carolina and to 7th graders studying The Civil War. I teach it to my son. Everywhere I have taught, I have taught about slavery.  As a museum educator, as a classroom educator, as a parent, it has always been relevant. How The Word Is Passed, indeed. 

My husband’s family is proudly from Hampton, where the first Africans were brought to Virginia.

Even now, as an English teacher, it occurs to me that To Kill A Mockingbird is itself a sort of literary monument linking slavery to segregation to racial terror and injustice in America. It is iconic, persistent, and flawed like many of the places Clint Smith visits in his book.  Each person who encounters it must reckon with its continued existence and make sense of their own experience. They have to walk around the edges, go into the doorways, look around, touch the walls. I am my student’s tour guide on this journey, focusing on what I want them to notice and pointing out what they might miss, but ultimately not in control of what they might walk away with or how this visit will resonate and connect many years down the line.  

In a few weeks I will present with my good friends Anthony Cohen and Michael V. Williams at the Independent School Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) Winter Institute, the theme of which is Reflection, Reckoning, and Rebirth: Inspiring Change Amidst Global Crises. Our workshop will present the work of The Montgomery County Lynching Memorial Project and invite educators to reflect on narratives of historical conflict and reconciliation within their own communities, to conduct research on those topics, and to build curricular ideas for integration into the classroom. I plan to share how I am connecting MoCoLMP’s work to To Kill A Mockingbird, since a book so deeply connected to the history of lynching must be tethered to both the work the Equal Justice Initiative and our area’s own unearthed skeletons.  I hope to encourage other local schools that teach TKAM to do the same.  In September, they can participate in a soil collection during the planned Remembrance Weekend. One day soon, there will be markers they can visit. This history belongs to all of us, and the wounds won’t even begin heal until we all take part in remembering. 

Smith writes that we can learn this history from so many people and places, but “at some point, it is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.” 

Perhaps I hope most to give my students the will to remember and to reckon, and maybe, to find a way to heal. 

Here are a few resources for thinking about and teaching monuments and memory. Comment and share if you have others. 

This Birthday is Sponsored by the Letter “C”

Last Saturday was my birthday.  It was also the anniversary of a year in pandemic mode, of cautious living, of extreme anxiety, of processing grief for everything and everybody that has been lost.  Last year I had big (Vegas-level big) plans for my birthday.  My whole family was gathering for a multi-day fest because I was turning 40.  My family doesn’t need much of a reason to get together and party, but the timing was perfect and the schedule of events promised a weekend of my favorite things with my favorite people.  I was really looking forward to it.  

We canceled the celebration shortly after the WHO announcement.  I guess we still held onto a sliver of hope that this virus wasn’t actually going to affect the U.S. or us. What hubris. Instead on my big day, I ordered West Indian take out, turned out the lights, and turned on a movie.  I don’t remember which one. I wasn’t really watching. I felt sad unpacking my sparkly outfits that would be appropriate nowhere else but The Strip. My husband did make me a fabulous carrot cake from scratch.  He is a terrific baker. Still, it was a pretty pitiful “Cuarentena”.

We didn’t know then that there would be a whole year of Covid-19 affected birthday celebrations, or that we would become quite good at them.  I have been asked to participate in dozens of zoom calls, socially distanced picnics, outdoor yoga classes, compilation videos, and deliveries of everything from champagne to cookie arrangements.  My aunt rented a parking lot and turned it into a drive-in movie theater for my uncle’s 70th.  We are so clever under duress. 

When it became apparent that I would have another Covid Birthday, that we would not, in fact, re-enact my celebration in person a year later, I tried to rally.  There remains a lot to be grateful for after all.  While I still cannot be with my family and friends scattered across the country, we are all alive and getting vaccinated.  We are very, very lucky.  There will be other gatherings, maybe sooner, maybe later. In the meantime, the truth is that I am tired of adapting.  I have adjusted and transformed and modified so much these last twelve months that I just can’t do it anymore.  Instead, I chose to fully embrace the best parts of this year, which have been learning to appreciate quiet and to value my own company. So for my 41st birthday I checked myself into a hotel and celebrated in joyful solitude. 

