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.

Ago, Ame: Speaking and Listening in 2020

I am not a very good listener.  It’s something I have been working on.  Of these 13 good listener qualities interrupting, listening to respond, and giving advice are probably my most offensive habits.  It actually takes a lot of work to hear someone else’s narrative without simultaneously creating my own in my head. How rude!  

There is an Afro-centric children’s activity chant that uses words from the Twi language.  Someone, usually a teacher, says, “Ago” which is a call for attention and the group responds, “Ame”, which indicates a willingness to listen. When Kamala Harris said “I’m speaking” during the debate this week, she was essentially saying “Ago”.  She received no “Ame” in response. Millions of women recognized this perpetually disturbing pattern of communication with men.  I also paused to reflect on whether I had ever been steamrolled in a conversation.  No.  Because, typically, I am a steamrollER.  

Kamala Harris GIF - Kamala Harris Im - Discover & Share GIFs

I could blame it on being a first born, alpha, big sister.  Or a commanding, no nonsense teacher.  But more likely is that I began mimicking the traits of people I perceived as noticeable (powerful?) and learned to assert myself accordingly.  These traits are often presented as masculine forms of communication, but I’ve seen them apply to all sorts of bossy people. What is more certain is that the reception of these traits and the consequences for exhibiting them vary depending on your intersectional identity and the relationships involved. Context always matters. Being a Black woman, sometimes my assertiveness is expected and welcome and sometimes it is a problem. Knowing and accepting myself for myself, I deliberately try to choose environments that support the former.  

During an educational training this fall, The Wells Collective, a group of fabulous equity and justice practitioners, presented their set of communication norms.  Educational activities usually start off with a set of norms: be present, share the air, step up and step back, everyone’s voice must be heard, listen respectfully and actively, refrain from judging etc.. One of the first classroom activities is usually to establish such norms to guide communication practices amongst students and teachers. One struck me as particularly powerful simply because I had never heard it before: Listen as though you might be wrong. 

Wrong? I might be wrong? As in not right? Whoa. This little nugget has been transformative. 

Speaking and Listening are actually skills we are supposed to be teaching in school.  The Common Core Standard for English Language Arts includes a whole section on them. You start off in Kindergarten with the expectation that children will “speak audibly and express thoughts, feelings, and ideas clearly”.  In 2nd grade you move to “gaining the floor in respectful ways”, “listening to others with care”, and “building on others’ talk in conversations by linking comments to the remarks of others”. By the time students are in 7th grade, they are practicing how to “acknowledge new information expressed by others and, when warranted, modify their own views” and “work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions”.

In schools, we basically expect and assess the opposite of the behavior being shown in the national debates the last few weeks.  Imagine those conversation patterns taking place between two students or two teachers in a classroom.  What would we think? What would we expect to happen next?  How are the consequences so lopsided?  Poor conversational skills will get you sent to the principal’s office in middle school.  But being a horrible listener can also get you elected president? Make it make sense! 

Many of us are terrible listeners because listening is not valued very much in American Capitalist culture. We are praised far more for the words coming out of our mouths than the ones going into our ears. “I hear you, but…” is a commonly accepted response to any perspective or opinion. Articles about listening better are usually focused on improving romantic relationships and friendships – si charmant.  If you want to perform better at work, you focus on speaking – more loudly, more clearly, more assertively – just MORE.  We worry about the quiet people. The ones sitting back, withholding their ideas, not voicing their opinions, probably judging, being so suspicious with their listening

The academic area of feminist process has been helpful in understanding the roots and consequences of communicating to dominate.  I first heard about feminist process through a facebook group that aspired to operate via its principles.  We were going to take a feminist approach to group dynamics by valuing cooperation over competition and conjoining the goals of our group with our relationships. (Full disclosure: I did not understand what any of this meant at first).  The idea was to disrupt the patterns that usually control life in our United States – squeaky wheels getting grease and what not. I was asked to question why women are usually socialized to adopt male patterns of communication by demanding to be heard and respected (“I’m speaking”), but men are rarely expected to demonstrate that they are, in fact, listening. Feminist process shifts the expectations and centers the means over the ends.  How we communicate is as important as what we communicate.  Novel! 

