Teaching for Black Lives
Black students' minds and bodies are under attack. We're fighting back.Table of Contents
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Teaching for Black Lives grows directly out of the movement for Black lives. We recognize that anti-Black racism constructs Black people, and Blackness generally, as not counting as human life. Throughout this book, we provide resources and demonstrate how teachers connect curriculum to young people's lives and root their concerns and daily experiences in what is taught and how classrooms are set up. We also highlight the hope and beauty of student activism and collective action.
Winner of a 2019 Skipping Stones Honor Awards
“A handbook to help all educators fight racism.”
—The Washington Post
“This book is not just for teachers in the classroom, but also for those of us who care about making Black lives matter in the community. It should be required reading for all who care about the future of Black youth.”
—Opal Tometi, #BlackLivesMatter co-founder and executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration
“This is essential. Every school in the country needs this. No book better unpacks and gives color to the modern movement we’re in than this.”
—Shaun King, activist and journalist
“I love Teaching for Black Lives because it’s a bible to understanding both the contributions of Black and Brown people to America as well as the struggles and chains of institutional racism.”
—Michael Bennett, author of Things That Make White People Uncomfortable
“Every teacher in America needs to pick up this book.”
—Linda Sarsour, National co-chair of the Women’s March and co-founder of MPower Change
“Again, the folks at Rethinking Schools have stepped out to produce a timely volume that should become a central staple in how we understand race and the radical imaginary in K–12 classrooms.”
—David Stovall, Professor of African American Studies and Educational Policy Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago
“In this edited volume, we learn that Black Lives Matter is not just a rallying cry in the movement against police abuse and violence, but it is also a critical framework for understanding the persistent attacks on public education. As public schools face withering attacks on the national, state, and local level, this important collection edited by Watson, Hagopian, and Au will educate, inspire, and rally those in the struggle for education justice. From students, to educators, to a public that cares about public education, this book is a must-read to know the issues at stake and the strategies necessary to win.”
—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
“Teaching for Black Lives is a moral lifeline for all educators looking to rehumanize our schools and society through education, love, and action.”
—Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, educator and national co-organizer of Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action
“Anyone who teaches Black students or has a Black child in school must read this book.”
—Darnell M. Hunt, Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at UCLA
American Studies and Educational Policy Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago
Section 1 — Making Black Lives Matter in Our Schools
Black Students’ Lives Matter
Building the school-to-justice pipeline
By the editors of Rethinking Schools
How One Elementary School Sparked a Citywide Movement to Make Black Students’ Lives Matter
By Wayne Au and Jesse Hagopian
Student Athletes Kneel to Level the Playing Field By Jesse Hagopian
Happening Yesterday, Happened Tomorrow Teaching the ongoing murders of Black men
By Renée Watson
Space for Young Black Women An interview with Candice Valenzuela
By Jody Sokolower
Trayvon Martin and My Students Writing toward justice
By Linda Christensen
Two Sets of Notes By MK Asante
Taking the Fight Against White Supremacy into Schools By Adam Sanchez
A Vision for Black Lives
Policy demands for Black power, freedom, and justice
By the Movement for Black Lives coalition
Section 2 — Enslavement, Civil Rights, and Black Liberation
The Color Line How white elites sought to divide and conquer in the American colonies
By Bill Bigelow
Presidents and Slaves Helping students find the truth By Bob Peterson
When Black Lives Mattered Why teach Reconstruction
By Adam Sanchez
Reconstructing the South
By Bill Bigelow
Medical Apartheid Teaching the Tuskegee Syphilis Study
By Gretchen Kraig-Turner
Beyond Just a Cells Unit
What my science students learned from the story of Henrietta Lacks
By Gretchen Kraig-Turner
The organization at the heart of the civil rights revolution
By Adam Sanchez
Claiming and Teaching the 1963 March on Washington By Bill Fletcher Jr.
Reflections of a “Deseg Baby” By Linda Mizell
What We Don’t Learn About the Black Panther Party — but Should By Adam Sanchez and Jesse Hagopian
COINTELPRO Teaching the FBI’s war on the Black freedom movement
By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
Section 3 — Gentrification, Displacement, and Anti-Blackness
Burned Out of Homes and History
Unearthing the silenced voices of the Tulsa Race Riot
By Linda Christensen
“The Most Gentrified City of the Century” By Becky HenkleBerry and Jeff Waters
What Do You Mean When You Say Urban?
