We Owe It to Our Students to Do Some Racial Justice Homework This Summer

Most days, students at a school in your district are gawking at their classmates, bored and clicking their pencils as they reach the end of the day. As they walk out the door, they feel like they just finished a set of homework that didn’t make any sense, and they’re not sure what they’re supposed to do the next day. But, we can guarantee you that every student in our district is currently doing some racial justice homework: learning about the racial makeup of their school, or how they can get involved in the civil rights movement, or why black students should be allowed to wear white robes to school for convocation.

In the wake of the Ferguson verdict, a lot of people are pointing to the criminal justice system as one of the key issues facing our society today. Very rarely do our discussions of racial justice get to the heart of the matter, though: what role do we play as teachers in the lives of our students?

The larger conversations of this summer have focused on race and the Black Lives Matter movement, but students still feel a responsibility to do some racial justice homework in their own communities. This summer, some educators are using student-led racial justice projects to encourage students to dig deeper and make a change.

It was the longest year of my teaching career.

Not literally, of course. Like many of you, I have worked about 200 days since last August, as I do every year. However, every educator knows exactly what I mean when I call the past year a long one. The ever-changing flow of information about the coronavirus and our constant adjustments have given my work a quality I hope never to experience again. I am very grateful for the break from classes that summer provides. I need a refresher.

But if you’re like me, there are things you missed and need to catch up on while we have the chance to catch our breath. In particular, I’m talking about the other major event of 2020 that most white people have managed to forget since the beginning of the school year: the racial justice movement that took off after George Floyd’s murder.

Many of us had good intentions last summer, before the second wave of coronavirus cases. We read books like The Fragility of White and How to be Anti-Racist. We made plans for the upcoming school year and told ourselves that we would raise awareness of racial justice in our classes. You can probably agree – virtual meetings and reporting in person quickly took up the lion’s share of our attention at the beginning of the year. The election season, which culminated in the events of 6. January peaked, sucking out the remnants of our flickering energy. Then Amanda Gorman spoke during the opening, and that little flash of light convinced us that things can be good without us paying attention.

We took our foot completely off the gas pedal.

This summer is the time of our new gear. Implicit bias and systemic racism are not things that go away; the conviction of Derek Chauvin is not the end of last year’s story. Now that we have taken a break from the day-to-day work of school building, it is time for us white educators to refocus our attention on the work of racial justice. We could be forgiven for being distracted in this crazy year, but it would be a mistake not to focus on the task at hand.

My summer programme

I’d like to share my summer program with you. If you, like me, believe that white educators have a duty to address race and racism in our schools, you can follow me. A little homework never hurt a budding student.

First of all, I have a lot to learn. I read the book Stamp last summer: Racism, Antiracism and You, by Ibrahm X. Kandy and Jason Reynolds. This textbook was excellent and filled in many gaps in my knowledge. This summer, though, I’m tackling the raw material: Stampede from the start: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, winner of the National Kendi Book Award. I must confess that I bought this book some time ago, but only now have the opportunity to pick it up again. Perhaps you have a similar tome on your shelf? This might be a good time to open it.

Then I’d like to complain. I use this archaic world on purpose because I believe we white people often put knowledge in our heads without putting it in our hearts. If we take responsibility for the injustice of racism, if we learn to see our role in that injustice, we will become better teachers for black and brown children. As James Baldwin wrote,

Whites] have never confessed to their crimes, and they don’t know how to do it….. The only way to recover is to tell the truth.

Some of us have become experts in racial injustice; but if we don’t address the personalities, we will never get over it.

What tailoring means to me

For me, personalization this summer means two things.

  • First, I examine the role that public policy has played in bringing my extended family into the middle class. This story is based on New Deal legislation, the GI Bill, and federal housing policy – all areas where structural racism rages. If I’m not careful, I may be internalizing a mistaken notion of American meritocracy and believe that my grandparents rose to higher status only through talent and hard work. In fact, his white skin played a major role in his elevation. I feel like crying over this privilege I inherited.
  • Second: I’m impressed with the idea of land recognition. I’ve lived in my current home for 16 years – longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else – but it wasn’t until recently that I realized that this home had been taken by the Cherokee Nation in the early 19th century. While I’m not entirely sure what it means for me to acknowledge this theft, I feel like I should cry a little about how much I benefited from it.

It’s my duty. I hope to do more, but I refuse to do less this summer. You may have other ideas, but I’m happy to share mine if you like. This is just the beginning, this learning and complaining, but it is long overdue for many of us white educators.

It’s time to finish the work we started last summer. We won’t get a grade, but the benefit to our education will be enough to make the task worthwhile. We owe it to our students to do their homework.

Photo by Prostock studio, with Envato Elements license.As school districts across the country are preparing to return to class, the racial justice community needs to be prepared too. The movement for Black lives is not a far cry from a movement to achieve racial justice in school systems. There are many ways schools can ‘do racial justice’ during the summer months.

Here is but a few: 1) Implement restorative justice strategies in classrooms. 2) Reflect on the racial justice in student engagement and school climate. 3) Incorporate anti-racism curricula and programming. 4) Expand anti-racism education and training. 5) Offer professional development opportunities for staff. 6) Increase the visibility of students of color.. Read more about nyc doe grading policy 2021 and let us know what you think.

 

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