In the one high school honors class Jesse Hagopian was in, his mostly white peers laughed at him when he stumbled over some words as he read aloud to the rest of the class.
“Being one of the only students of color in the classroom, that pretty much shut down my attention or will to participate in that class,” Hagopian recalled. “School was a challenge to me. I never thought I’d ever be a teacher. I wanted to get away from school.”
Growing up, the Garfield High School ethnic studies teacher had very few teachers of color in his school career, and did not see any Black people reflected in his curriculum, until college. It was a “very alienating experience,” he said. It didn’t leave him any room to discuss or explore his identity as a Black and mixed race person, or help him appreciate the contributions Black people have made to society.
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Moreover, he saw distinct race divides in different classrooms. Whereas most of his high school’s students of color were in regular classrooms, most of his white peers were in advanced placement and honors courses.
“When you don’t have any context for that, and why that segregation is occurring … it led me to believe that there was something wrong with me, and that it might even be connected to my race. And that’s such a painful experience to share,” Hagopian said.
While his learning experience radically changed in his college years, Hagopian believes academic engagement should begin much earlier for students. It was in this spirit that Hagopian, and his fellow Rethinking Schools magazine editors Dyan Watson, and Wayne Au created Teaching for Black Lives, a book for both educators and students that has lessons and curriculum meant to challenge and upend systemic racism in the classroom. Released this year, the book contains race-focused lesson plans and classroom work that tackle everything from the school-to-prison pipeline and the Black LGBTQ+ experience to gentrification and lead poisoning. It also highlights the contribution of people of color to typically whitewashed moments in history, such as Reconstruction.
Studies show it’s crucial to the academic success of students of color to see themselves reflected in both curricula and educators. According to a study-supported piece by the National Council of Teachers of English, when students of color are taught using a predominantly white lens, it “reinforces the harm caused by assimilation” and domination. White students are taught that they can have a superficial “‘degree of understanding of the experiences of others [without] sufficiently challenging personal belief systems or promoting others.’”
But this changes, when students are educated with an inclusive lens. The NCTE piece states that students of color gain an appreciation for their cultural worldviews and practices, while teachers “can show respect for students’ ‘home places’ and recognize their own positionality as members of cross-cultural communities.”
Students of color also learn better, when taught by instructors of color. A 2017 study by the Institute of Labor Economics found that when young, low-income Black men have just one Black teacher between third and fifth grade, they are estimated to be 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school, and 29 percent more likely to consider going on to college. In turn, white students with educators of color learn to question and challenges assumptions about race, privilege, and class.
Aki Kurose Middle School special education teacher and education activist Bruce Jackson said this is why it’s so crucial to have an ethnic studies curriculum throughout all Seattle Public Schools, not just sprinkled throughout a few schools. Though the union recently lost in that part of its negotiations with SPS, any teachers who decide to use “Teaching for Black Lives” or teach a broader, less white-focused version of history as part of their curricula is a good first step.
“When I write my curriculum and do my units, I tend to start at Plessy v. Ferguson, at the end of Reconstruction, and then I move forward from there. I teach about the contribution of Gandhi to Civil Rights. It’s just as important as teaching what Martin Luther King did,” Jackson said.
At Aki Kurose Middle School, Jackson said, more than 30 different countries are represented in its student population. When he looks at regular curricula, he looks for the various groups who make up the middle school. But he doesn’t see them.
“When we are teaching for Black lives … we’re teaching for ethnic studies. A lot of our Black lives [teachings] are about the lives of the other communities of color that have been left out of teaching, so we are trying to create a curriculum that embraces all of those important aspects of history,” Jackson said. “Adding those voices into something as important as social studies and language arts is going to change the way they receive the knowledge we are giving.”
Jackson wondered what it would have been like to have a teacher of color in his own academic career. Perhaps he would have been a better student, and wouldn’t have had to look so often outside the classroom to learn about who he was, and his history, he said.
“The history of my education is a jumble of chaos. There are things that I learned and latched onto, but – I learned to read in school, but I didn’t learn what to read in school,” Jackson said. “There is more to teach and there are better ways of putting that knowledge into the heads of students. I think that we have a chance to do that now. I just hope we don’t blow it.”
Seattle Public Schools did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article..
Hagopian said it would have been “liberatory” to have had Teaching for Black Lives during his own high school career.
“When you’re a young Black person in our society, and you see hierarchies existing, and the power imbalances and the wealth imbalances, it can be very difficult to make sense of that, and can lead to shame and internalized oppression,” Hagopian said. “I hope we can help some of our students avoid those terrible feelings and that trauma with some of these lessons.”
The book can be used outside the classroom, too, Hagopian said, particularly when it comes to understanding and leading discussions around modern problems facing major cities like Seattle, including the ever-present spectre of gentrification and displacement, as well as the anti-youth jail movement.
“I think … some of the stories in the book would be a powerful tool for organizers,” Hagopian said. “As people rally against the new youth jail here in Seattle, I think there’s incredibly powerful chapters on mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline that can help ground that work, and point a way forward.”
You can learn more and purchase Teaching for Black Lives at rethinkingschools.org.