Teaching for Black Lives

Teaching for Black Lives grows directly out of the movement for Black lives.

Anti-Black racism constructs Black people, and Blackness generally, as not counting as human life. The Rethinking Schools teaching guide, Teaching for Black Lives, provides resources and demonstrates how teachers can connect curriculum to young people’s lives and root their concerns and daily experiences in what is taught and how classrooms are set up. Teaching for Black Lives also highlights the hope and beauty of student activism and collective action.

Receive Teaching for Black Lives, Free!

Share your experience teaching any lesson found on the Zinn Education Project website that also appears in Teaching for Black Lives, and receive a free copy of the book. Go to www.zinnedproject.org/news/teaching-for-black-lives-giveaway.

The Zinn Education Project offers the following free teaching activities and lessons:

  • Burned Out of Homes and History: Unearthing the Silenced Voices of the Tulsa Massacre
  • COINTELPRO: Teaching the FBI’s War on the Black Freedom Movement
  • The Color Line
  • Plotting Inequalities, Building Resistance
  • Presidents and the Enslaved: Helping Students Find the Truth
  • Reconstructing the South
  • Teaching SNCC: The Organization at the Heart of the Civil Rights Revolution
  • What We Don’t Learn About the Black Panther Party — but Should
  • Poetry of Defiance: How the Enslaved Resisted
  • 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, 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 are 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 subject to “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.

For more information, please visit rethinkingschools.org/books/teaching-for-black-lives.


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