It will not surprise any mother or any teacher and especially any mother-teacher that this turned out to be the very best idea.  Two friends surprised me by sending reinforcement libations and sweet cards.  I took several naps.  I ordered food at 9pm and bought bubble bath at a nearby CVS.   In the morning I meditated in a garden and walked the city at my own pace. It was a true retreat and a gift I needed: permission to throw away ideas about getting back to normal and let this new life be what it will.  Resistance seems futile under the continued circumstances. 

Every year, my birthday falls on the vernal equinox, The First Day of Spring, which marks when the Sun is exactly above the Equator and day and night are of equal length.  In the Northern Hemisphere, it means longer days with more light are ahead. Having recently gotten into crystals, I brought a few along. I think I like most the way these metaphysical tools make my intentions tangible. On this vernal equinox birthday, I thought about what I needed most to bring my life into balance as we anticipate better days ahead and a return to at least some aspects of the before times.  What was it I wished for, beyond the health and well-beling of my loved ones? 

There is first and foremost Compassion, of which I am discovering new levels.  I have never felt more connected to or concerned with other people or more committed to acting out of love in ways that diminish harm. We are all dealing with so much. I have a lot more appreciation, acceptance, and grace for myself. This year, I hope to offer these to others.

I also invoke Courage.  This year has required so much courage just to get through the day.  The coming months will continue to require strength and fortitude.  I hope I can lean in and show up in the ways I am called to. 

Lastly, I manifest Creativity.  I am also celebrating a year of publishing this blog and the decision to share my thoughts, ideas, and writing with a wider world.  There are some awesome projects on the horizon that I will share more about soon. I have never thought of myself as an artist, but apparently it’s never too late to develop a craft, and as the Quakers say, The Way Will Open. 

A year in pandemic has been awful in many ways, and revelatory and transformative in others.  It has changed me, but mostly for the better. Healing from this trauma may take a long time, but if it has made me softer and more vulnerable, more in touch with humanity, more respectful of life, then so be it. 

When I got home my husband had made me another cake. Strawberry this year.  Different and delicious. My son bought me purple flowers because he knows that is my favorite color.  After a year of pandemic, I know enough to cherish the simplest acts of love. In the end, it is all that matters.

TKAM: The N-word Doesn’t Have to Be a Literary Landmine

In the before times, I went to a Drake and Migos concert.  I am pretty sure I went alone.  I think this because all I remember is being surrounded by very young white people, whom I could not stop watching because I was sure one of them would say the n-word.  My teacher-mother mode does not have an off button, and I was absolutely going to admonish someone publicly. Once I caught them. I was ready. Perhaps they sensed my impending rage because no one slipped up.  Eventually I was reassured section 401 was a safe space and I relaxed, content to merely model how to enjoy a rap concert without mouthing a racial slur. 

This same tense anticipation is felt by Black students in English classrooms across the country. At a previous school, a white and Latinx teacher said the n-word in class while reading some book, and the Black students came to me highly agitated by the experience.  In the end, the administration supported the teacher and an ambiguous English department policy to allow teachers to make those decisions in their own classrooms according to their own rules of English-teacherdom.  While not surprising, it was very disappointing.  I am not sure why teachers keep dealing with this word incorrectly.  The rules feel pretty simple.  Willful ignorance must not be in short supply. 

Although this is my first time teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, it is not my first run-in with the literary N-word. I have taught a book with the N-word before: March: Book One, the graphic novel biography by John Lewis. At that time I was with a thoughtful group of educators who pooled resources to make sure every 6th grader learned the history of the word, the context in which John Lewis presented it, and our clear rules that no middle school student should even consider uttering it because that would never be appropriate. Yes, it was in their music and other media. Yes, there were Black artists and intellectuals making different decisions. But most of them weren’t Black and none of them were old enough or wise enough to make a deliberate decision to intentionally subvert linguistic history.