Speaking honestly about race and students
By Dyan Watson
Vacancies to Fill Considering desire in the past and future of Chicago’s vacant schools
By Eve L. Ewing
Plotting Inequalities, Building Resistance By Bridget Brew, Crystal Proctor, and Adam Renner
Bearing Witness Through Poetry By Renée Watson
Shock-Doctrine Schooling in Haiti Neoliberalism off the Richter scale
By Jesse Hagopian
Lead Poisoning Bringing social justice to chemistry
By Karen Zaccor
Section 4 — Discipline, the Schools-to-Prison Pipeline, and Mass Incarceration
Jailing Our Minds By Abbie Cohen
Schools and the New Jim Crow An interview with Michelle Alexander
By Jody Sokolower
Racial Justice Is Not a Choice White supremacy, high-stakes testing, and the punishment of Black and Brown students
By Wayne Au
How K–12 Schools Push Out Black Girls An interview with Monique W. Morris
By Kate Stoltzfus
Haniyah’s Story By Haniyah Muhammad
Teaching Haniyah By Jody Sokolower
Teaching the Prison-Industrial Complex By Aparna Lakshmi
Restorative Justice What it is and is not
By the editors of Rethinking Schools
Baby Steps Toward Restorative Justice By Linea King
Section 5 — Teaching Blackness, Loving Blackness, and Exploring Identity
A Talk to Teachers By James Baldwin
Black Like Me By Renée Watson
Dear White Teacher By Chrysanthius Lathan
Black Boys in White Spaces One mom’s reflection By Dyan Watson
Raised by Women Celebrating our homes By Linda Christensen
Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class By Clint Smith
#MeToo and The Color Purple By Linda Christensen
Queering Black History and Getting Free By Dominique Hazzard
Rethinking Islamophobia Combating bigotry by raising the voices of Black Muslims By Alison Kysia
Rethinking Identity Afro-Mexican history By Michelle Nicola
Brown Kids Can’t Be in Our Club Teaching 6-year-olds about skin color, race, culture, and respect
By Rita Tenorio
A Message from a Black Mom to Her Son By Dyan Watson
Black Is Beautiful By Kara Hinderlie
Introduction to Teaching for Black Lives
Black students’ minds and bodies are under attack.
Fifteen-year-old Black student Coby Burren was in geography class at Pearland High School near Houston in the fall of 2015. As he read the assigned page of his textbook, he noticed something that deeply disturbed him: A map of the United States with a caption that said the Atlantic slave trade brought “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” Coby took a picture of his textbook and texted it to his mother, adding, “We was real hard workers wasn't we,” along with a sarcastic emoji. Not only had the McGraw-Hill textbook replaced the word “slave” with “workers,” they also placed the chapter on the enslavement of Africans in the chapter of the book titled “patterns of immigration”—as if Africans came to the U.S. looking for a better life.
In the winter of 2017, a mother in Connecticut wrote about how she was troubled by a worksheet on slavery that her daughter had completed for school. The question asked, “How were the slaves treated in Connecticut?” Her daughter had initially written, “The slaves were treated badly and cruelly,” but crossed that out and replaced it with the answer that was written in the textbook, which stated slaves were, “often cared for and [the slave owners] protected them like members of the family.”
From the north to the south, corporate curriculum lies to our students, conceals pain and injustice, masks racism, and demeans our Black students. But it’s not only the curriculum that is traumatizing students.
In October of 2015, a Black girl in South Carolina was ripped out of her desk and thrown across the room by a police officer in the school for allegedly refusing to put away her cell phone. The video captured by a classmate of the incident went viral. The officer who brutalized the girl was not charged with a crime and instead both the girl videotaping and the girl thrown across the room were arrested and charged with “disturbing schools.” In May of 2017, surveillance video revealed a police officer at Woodland Hills High School in Churchill, Pennsylvania, choked and body slammed a Black boy in the office.
Recent data reveals that school security officers outnumber counselors in three out of five — and four out of the top ten — of the biggest school districts in the country, including New York City, Chicago, and Miami-Dade County, and Houston.