Another disruption to my understanding of appropriate communication was working at a Quaker school.  Quaker schools deeply value silence.  There is a lot of it.  I can still command a group of children to be silent for an indefinite period of time.  Even with children unfamiliar with Quakerism it only takes three tries.  Some people experience Quaker silence as a form of emotional oppression.  I personally love it. Even though I no longer work at a  Quaker school I find myself still using the norms I learned there.  During a Quaker meeting there was no expectation that you speak. It was perfectly normal for 30 or 40 minutes to pass where no one spoke. When someone did speak the expectation was that you were listening.  And you demonstrated this listening by not speaking immediately after they spoke – you gave their words space.  A meeting with no space and too much mindless sharing was called a “popcorn meeting” and a popcorn meeting was a sign of failure.  One of my efforts to improve my listening skills involves giving people’s words space.  I deliberately pause and reflect on whether I heard them. Sometimes I thank them.  It comes off weird to some, I suppose, but hey – I’m listening! 

Senator Harris’s moment reminded me of one other I heard about this summer while participating in the Girl Trek Bootcamp: Fannie Lou Hamer’s appearance at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. I encourage you to listen to or read her entire speech.  

People were scared of Fannie Lou Hamer talking.  President Lyndon B. Johnson was scared of Fannie Lou Hamer talking.  So scared he scheduled a press conference in the middle of her speech so that news outlets would have to cut her off and air his remarks instead.  But later that night, the news outlets aired her entire speech.  Mrs. Hamer asserted her right to keep talking and America responded, “we are listening”.  

Ago.

Ame. 

More of that, right?

Happy Holidays

Happy Juneteenth! If today is the first time you wished someone that – don’t worry.  You are not alone. Today is Juneteenth, but more importantly it is Juneteenth 2020.  No longer confined to Texas or woke Black communities, it is now a national thing. Very different from Juneteenth 2019.  The number of virtual and in person events seems to have risen exponentially since last year. Companies small and large gave their employees the day off.  There is a proposal in the Senate to make it a federal holiday.  Certainly, this too is the influence of the last few weeks.

The problem with holidays is that they tend to simplify complex historical situations into neatly packaged narratives. Take Thanksgiving, otherwise known as a Day of Mourning (lesson plan if you need one).  The history of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is not simple.  They were real people with real interactions that had real consequences.  Neatly packaging Thanksgiving into a holiday has diminished those specific people and those specific interactions, but not those consequences, which remain very real for Indigenous communities across our country. Rosa Parks is another example of a simplified story (and holiday! February 4 in California and Missouri; December 1 in Ohio and Oregon; nothing in Alabama).  No, she didn’t just wake up one day, go to work, get tired, and decide to start a movement.  Her actions were planned and calculated and behind her was an army of people ready to get the boycott party started.  Of course, she deserves recognition – it’s just not the whole truth.

I love teaching American History so this year I was delighted to develop a 7th grade course devoted to the topic.  Our 7th grade theme is Others and the course title is “Conflict and Cooperation”.  I might change that next year to “Conflict, Cooperation, and Co-responsibility” – more on that next week.  We had three major units looking at US history from marginalized perspectives: Indigenous experiences in early America; the evolution of freedom from enslavement to the Civil War; and xenophobia during WW2 focusing on the Holocaust and Japanese American incarceration.  It was such a powerful class to teach, and I learned so much along the way.   When our national conversation on racism, policing, and began to heat up, one of my feelings was relief because I had prepared my students to understand it. We had been doing “the work” all year long.

A surprisingly successful unit was on the Civil War.  I thought it would be pretty dry, but it felt like a key topic to include.  We ended up skipping over chronologies, strategies, and generals (though I pointed out the wide array of local battlefields their families might visit).  We focused instead on the lead up to the war and why legal compromise didn’t work; on Lincoln and questioning his legacy as “The Great Emancipator”; and on whether or not it was a war “for freedom” and if so, freedom for whom of what kind (no question it was “about slavery”).  These were not topics I explored deeply as a kid or as an adult so much of the thrill was allowing my students’ ideas and perspectives to shape my own.