This summer I read a lovely book by a Black author, Midnight Without A Moon. It’s about the South and Emmett Till and the Great Migration – important topics. I remember balking when I arrived at the use of the n-word between members of a Black family. I am not sure I would teach that book in my current setting. These things are nuanced.

The rules have been very clear this year, which is so relaxing.  It is a department policy that the word is never read aloud by anyone on campus.  Our clear protocol is to skip over the word and to offer in advance the pages on which it appears.  I model this by reading the first few pages where it appears aloud.  

This actually led to a great teachable moment.  A friend posted this meme yesterday on Facebook. I snagged it and put in our powerpoint presentation.  When we got to the part in TKAM where Ms. Stephanie Crawford is describing what Nathan Radley is going to do to the Black person he perceives is in his collard patch, I paused, showed this illustration, and asked what Atticus, who doesn’t want his children to use the n-word, might say to Stephanie Crawford, who is currently using the n-word in front of them. They chose a phrase and practiced.  English class disguised as upstander training!

Now, 7th graders are a little bit more primed for nuance so we did present materials addressing the argument that there is a n-word double standard.  The social comedians were helpful here. This video by Francesca Ramsey and this video by J Smooth were very compelling.  For emphasis we quoted this Ta-Nehisi Coates article. 

One thing I want to caution against is making any argument that says Black people who use the n-word simply don’t know better or are ignorant or don’t study history. As Maury would say, “That is a lie.”  The first time I heard the n-word was from my uncle who is brilliant, funny, and caustic.  He never means the n-word kindly. He always means it.  Some of our finest millennial writers and intellectuals also use it.  You can have a whole conversation with Damon Young, Issa Rae, and Beyonce about why. I don’t speak for them, but they use the n-word in lots of different ways, and I am confident they 1) know their history 2) are smart as hell and 3) have a purpose. 

My students were satisfied with hearing that Black people disagree about its use and that, when of age, each Black person makes their own choice.  There isn’t anything unfair about that because context and relationship always rule language use.  If anyone is concerned about “justice”, I have a few ideas of where they can turn their attention. The world is in no shortage of disparity, and we could use a few good allies. 

So here are few guidelines in case you need some:

  1. Tell the students the n-word appears in the book
  2. Tell the students NO ONE is going to say the n-word out loud in this class. 
  3. Acknowledge that seeing it written can still be hurtful
  4. Tell the students NO ONE is going to say the n-word out loud in this class. 
  5. Review the history of the n-word
  6. Tell the students NO ONE is going to say the n-word out loud in this class. 
  7. Acknowledge that there are Black people who say the n-word outside of this school. Clarify that this is Black people’s business and if one identifies as Black they are welcome to formulate an opinion and make a decision for themselves. We don’t control other people, and other people don’t control us. 
  8. Tell the students NO ONE is going to say the n-word out loud in this class. 
  9. Use the above mentioned resources to address any non-Black person who thinks not being able to say the n-word is “unfair”.  Ask them to re-direct their sense of justice where it matters.
  10. Make sure NO ONE says the n-word in the class and have a clear policy in place to restoratively address the harm done if they (or you) do. 

My kids still want to know why we have to read this book where the n-word appears over 90 times (either Harper Lee wanted us to know it was ubiquitous in 1930’s Alabama or she was having way too much fun).  I tell them I don’t know yet.  In their lives, they will continue to encounter diverse texts that have this word. Many will actually be by Black people. But if they are at a Drake concert singing along to questionable lyrics and my face pops up in their head thus preventing them from unleashing the fury of the lady sitting two rows back, I will have done my job. 

TKAM: I See (white) People

The primary lens through which we will teach To Kill a Mockingbird is that while it is a book about race and injustice, it is really a book about white people. We introduced the book with this clarification.  A lot of people think that because it is a book about racial injustice it is a book about Black people and therefore checks the box for “diverse curriculum” or “teaching about racism”. Pieces have been written about why this is not true, and there are SO MANY BETTER books to choose if that is the goal.  The beginning chapters are pretty dull unless you are mining them for information about white, southern Alabama small town culture. There is little to learn about Black people’s lives, joy, or even pain from this book.  They say we write what we know (or we should), and it doesn’t feel like Harper Lee knew very much about us. 