These examples reveal some of the policies that result in pushing kids out of school, making it difficult to graduate, then difficult to get a job, and finally more likely that they will end up in jail. This school-to-prison-pipeline begins with a curriculum that conceals the struggles and contributions of Black people and other people of color. It is a curriculum that fails to respect young Black people as intellectuals, and ignores their cultures, communities, and concerns. In the majority of textbooks, African Americans struggles and contributions are minimalized, portrayed as blatant stereotypes, or confined to a few roles that are acceptable to mainstream white society. This absence (or destructive presence) begins in elementary and continues throughout a Black student’s schooling.
Even when teachers include African American history, they often fail to consider the methods used to teach about Black lives to Black and non-Black children. Command and control lecture and rote memorization are not effective means of teaching for Black lives. Indeed, teaching for Black lives means just the opposite: engaging students in critical self-reflection, grounding our curriculum and teaching in their lives and communities, and orienting them towards community activism and social transformation.
Teaching for Black lives means that we can’t relegate Black history to certain historical time periods or events and we must include Black lives in all aspects of curriculum including science, math, literature, and the arts. Teaching for Black lives also means considering the loneliness of learning about one’s history when you might be one of a few students in class (or few teachers in a school) that this history represents.
When Black history and Black contributions are denied in the curriculum and by those who teach it, Black people are themselves denied. Consequently, students who become disinterested in a course or vocal about its shortcomings and historical erasure are often labeled defiant and pushed out of the classroom. These students may then get swept up by police officers stationed in school and be hit with criminal charges for behavior that was once handled by school administration. If the offending student is sent to administration, they are often required to implement zero tolerance discipline policies prescribed by the school district that mandate suspension or expulsion for various infractions. When a decision to suspend a student is left up to an administrator’s discretion, Black students are far more likely to be punished than their white peers. When students miss school, they fall behind in their classes and are more likely not to pass. The pipeline continues with the lack of tutoring programs, counseling services, college access programs, after school programs, healthcare, proper nutrition, and other support services that would assist students who are falling behind. And if a student makes it through that gauntlet of perils, high-stakes end-of-course exams are waiting to deter them from graduating.
The school-to-prison-pipeline is a major contributor to the overall epidemic of police violence and mass incarceration that functions as one of sharpest edges of structural racism in the United States.
The rise of the #BLM movement
A new rebellion against structural racism is underway in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement, galvanized by extrajudicial executions of Black people by the police and white vigilantes. The murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the ensuing national protests that followed showed the potential for a mass social movement — and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was launched by three Black women, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. Their demand that all Black lives have value was simple, yet visionary — especially in its call to highlight the most marginalized Black lives, including LGBTQ folks, women, and Black immigrant lives.
In August of 2014, Michael Brown was killed in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, his body left in the streets for hours as a reminder to the Black residents in the neighborhood that their lives are meaningless to the American Empire. But this time the potential for a national uprising was actualized as thousands of mostly Black residents of Ferguson took to the streets and inspired rallies across the country and around the world. Only weeks after the non-indictment decision of Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson, a NY grand jury failed to indict the officer who strangled Eric Garner to death on camera, and the movement went into high gear. Student walkouts, mass marches, and urban rebellions swept the country as people’s anger boiled over at the racist criminal (in)justice system.
In 2015, the African American Policy Forum coined the hashtag #SayHerName in an effort to raise awareness about state violence against women — including Black queer women and Black transgender women — and the campaign took off in the aftermath of the death of Sandra Bland who died in jail while in police custody after being detained by an officer for a traffic stop.
Despite the ongoing protests, police killings of Black people have continued unabated, including widely known cases of Freddy Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother who was killed in front of three of her four children. In addition to these adults, police have also killed many Black children in past few years including 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, 13-year-old Tyre King, and 15-year-old Darius Smith.
The continuing police murders of Black people, and the refusal of the court system to punish police for these crimes, has continued to fuel an explosion of protests — from the streets to the schools. Protest even erupted on NFL football fields in 2016 when then San Francisco 49er quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, sat and then took a knee, during the national anthem in protest of police brutality. Following Kaepernick’s lead, student athletes from middle school through college took a knee against racism.
In Seattle, on October 19th 2016, the movement for Black lives burst into the struggle for equitable education when some 3,000 educators came to school wearing shirts that said, “Black Lives Matter, We Stand Together,” with many of them teaching lessons about the long history of the struggle against racism. This movement spread across the country with educators in Philadelphia and Rochester, NY, holding similar actions. Then during the first school week of February, 2018, educators from around the country organized the first national, “Black Lives Matter at School” week of action. Educators taught lessons throughout the week that corresponded to the thirteen principals of the Black Lives Matter Global Network organization and raised three demands:
1) End Zero Tolerance Discipline and implement Restorative Justice.
