With testimonies like these shared across social media platforms, last week, educators, parents, administrators, students and teacher unions celebrated a week of dynamic social justice learning. Powerful and empowering poetry readings, art shows, performances and discussions have centered the experiences of African Americans and the quest for recognition of our full humanity. For other students of color and white students, too, this learning has awakened a commitment to equity and inclusion. This action-oriented approach to learning about social justice took place all around the US as part of a week-long initiative called Black Lives Matter at School.
First launched in the 2017-2018 school year after a group of educators formed a national committee to engage and organize for racial justice, Black Lives Matter at School has garnered support from unions, school districts, Teaching Tolerance, Teaching for Change and the NEA. This year, the campaign animated young people across racial and ethnic lines, encouraging them to actively think about and participate in the pursuit of their own freedom.
In the Old Town area of Alexandria, Virginia, the Jefferson-Houston School is distinguished as the community’s first Pre-K to 8th grade International Baccalaureate (IB) school, and is attended by a diverse array of students. Jefferson-Houston is approximately 60 percent African American, 20 percent Latinx, 13 percent white and 7 percent Asian and Mixed-Race according to staff. Jefferson-Houston educators say that Black Lives Matter at School awakened excitement and joy in their students. For three Muslim first graders in particular, this joy was especially affirming.
As their class read All Are Welcome, a book that follows a group of diverse children at a school where everyone, regardless of identity, is affirmed and included, students were asked to talk about what they saw in the book’s illustrations. Muslim students in the room “were so excited to see themselves represented in the story,” IB Coordinator Francise Fernandez, who is Cuban-Dominican, told Truthout. When asked at the end of the lesson why diversity is important to have in a community, Fernandez says students replied that, “If people were the same, then none of us would ever learn anything.” In this classroom, “students led the discussion on why it’s important to respect all people, regardless of their skin color or where they’re from.”
Young people are just as excited to hear about their inherent beauty in a song as they are to see themselves beautifully illustrated in a picture book. Hannah Mengistu, who is white, Jewish and, as she says, “Mama of two beautiful brown boys,” teaches kindergarten and 1st grade at Compass Charter School in Brooklyn, New York. Mengistu says that one thing she did for Black Lives Matter at School was to play an Ella Jenkins song called “Black Children was Born,” a lovely song “about African American greatness and ancestral ties.” According to Mengistu, one Black student in the class who usually doesn’t participate in group songs “sang every word proudly and felt a sense of connection and belonging.”
While Mengistu says that it is important for African American students to feel visible, she adds that “white kids need to start doing the work of unpacking white privilege.” While she describes Compass as richly diverse, with Japanese, Korean, African American, Latinx and mixed-race children in her school community, “Most teachers at our school are white women. It is our responsibility, as white teachers, to do this work [of unpacking white privilege] and to be the ones to model that to white children so they learn that it’s their responsibility and obligation to do this work and recognize their own white privilege.”
Such critical work does not happen without careful planning. At Jefferson-Houston, Principal M. Scott Berkowitz was the first person in the community to suggest that the school participate in Black Lives Matter at School. Fernandez and school social worker Karima Wade researched how to get involved and, along with school psychologist Dr. Cyril Pickering, attended a Black Lives Matter Curriculum Fair. With other members of the School Support Team, these educators created age-appropriate lessons based on the curricular plans provided by Black Lives Matter at School and D.C. Educators for Social Justice. According to Fernandez, their planning paid off.
For Fernandez, the biggest benefit of doing Black Lives Matter at School was the affirmation of African American students. “Our local curriculum is not representative of our student population,” Fernandez told Truthout. “Getting the opportunity to see themselves in the curriculum being presented this week has been so beneficial.”
Fernandez goes on to say, “Lessons on being open-minded and empathetic have made students more aware of different experiences. This, along with having honest conversations around race, identity and culture have been great for our entire student body.”
Guiding themes consistent with the Black Lives Matter Movement were utilized by educators at Jefferson-Houston and nationwide. This uniform structure provided a thematic focus for the entire week’s lessons in participating classrooms. Themes included restorative justice, diversity, internationalism, collective value, Black families, Black women and more.
Back in Brooklyn, Graham Ford is a 10-year-old 5th grader at Compass. Graham, who is white, learned the 13 principles of the Black Lives Matter Movement and learned about white privilege. He said, “I don’t think it’s fair that white people have more advantages and look at TV and see people who look like them.” When asked if he would like to do another week of Black Lives Matter at School next year, Graham said, “I would like to learn more about the movement, so I would like to do a week about this at school next year.”
Mengistu hopes that Black Lives Matter at School can grow, so kids like Graham can enjoy more activities that take place throughout the school year. “I urge all schools to start this conversation,” she says. “A simple way to do this, especially with elementary students, is through reading books and having discussions. This can help white children develop an awareness around their own white privilege and empower African American students to have a space to be seen and heard.”