Dismantle racism? Start in the classroom, teachers say
A grassroots group of teachers is gaining traction in the state
Nine teachers listened closely earlier this month as Nataliya Braginsky explained a “place-based learning” project she led last year: she went into the Local History Room of the New Haven Free Public Library, compiled a list of key Black and Latinx people and sites, and helped her students research them to create a virtual walking tour of New Haven history.
“Students are so much more invested if there’s a real audience and real purpose for it, and it’s not just about a Google Doc that they share with their teacher that exists in a vacuum,” Braginsky, a social studies teacher at the Metropolitan Business Academy, told the group as that day’s guest speaker for a seminar called “Teaching about Race and Racism Across the Disciplines.”
Braginsky is a member of the Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective (ARTLC), a network of Connecticut teachers who, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, are developing, implementing and sharing curricula to dismantle racism from their classrooms outwards.
She views this sort of work as crucial to her approach as an anti-racist educator, she said, adding that she isn’t just trying to modify curriculum content, but also to find ways to empower students — especially students of color.
If we want to address racism in society at large, we have to address it in policing, and housing, and health care — but we also need to address it in the 3rd grade music classroom, in the 7th grade social studies classroom.”
At the community showcase for the walking tour, students were educating adults and sharing their sense of “pride of place,” she said. She recounted that one student, who had researched a monument to a black Civil War regiment in Fair Haven’s Criscuolo Park, told attendees, “I go there all the time to play basketball, and I get shivers now, knowing that Frederick Douglass was there.”
The importance of studying Black and Latinx history isn’t novel in the state – last year the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill that tasked the State Education Resource Center (SERC) with developing an African-American and Latinx history course to be offered in all high schools as an elective by 2022.
But in the wake of the death of George Floyd by police, which spurred nationwide protests for Black lives, there are teachers and parents throughout the state that find the requirement – and its timeline – insufficient.
Rather than wait for bureaucratic gears to turn, ARTLC members are taking matters in-hand, creating a shared database of ideas and best practices to incorporate anti-racism principles into their curricula across grade levels and subjects this fall, whether or not classes end up being remote due to COVID-19.
“If we want to address racism in society at large, we have to address it in policing, and housing, and health care — but we also need to address it in the 3rd grade music classroom, in the 7th grade social studies classroom,” said Daniel HoSang, an associate professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration and American Studies at Yale University, who leads the seminar and co-founded the ARTLC.
“We need to push for the long-term changes, in funding, recruitment, et cetera,” HoSang said. “But we can’t let that delay the work that can and should be done in the fall.”
Teaching anti-racism to teachers
HoSang developed and began offering his seminar at the Yale-New Haven Teacher’s Institute last year to share theoretical and practical tools toward the practice of anti-racist education. Teachers across Connecticut — and this year, across the nation — apply to the course by submitting a proposal for a unit to develop, and their principal verifies that the proposal is consistent with district academic standards.
Throughout the two-week seminar, teachers read and discuss texts on racial colorblindness and power, work on and receive detailed feedback on their unit plans, and get to know each other through personal presentations.
Their projects have included reworking an AP US History course to center indigenous peoples, creating plans to teach literature through Afro-Futurism, reteaching an international relations course from colonized people’s perspective, writing a unit on histories of segregation and law in New Haven, and developing an art unit focusing on Confederate monuments to think about art making and art reception.
The resulting lesson plans are one of many kinds of resources HoSang hopes to share through ARTLC, which he began last year with local teachers, activists and students from educational justice organizations Students for Educational Justice in New Haven and Hearing Youth Voices in New London.
After taking HoSang’s seminar last year and developing a course on Latinx history, Braginsky became involved in the collective, and she said she has appreciated “learning and thinking together” with like-minded teachers during the group’s bimonthly meetings. HoSang estimates that ARTLC has engaged some 100 teachers since its inception, who find out about it through word of mouth.
Teachers who choose to proactively engage in anti-racist work need peer support, Braginsky said, and the ARTLC has been one source of that support for her.
“It’s really powerful being able to connect with other educators in New Haven and around the state, and youth organizers, and to be in those conversations together,” she said.
The push to bolster anti-racist education in Connecticut’s schools isn’t just lying with teachers. In recent months, support has been building among parents, alumni and other educational stakeholders across the state to push for policy changes, district by district.
In late May, Nikki Poulard and Kristen Alexander, both white moms who live in Essex with Black husbands, felt the itch to do something. They started the CT Coalition for Educational Justice and a Culturally Responsive Curriculum as a Facebook group on June 17, and the group has grown to some 880 members since.
If you’ve joined the coalition, you’ve taken one step, and if you’ve signed onto a letter, you’ve just become an activist right there by lending your voice to change.”Kristen Alexander
The duo also wrote a letter to the Region 4 superintendent Brian White – it received 366 signatures – asking for changes such as re-evaluating and revising the current history curriculum to dismantle Eurocentrism, making the upcoming African American and Latinx history course a graduation requirement instead of an optional elective, incorporating Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and LGBTQ history and literature into curriculum, and increasing funding for new courses on Black history and literature.
