As February comes to an end, I question what the implications are of ending the chapters and conversations around Black history and the inclusion of the Black Lives Matter movement in classroom dialogue. Will the conversation stop? Will business carry on as usual? Will classrooms—both urban and suburban—cease to celebrate the accomplishments of Black Americans because March has begun?
It must not.
It is not new news that there is a dearth in histories of people of color represented in social studies/history curricula in US schools. Although Howard Zinn (2005) had been able to bring these histories together as a counter-narrative to the Eurocentric history we had been taught in our classrooms, not many children, especially those from marginalized communities, are exposed to this knowledge. This knowledge is not usually found until one finds themselves in a university—a place to which many people do not have access. Most children never get to know the histories/herstories of their people and communities. Knowing how powerful and liberating such an education would be for black and brown youth, why then, has there been no movement to diversify the narratives within history classrooms?
Blame is always put on different peoples and institution; it’s the fault of NCLB, Race to the Top, Common Core, policy makers, politicians, administration, teachers, parents, etc.—or so the story goes. I argue that we all play a role in shaping and maintaining many of the oppressive forces within the education establishment, including the absence of recognizing the historical contributions of people of color—some people more than others, of course. In this framework exists the assumption that the system, school, and classroom are not set up to be liberating spaces, but rather, oppressive spaces to ensure the stratification and reproduction of an unequal society. Whether actors and institutions are conscious of this is up in the air. For social justice-oriented teachers, this is obviously not the objective of why we started to teach. And for those trying to fight the binds of policies and administration to bring about a more radical curriculum with critical pedagogy, burn out is inevitable. Unless we remember that we are not alone. All educators are at different places and spaces in developing our pedagogy and exploring different modes of teaching and learning history/social studies, and finding a community that is on a similar trajectory helps us figure this out organically. Luckily, there are quite a few communities in existence organized around this, including the Literacy Teachers Initiative at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education.
But back to the issue at hand. Espousing Eurocentric history curriculum may not be intentional (and even worse if it is intentional), and can be a difficult act to modify if it has been commonplace. Indeed, absence of alternative curriculum is a normalized aspect of the US schooling system, integral to maintaining the larger economic system as is, but we’ll leave this critique for another time. Yet, this should not be a deterrent for incorporating different content that can transform the classroom, particularly content that can re-humanize a space that has been historically dehumanizing, especially for black and brown students.
What if you’re not too confident in your knowledge of the content? Or perhaps you’re still cultivating your pedagogy. Maybe talking about race instills the fear of God within you. Like I said, we’re all at different stages, and that’s okay. What’s most important here is that you are making the commitment to teach your students a history through a social justice lens—a history that can transform lives. Race talk, or ‘difficult dialogue’, is too often avoided rather then explored, which is a representation of larger phenomena related to forces of privilege and oppression. However, make no mistake; not talking about race and issues around race is oppressive. (I highly suggest the work of Dr. Derald Wing Sue of Teachers College, Columbia University to further explore this notion. You can find one of his articles here: https://depts.washington.edu/anthweb/resources/diverse_pdfs/diversity_microagressions_11.pdf. For an even deeper theoretical analysis of symbolic violence in omitting race dialogues, please see an article by Dr. Zeus Leonardo of UC Berkely: http://vocserve.berkeley.edu/faculty/ZLeonardo/PedagogyofFear.pdf).
Discussions around race, both in present and historical contexts, are necessary for the development of a powerful capacity for social analysis within our urban youth. It should be embedded in American history lessons because, simply put, race plays a major role in American history; without it, we are missing an important piece to the puzzle. What’s most unfortunate is that this missing piece is the space where history meets biography for students of color. It is the space where we can see how our histories have been shaped in order to be better informed on how to shape our own futures and that of our communities. This history is not simply about our oppression, but about our struggle to fight for our own liberation, about the battles we’ve won and about the people who paved the way for us. I would bet money (something I never do since well, #graduateschoollife #thestruggleisreal) that if a history class had such content that enabled students of color to see themselves and their communities through an additive lens—In contrast to a deficit lens—the culture of the classroom would drastically change.
Once again, however, the content can be transformative, but without critical pedagogy, the message will be lost. There is a plethora of research on critical pedagogy and all its different branches, yet I want to focus on one that I find is most easily digestible but equally effective: reality pedagogy. Developed by Dr. Chris Emdin (2011), reality pedagogy is centered on bringing in the experiences and sociocultural understandings of students into the classroom. Rather than summarizing the core aspects of his theory, I’d rather let him explain it to you himself:
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/2Y9tVf_8fqo" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
A cheat sheet of the 5 C’s he discusses can be found here:
Reality pedagogy can be powerful tool in normalizing the inclusion of American Black history (as well as Latin@ and Asian history) by connecting the present realities of our youth with the histories of their communities. The marriage of history and biography is what C. Wright Mills called, the sociological imagination—a way of looking at the world, I argue, through the lens of political consciousness. This lens, as Mills (1959) writes, “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals… The first fruit of this imagination… is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances… The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two in society... Back of its use there is always the urge to know the social and historical meaning of the individual in society and in the period in which he has his quality and being.” (p. 5)
Not only does this tool of social analysis allow students to understand the larger structures that have shaped their histories and present realities, but it gives them the knowledge and empowerment to address these structures too.
I would like to note, that although the above statements were written with urban populations in mind, it is necessary that radical education and race talk be a part of white, suburban, and/or middle-class classrooms, too. As much as we need to work on combating the internalization and reproduction of oppression, we must also turn our heads to the spaces and places where privilege is also internalized and reproduced. Both processes must be disrupted. As a result of these disruptions and interjections, the understanding of white hegemony, which necessitates a dichotomization of white American history and black American history, can be fostered within students to help them liberate themselves from its effects. In the hands of these students—our students—lies the political possibility that history classrooms may one day include all stories and realities because we will be the teachers and students to make that change.
Celebrating black history should happen every day, in every classroom.
Please see below for a few resources and articles, as well as online communities to join to further educate ourselves and find colleagues to support each other. If you have any links that relate, feel free to share as well!
Online Communities and Resources (including children’s books and syllabus suggestions):
Emdin, C. (2011) Moving Beyond the Boat without a Paddle
Engaging Young Children in Activities and Conversations about Race and Social Class
Lee, Ramsey, & Sweeney (2008)
Racial literacy in a second-grade classroom: Critical race theory, whiteness studies, and literacy research
Rogers & Mosley (2006)
Promoting Equity in Children’s Literacy Instruction: Using a Critical Race Theory Framework to Examine Transitional Books
Hughes-Hasssell, Barkley, & Koehler (2009)
Transforming My Curriculum, Transforming My Classroom: Paulo Freire, James Banks, and Social Justice in a Middle School Classroom
About the author:
About the author:
Christina Marie Chaise is a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University in the Sociology and Education Program under the Education Policy and Social Analysis Department. Christina was a McNair Scholar at Hunter College; she is also a graduate of the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her activism and community organizing experiences have shaped her research interests, which include critical pedagogy and epistemology, ideology, and identity development around race/ethnicity and class. Her current focus is on studying spaces of both oppression and privilege to explore how the reproduction and internalization of racist/classist ideas can be disrupted, particularly in the classroom—from kindergarten to graduate school. She is currently a teacher’s assistant for Dr. Ray McDermott in the Anthropology Department and a project assistant at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. Christina has been with the LTI project since fall 2014.