I am loving our collective renewed interest in this time period, but it is important we get the details right.  Here are some historical “facts” I have seen shared – mostly via social media memes:

  • Juneteenth is when enslaved people in Texas finally heard the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery.
  • Juneteenth is when the last enslaved people in America became free.

All of these contain kernels of truth…and kernels of not truth.

Growing up, Juneteenth was a lesser Black holiday than Kwanzaa, but well placed between Memorial Day and July 4, and therefore a good date for a get together.  In California, they only happened sometimes. In my kid mind Juneteenth seemed to prove that old timey Texans were really stubborn and that mail traveled really slow.

Later, I disliked suggestions that enslaved people in Texas simply had no idea what was going on for four whole years, until someone showed up to inform them. Talking drums, anyone? There was an entire war going on. A lot of people had been brought from other states by owners fleeing the encroaching armies. It was probably pretty clear what was up. Simple stories take away so much.

For a more accurate version of what Juneteenth might represent, I suggest this article from the always-on-time and good-at-explaining-the-complicated Equal Justice Initiative.  It was the beginning of a long road to secure inalienable rights owed to an entire population of people.  Andrew Johnson couldn’t officially end the Civil War until Texas stopped holding out on certain qualifications to rejoin the Union, including ratification of the 13th Amendment.  And then there was reconstruction and post-reconstruction.

My takeaway as a teacher is to incorporate more nuance into the narrative:

  • The Emancipation Proclamation was issued after the Civil War started and after much internal and external debate for Lincoln.  He personally favored recolonization in Africa – the moderate liberal position at the time. 
  • The Emancipation Proclamation only freed some enslaved people living in some parts of the Confederacy – 10 states in all, none of which Lincoln had any control over. It did not make slavery illegal. Excluded were enslaved people living in slave-holding border states that stayed with the Union: Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri and, my current state, Maryland. It did not apply to Tennessee.  Additionally, there is a whole section listing Union-occupied Virginia Counties and Louisiana parishes that were exempt. It wasn’t that Black people in Texas didn’t know about the Emancipation Proclamation; it was that white people in Texas didn’t care.
  • Sidenote: When did those enslaved in the border states get free?  According to this article in The Washington Post, Maryland declared its enslaved people free on Nov. 1, 1864, way after the Emancipation Proclamation and only a few months before Congress approved the 13th Amendment and Lee surrendered at Appomatox. It was a mere seven months before those enslaved in Texas received the big news. There was a vote that “tipped in favor of abolition only after the absentee ballots of soldiers fighting for the North were counted. The final tally was 30,174 in favor of freeing the slaves to 29,799 against.” Oh, Maryland.  
  • In the records, General Granger (sent down 10 weeks after Lee surrenders) doesn’t read the Emancipation Proclamation, but a “General Order 3”
  • The National Archives only recently found the handwritten order (so much of historical discovery rests on someone being interested enough to go through a box).  Granger’s statement reads more like, “The war is over, we won, and all ya’ll are free.  For now, just keep working though.  Yes, for the people from which you were just freed.  Try to get paid.  Don’t come down to the base and don’t let me catch you sitting around”.  The Freedman’s Bureau was going to come help…eventually. 

Slavery was a messy affair lasting over two centuries.  Freedom has also been a messy affair lasting over one and a half centuries.   If we want to truly understand, honor, and use history in the fight for justice, we must first learn to understand and honor complexity.  Otherwise we fail before we even begin.

I am glad the Black community’s microphone is turned way up right now.  So many demands are being heard.  Even things we forgot to put on the list are getting taken care of (here’s looking at you, Aunt Jemima).  But this moment isn’t about just fixing ad campaigns.  We want real justice.  And real justice comes from understanding real injustice and understanding real injustice comes from understanding real history.

As far as Juneteenth is concerned, I am always down for a reason to rest or celebration BBQ.  I am also glad we have a new holiday that forces us to return to the research stacks and reckon with the ghosts of the past.  There is sure to be a showdown over Fourth of July (hint: it means nothing to the slave). Let’s use these next two weeks to get comfortable with primary sources, facts, and long stories.  Then we can have a real conversation.