2) Hire More Black Teachers
3) Black History/Ethnic Studies Mandated K-12.
Teaching for Black Lives grows directly out of the movement for Black lives. We recognize that anti-Black racism constructs Black people, and Blackness generally, as not counting as human life. The chapters here in Teaching for Black Lives push back directly against this construction by not only providing educators with critical perspectives on the role of schools in perpetuating anti-Blackness, but also by offering educators concrete examples of what it looks like to humanize Black people in curriculum, teaching, and policy. Throughout the book, we demonstrate how teachers can connect the curriculum to young people’s lives and root their concerns and daily experiences in what is taught and how classrooms are set up. We also highlight the hope and beauty of student activism and collective action.
The first section of Teaching for Black Lives, “Making Black Lives Matter in Our Schools,” frames how police violence and the movement for Black lives can explicitly be brought to schools and classrooms by educators through organizing mass action and through curriculum. The pairing of these is purposeful: Not only is it critical that we teach about the systemic violence against Black people and the travesty of Black deaths, it is also important for students and teachers to understand their roles in organizing in support of Black life and Black communities, and against anti-Black racism.
In Section II, “Enslavement, Civil Rights, and Black Liberation,” Teaching for Black Lives takes a historical turn. Here the chapters focus on how Black history is taught in the classroom. We recognize for instance, that the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement are all regularly taught in schools, but, as we alluded to at the beginning of this introduction, we also know that these subjects are too often taught in ways that further dehumanize Black people and perpetuate anti-Black racism. Thus the chapters we include in this section reframe the teaching of these histories in ways that challenge white supremacy and reject many of the popular, yet racist, myths that all too often paint Black people as non-actors in their own liberation. To that end, through textbook critique, role plays, and other classroom-based activities, several chapters in this section focus on how racism and white supremacy have operated historically, and highlight how Black people organized in the interest of their own freedom.
However, we know that anti-Blackness isn’t just historical: It is spatial too. Through gentrification and the violence of displacement, anti-Blackness terraforms Black communities into white ones, and working-class communities into spaces for wealthy elites. Anti-Black racism also starves Black communities of resources, either turning them into neoliberal marketplaces for profit – as in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, or simply allowing them to remain toxic for Black residents. Teaching for Black Lives takes this up in Section III, “Gentrification, Displacement, and Anti-Blackness.” In particular, the chapters in this section highlight how these issues can and should be taught through a critical lens of racial and economic justice.
Displacement is not just a socio-economic process. It is real and concrete because it happens to Black bodies. Specifically, this happens in part through our schools’ roles in the mass incarceration of Black people. In Section IV, “Discipline, the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and Mass Incarceration,” the chapter authors explore the ways that school discipline policy and practice contribute directly to the disproportionate punishment and incarceration of Black students. This section examines what it means to teach students whose family members are incarcerated, as well as how to teach about the system of mass incarceration impacting Black communities. Section IV concludes with chapters that highlight the ways that schools can challenge mass incarceration, including some possibilities for restorative and transformative justice.
Finally, Section V, “Teaching Blackness, Loving Blackness, and Exploring Identity”, recognizes that Teaching for Black Lives encompasses more than just teaching critique and social action. It is also about teaching Black identity and the beauty of Blackness both as self-care for Black students and as a way to directly confront anti-Blackness. Here, we pivot towards looking at ways we can and should affirm Black identity in our classrooms and with our children, as we explore the varied and complex relationships between teaching, learning, and being Black. This includes respecting and affirming the language that bathes our existence, and explores the intersectionality with other identities. Here the authors celebrate Blackness and all of its hues while explicating the tensions between being seen and unseen all at once.
We do not expect Teaching for Black Lives to end police violence against Black communities, stop anti-Black racism in schools, or end the school-to-prison pipeline. We do, however, see this collection as playing an important role in highlighting the ways educators can and should make their classrooms and schools sites of resistance to white supremacy and anti-Blackness, as well as sites for knowing the hope and beauty in Blackness. The ferocity of racism in the United States against black minds and black bodies demands that teachers fight back. We must organize against anti-blackness amongst our colleagues and in our communities; we must march against police brutality in the streets; and we must teach for Black lives in our classrooms. We call on others to join us in this fight.