A lot of people also think it is a book about white anti-racist heroes.  We also clarify that, too, is not true.  Atticus Finch is a white widowed lawyer dad raising his two kids in a small south Alabama town. He does his job, upholds his family’s legacy, and makes choices he thinks align with his moral universe.  He is no one’s savior. Tom dies anyway. The town closes back in on itself, white supremacy intact. The system beats them all. 

Why am I convinced it is important to teach about whiteness? Because we cannot even begin to contemplate ending racism, particularly in schools, unless we do. If you are not familiar with white racial identity development, I recommend checking out the following resources.

Teaching While White podcast with Dr. Janet Helms

Ali Michael, PhD, Ted Talk

Ali Michael PhD – “What White Children Need to Know About Race”

The big picture is that white people do experience racial socialization and form racial identities.  There is a process for this racial identity development and it is composed of several non-linear stages. Without understanding this process and making intentional moves to develop a non-violent white identity, we get what we have always had – individuals, well meaning or not, who uphold a white supremacy that wreaks havoc on the world as it seeks to control and dominate people of color and resources.  To Kill A Mockingbird is proving to be an authentic text for introducing these ideas and making space for a necessary dialogue. I should mention that I teach in predominantly white independent schools where students of color are tired of having to carry the weight of these conversations. They find their classmates ill-equipped, and the white privilege and fragility exhausts them. I might not center this conversation if I taught primarily students who were Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. The needs of my students would be different and so would my curriculum. The context, as always, matters.

Recently, a New York City school came under fire for using the work of Dr. Barnor Hesse on The 8 White Identities.  These charts were posted and shared widely.  I won’t argue about the validity of this framework; it’s based on research and the progression lands for me.

The 8 white identities are a really interesting way to look at Atticus and the white people around him.   He is MAX a 6 at the height of his “heroism”, but he really doesn’t stay there very long. 3 is probably his comfort zone.  The town is definitely a 1. Young Scout is clearly a 2. 

Atticus actually loses Black readers early on in the book when he tells Scout not to say the n-word because it is beneath their class and to simply ignore her classmates who do say this racial slur. His advice does little to affirm the humanity of Black people and has much more to do with how he sees “their kind” of white people. The case was further sealed for me with Atticus’s later statement that “there’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance”, a patronizing statement that indulges racist beliefs about Black intellect while upholding the presumed superiority of white men within the system of oppression.  Young readers don’t learn anything useful about how respond to racism in real time from To Kill A Mockingbird. We can, however, learn about the motivations a white widowed dad raising his two kids in South Alabama might have for teaching his kid not saying the n-word as they relate to his family’s class and educational privilege among other white people. We can learn how a successful white lawyer doing the unpopular thing of defending a Black man can still fail to see that Black man as anything but less than him.

Rev. angel Kyoto williams has a really provocative teaching on the suffering that oppressive systems inflict on oppressors, in addition to those being oppressed.  She says, 

It is only when you find your story—when you realize the way you think and how you are has been utterly conditioned—that you will understand that even if on the surface you get to do all kinds of things, in truth, you have absolutely no choices at all. You have no choice at all other than to abide in this location and uphold it and be complicit in it for fear that to disrupt it will destroy who you are. 

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus fails to become an anti-racist hero when it matters most – in the quiet moments at home while raising his children. His platitudes about empathy fall short of him really wanting to challenge the status quo and use his privilege to improve life for the Black citizens of Maycomb. Placing too much emphasis on the ways in which he fulfills his tax funded work duties encourages mediocre racial justice work.