After a meeting with White last week, Poulard said he was “supportive and understanding” and open to all their suggestions, and committed to establishing a district-wide equity committee to review their demands.
Poulard and Alexander adapted their letter into a template for anyone in Connecticut to use.
“We want to empower anybody to take action,” Alexander said. “If you’ve joined the coalition, you’ve taken one step, and if you’ve signed onto a letter, you’ve just become an activist right there by lending your voice to change.”
Their asks are echoed by statewide change.org petitions that state that the law establishing an African American and Latinx studies elective wasn’t enough. One calls for further diversity throughout the curriculum and another one calls for courses on anti-racism to be offered. The petitions currently have around 1,600 signatures each, with comments from educators and students amplifying their calls.
The second petition was started by Kelly Tragash, a student at McGill University originally from Farmington.
It aims to “demonstrate a snapshot of how many people in our state want to incorporate anti-racism into our school curriculum, in order to share with legislators to encourage them to introduce and pass this legislation,” she said.
Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, chair of the education committee, said that he has two early-stage projects in the works. One would incorporate teaching about implicit bias and equity into curricula, possibly as part of the semester-long civics course that’s already required for high school graduation in the state. The other is looking at building a model curriculum from kindergarten to 8th grade that would increase diversity in literature and history classes across grade levels.
“If we’re more intentional about diversifying our curriculum, even starting at kindergarten, more kids will be engaged and have a better understanding of each other and the world,” he said.
‘Policy needs to follow’
The momentum toward instilling an anti-racist lens into Connecticut schools will remain grassroots for the foreseeable future, putting the onus on teachers to build it in while also dealing with changes wrought by the pandemic.
The funding priorities outlined by the state in response to COVID-19 are to support school districts in providing equitable access to technology, suitable online curriculum, education recovery, and social and emotional wellbeing initiatives. Peter Yazbak, director of communications at the State Department of Education, said that these are crucial equity initiatives given that COVID-19 has “disproportionately affected Black and Brown students,” he said.
But there’s no specific guidance for districts beyond equity, or regarding supporting anti-racist curriculum development in the long run.
In the meantime, the burden falls upon self-motivated teachers like Carolyn Streets, who teaches 7th grade English at Engineering and Science University Magnet School in West Haven.
Through HoSang’s seminar last year, she developed a unit on Mildred D. Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry,” a novel that explores a Black child’s experiences of racism in southern Mississippi during the Great Depression. Rather than focusing only on “character development” and literary elements in isolation, students read nonfiction texts and have discussions about Jim Crow, sharecropping, and the other historical realities that ground the text.
“I make it a point to include literature that was written by Black and Brown authors who have a clear understanding of not only the cultural and historical narrative, but the truth behind the narrative,” she said.
The textbook was always standard — slaves, and then boom, civil rights, which started with Rosa Parks and ended with the assassination of MLK.”
After school moved to online learning during COVID-19, she developed a lesson plan that combined English and social studies, and that students could complete remotely. She selected the story of a prominent Black couple, Nancy and Peter Gooch, during the California Gold Rush, and compiled relevant websites and resources. The students used them to research the couple and how they shaped the Gold Rush, then reported back and discussed their findings over Zoom.
Because of the difficulty engaging students in an online format, the discussion itself “wasn’t as deep as I would have liked to have gone,” she said. But at least they were able to learn about a historical event from the perspective of key players that she herself never heard of until now, she said.
Streets’ interest in finding and teaching those stories comes from her own education. One of the few Black students at a mostly white private middle school in Fairfield County, she felt “othered” not only by the “homogeneous space,” but also by the curriculum itself, which told an “incomplete and false narrative” about Black history, she explained.
“The textbook was always standard — slaves, and then boom, civil rights, which started with Rosa Parks and ended with the assassination of MLK,” she said.
Even in middle school, she said, she remembers “feeling angry, and wanting to challenge the system.” She strives to prevent other students from feeling that way.
Over her career, Streets has sought out and taken advantage of a variety of resources, from HoSang’s course to travel grants and, currently, a grant from Harvard to develop a unit analyzing Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” and other texts through the perspective of women’s rights movements.
She also said that she is lucky that at her “progressive” school district, she has never met resistance from the administration about her lesson plans.
However, Streets said that her friends in other schools have administrations that are less open to ideas for rethinking curriculum. And as one teacher pointed out at a panel on culturally affirming teaching last year, teachers are already overextended, even without the imperative for them to constantly rework their curriculum against all odds.
“Policy needs to follow,” Streets said. “We need the freedom and support to drill down and address [these issues].”
This story was updated to correct the attribution of the quote, “We want to empower anybody to take action … If you’ve joined the coalition, you’ve taken one step, and if you’ve signed onto a letter, you’ve just become an activist right there by lending your voice to change.” It was Kristen Alexander, not Nikki Poulard.
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