It is often argued that the Finches are confined by their circumstances, surroundings, and a set of perceived limits that require them to ultimately preserve the rules of whiteness they are conditioned to believe in. If so, then my students are blessed to be children of these times. By learning about the choices the white characters in To Kill A Mockingbird fail to make, I hope my students learn to create space for those choices in their own lives.

When we know better, we do better. 

To Kill A Mockingbird: Teaching While Black

So a Black teacher walks into a new school…and they hand her a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird

That’s it. That’s the punchline. 

Cover of the book showing title in white letters against a black background in a banner above a painting of a portion of a tree against a red background

I’ll admit I was shocked to hear I had to teach this book.  I had kind of decided to avoid it all costs. I hadn’t read it in decades. I did not remember the characters, the plot, or anything about it. Also I was teaching 7th grade. Didn’t this book belong in high school? Could we at the very least avoid teaching it during Black History Month? So many questions. So much dread. 

Books like To Kill A Mockingbird are no longer in vogue at urban, liberal, independent schools like mine. They are vestiges of traditional curricula we are supposed to have moved past through all of our professional development and DEI trainings.  To Kill A Mockingbird itself just carries a lot of baggage. Some people love it and think it is a truly “good” book, but a lot of people don’t.  There are dozens of critical articles examining the flaws from every angle.  There are horror stories about educators who have killed their careers teaching this book, perhaps by having superficial conversations that danced around the hard history  or perhaps by saying the n-word (which appears over 90 times) a little too casually.  Parents might have complained.  Students might have protested.  Librarians might have spent a summer reading replacement recommendations.  But there is usually someone hanging onto it, arguing for it from the corners.  The scary thing is I might become one of those people. 

In preparing for this unit, I have surprised myself.  I am actually REALLY looking forward to teaching this book. I have included all sorts of books about racial identity and racial justice in my curriculum over the years, many written by Black authors. Earlier this year we taught a beautiful unit based on Brown Girl Dreaming that centered Black history, activism, and art. Including BIPOC voices is not the issue; that is done easily, regularly, and with great joy.  Still there is something missing. Even using those texts, I have never been able to ask students to think about topics and questions like the ones that emerge so organically from this book.  And we are about to dive in deep.

53_159510.jpg

Earlier in the year, I thought I knew where I stood in this debate.  Now I am not so sure. My co-teacher has done a helluva job coming up with a framework that strips away traditional presentations of this text. I am adding in my own important connections, which I will talk about in subsequent posts. I’ve been having a lot of conversations about To Kill A Mockingbird with other teachers. Beyond mandates, I am not satisfied with the arguments for keeping this book in the curriculum.  Beyond the traumatic memories of bad teaching, I am equally unsatisfied with the arguments for throwing it out.  I guess I still need to see this play out for myself.   

Over the next few weeks, I hope to explore questions that don’t have easy answers right now, such as:

  • Why would two Black educators bother teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps even choose to do it again?
  • Have we sufficiently prepared ourselves to teach this book in an anti-racist, trauma informed way that accounts for our diverse students varying experiences and needs?
  • Why might it be advantageous and appropriate to view racial violence, white supremacy, and systemic racism through a white lens and a white voice?
  • What will this experience actually be like given we are doing this work in a hybrid learning environment during a pandemic?

What I know for sure is that teaching this unit will challenge me to do my very best work. And if I do it right, my students will walk away with an understanding of the world that better prepares them to make just choices and fight racial bias wherever they may find it, ESPECIALLY in the Pulitzer Prize winning darling of the American canon.

Digging Deeper into Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming is a middle grade classic and truly a work of art.  A memoir about how the South shaped her life and how she came to dream of being a writer, Jacqueline Woodson beautifully portrays her childhood in a powerful verse novel.  She touches on many relatable themes such as family, friendship, home, change, and education. There are tons of literary devices to notice and enjoy.  While it is specifically a story about her family, the magic of Brown Girl Dreaming is how Woodson captures the fullness of the Black Family Experience – the joy, the resilience, the love – all of it. Her family was nothing like my family and she is of a different generation, yet I found myself connecting to her experiences anyways. 

This book is one I recommend for every home and school library.  However, this year I teach 7th grade English, and honestly, I was surprised to see it on our booklist.  It is typically read in 4th – 6th grade and I wondered if it wasn’t a little young. 7th graders ride a fine line between middle grade and YA, with the tilt depending on the time of year.  However, I also know that once they cross over into YA-land, it is really hard to get them back.  This 7th grade year is the last year they will be interested in many middle school books. We have one last opportunity to squeeze certain books in and the key is to avoid shallow studies.  I wondered how we would deepen the experience for those who had already read it or for students who read above its level. 

Enter The Research Project. 

The other thing that Jacqueline Woodson does masterfully is weave in references to Black History, Art, and Activism.  She is a child of the 60s and 70s and watches both the civil rights movement and Black Power movement unfold around her.  These references are sprinkled in throughout the book. Some are just the drop of a name.  Others are a whole ode, like the poem “Say It Loud”, about the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. 

What our English team brilliantly realized was that these references were flying over the heads of even our best readers. While Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington are generally familiar to all students at our school by this age, other heroes and events are lesser known. Most did not yet have an opportunity to hear stories of The Great Migration or to read James Baldwin. They probably didn’t grow up listening to Sam Cooke. Even modern celebrities like John Lewis and Angela Davis are far more nuanced than they know.  To fully grasp the messages in Brown Girl Dreaming, students needed these names and events to resonate. By the end of this unit they would. 

(Full disclosure – this curriculum idea came from the previous English team at The Maret School in Washington DC. I was just fortunate enough to teach it.  Also I think it would be a great family or summer project.)

First, we compiled a list of references that could become research topic.  We assigned one iconic figure, group, or event to each student.   

Then we partnered with our librarians to create a research portal with suggested sources:

Students used Noodletools to cite sources and make notecards:

Then each student designed a google slide that incorporated important information about their topic:

Then they used Flipgrid to make a screencast where they verbally narrated the story of their icon. As the references appeared in the book, students would watch their classmates’ screencast to learn more about that figure, group, or event:  

Students teaching students (and me!) – it was awesome. 

This Black History Month has been pretty relaxing because we completed this project last quarter and have no need to stuff anything in just because it is February. This truly feels like a best practice because:

1) We are  incorporating Black History into our curriculum in authentic ways.

2) It is very easy to bring any one of these topics up again because we all have the same background knowledge now.

3) We have made it clear that Black history is full of empowered joy and agency, not just trauma. 


My co-teacher said Brown Girl Dreaming was her favorite unit.  I think I will remember it as mine too.

Black History Month Refresh

Today is Monday, February 1st. Such a neat and tidy beginning to Black History Month. 

Hopefully, there is already programming in place in your classroom, school, or organization to commemorate it.  I hope even more that this month is not the first time Black History is being taught nor will it be confined to the next 28 days.

Beyond teaching the identity calendar, my overall priority is to make sure my curriculum includes multiple perspectives and builds the cultural competence of my students, with the goal of creating space for each of them to be seen and represented in some capacity. This means my curriculum must be dynamic and able to adapt to the new groups of students I get each year. Equally important, I am always challenging myself to learn more and dig deeper, then bring that back to the classroom. If the lessons are stale for me, they won’t ring authentically important to my students either. 

*EDITING TO ADD: I recently talked about this topic and many of the resources below on The Kojo Nnamdi show which also featured Dr. Greg Carr.

If you are first starting out or are less familiar with Black History, definitely rely on tried and true resources from justice centered teaching organizations. A few suggestions include:

Here are a few other fresh and inspiring ways to teach Black History Month.

Teach the Collective

There was a terrific article by Imani Perry in the New York Times called “Do We Ask Too Much of Black Heroes”?  In it she argues that:

Heroes, as historians and activists have noted for generations, are often made mythic in ways that are troubling. Social change is never wrought by individuals. Movement is a collective endeavor and the romantic ideal of the hero obscures that truth. Recent social movements like the Movement for Black Lives have been deliberate about describing themselves as leaderless or “leader-full,” in order to emphasize the importance of collective organizing while rejecting the model of the charismatic male leader. 

Perry also quotes the words of Ella Baker: “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” This is the lesson our children need in this moment: that they do not need to wait for a hero to lead or even wait until they feel like a leader themselves – they can band with a multi-talented group of others right now and get started on the work that concerns them.  Rejecting this individualistic view is in itself a rejection of white supremacist culture.  Definitely apropos. Some heroic groups to consider depending on the curricular focus and age of the students:

  • Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • Freedom Schools
  • Freedom Democratic Party
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
  • Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee
  • Black Panther Party
  • Cohambee River Collective of Black Feminists
  • National Association of Colored Women
  • Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
  • Tuskegee Airmen
  • Harlem Hellfighters
  • Black Wall Street
  • Black towns and settlements

Teach the Truth

I really appreciate the following articles which emphasize “unlearning white supremacy” as the primary goal of Black History Month. If our lessons merely support false narratives about Black people and our place in this country, it truly would be better to not teach them at all. 

Additinally, part of telling the truth is lifting up stories of activists and organizers who have contributed, but may be left out of the known narrative due to multiple levels of marginalization, which can include being female, queer, disabled, or poor.  In search of “perfect heroes” we overlook incredible ones or erase the nuance of complex lives.

If we are going to single out people, let’s make sure the hero canon is representative of the ENTIRE community. Kids should know that women like Claudette Colvin, Diane Nash, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer also steered the course of history.  They should be familiar with the work of LGBTQ activists like Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, and Marsha P. Johnson. Some of our heroes  had physical and mental struggles that we don’t talk about enough. Widening our perspective will allow for more connection. Here are some terrific resources for teachers who want to strengthen their knowledge about Black history, learn from Black perspectives, and make sure they are getting the narratives right.  

  • In Class With Carr is an awesome Youtube show and podcast with Karen Hunter and Dr. Greg Carr of Howard University. I recommend the YouTube version because he magically pulls books from a vast and intriguing library.
  • Black Past is a helpful encyclopedia style resource with global and African-American entries.
  • The GirlTrek Black History Bootcamp Podcast is great fun for the mind and body.  It will have you walking and learning at the same time. 
  • The Equal Justice Initiative Calendar presents a History of Racial Injustice and is a heartbreaking catalogue with an entry for every day of the year.  Posted casually in the classroom it elicits lots of questions and conversations. 
  • The Great Unlearn with Rachel Cargle is a self-paced curriculum. Follow them on Instagram for daily topics to research. 

Teach the Future

You cannot teach about Black history and not support today’s freedom movements. The Black Lives Matter movement was just nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.  It is growing stronger and clearer in its purpose and goals. It is accomplishing incredible things in local communities. NOW is the time to engage this modern iteration of the freedom struggle as classroom material.  This week is actually The Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools.  

There are four primary demands, 13 guiding principles, and so many resources and ways to incorporate the messages.  One year my social studies class focused on learning about the school to prison pipeline and writing persuasive essays about the impact of police in schools.  Another year, the Black affinity group adopted the message of being “Unapologetically Black” and explored what that looked like in our predominantly white independent school.  Last year, I ran lunch groups to talk about the four demands and how we were connecting them to current events and the books we were reading.  All of those experiences were powerful.  Get creative, use the time that you can, and don’t doubt that these topics will be interesting and relevant to a wide range of students. There is even a coloring book.  Mindful art moment, anyone?

Afrofuturism is another way to talk about the future of Blackness while incorporating current artists, authors, and activists.  There are incredibly talented people engaging in this renaissance to imagine a future for Black people outside of white supremacy. Black Futures by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham is a great primer and work of art in itself.

Additionally the Movement for Black Lives declares this Black Futures Month and has released this gorgeous and powerful short film:

However you choose to engage this month, do it with love, solidarity, and authentic interest.  Our students know when we are just checking boxes and Black History is too important for that.