Reimagining Schools in the Midst of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter
Photography by J. Kavin Ross
A high school student that was interviewed for the TulsaKids’ Facebook Live series on racism last month (watch it here) described an experience on the playground of her predominately white elementary school. “I was told [by white classmates] that I could be the slave or an animal,” she said.
While schools have undergone major shifts in their delivery systems – virtual, digital and blended learning during the pandemic — little has shifted in terms of equitable pedagogy in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
While the discussion has been almost solely on how to safely open schools, little discussion has focused on the systemic change called for by Black Lives Matter. The practical and equitable delivery of class lessons, mostly via some type of technology, has dominated decision-making, but little space has been made for a discussion about the content of the curriculum. Can both safety and equity be part of the conversation that administrators, teachers and parents are having?
Going back to the scene at the opening of this article, the little girl was automatically seen by her white classmates as a commodity, an object to be used, not as a person who is intrinsically valuable as a human being. That bias, in a large part, comes from the systemic racism built into public education by the white culture that created it.
Dr. Cornel Pewewardy, a citizen of the Comanche Nation, and a professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University in Oregon, has spent his life working to create a living history and knowledge base “to teach our children of all backgrounds our own history.”
Dr. Pewewardy says that the history of Indigenous people has been falsified and corporatized for entertainment.
“We were helpless victims in our own colonization,” he says. But, ultimately, the Native American story is one of resilience and survival. “Our stories have been minimized or erased. The strategy [in teaching about Native American culture] is that we try to portray the struggles, not as doomed people, but as one of survival.”
Change Can Happen
The concept of white superiority has been cemented into the curriculum for generations, but it doesn’t have to be. Change is difficult and uncomfortable, but it can happen.
Dr. Shanedra Nowell is an OSU assistant professor of social studies education and OSU Writing Project. “I ask my students (who are training to be teachers), where in the curriculum do they see people that look like them,” she says. “The only time they see African Americans in history books is as slaves or when they fought for civil rights – two small points of entry.”
Dr. Nowell has asked her college students to recall a favorite lesson during their elementary school years. Some will describe the annual Land Run Day celebration where they dress like pioneers and dash across the playground to “claim” their plots of land — never mind the broken treaty or the stolen land.
“If you’re going to do this lesson, which I wouldn’t recommend,” she says, “then the students should know what really happened. Then they start to question colonialism. Critical thinking. That’s what I want my students to walk away from my classroom with.”
Dr. Nowell says that skilled teachers can be aware of multiple perspectives and understand how to bring those into the classroom in meaningful, natural and ongoing ways. For example, she has used the Tulsa Race Massacre as an inquiry based lesson with Tulsa high school students to teach larger social, economic and geographical concepts, as seen through multiple lenses.
Using a similar approach with elementary students, J. Kavin Ross, a photojournalist and sometime para-teacher, taught a Tulsa Race Massacre lesson to third graders last year at McKinley Elementary School. It was based on a project that he had done 20 years ago. In fact, Ross has a long history with the Tulsa Race Massacre. He worked on the 1996 commemoration of the race riot, and did a kids’ version of the documentary for NICK News with Linda Ellerbee.
“The students were about the same age I was when I learned about it,” Ross said. “What’s so powerful are the kids’ open minds. When we start talking about the Massacre, they’re locked in. They’re able to tell the story. They get it. What is needed is that we must all learn our past or we’re doomed to repeat it.”
Ross says he grew up in Tulsa and was one of the first Black children to go to a newly desegregated Walt Whitman Elementary School in the ‘60s.
“My mother held my hand as we walked through the doors, and a white kid was holding his mother’s hand,” Ross said. “The white kid said, ‘Mama, look at that chocolate kid,’ and I told my mom I wanted to see the chocolate kid. That was my first taste of racism.”
When talking about the Tulsa Race Massacre with young children, Ross says he doesn’t go into “the gory details,” but gives them the basics, telling the story as an oral history.
“As they get older, you encourage them to do their own research,” he says. “With sixth graders, they’re able to write about it in their own words based on what they’ve learned and how they feel.”
Ross says it’s powerful to take the students on tours of the Greenwood area and look at a map of the destruction as well as before and after photos. Like Ross, they may find that they have a family history there.
“We need more kids to walk the space, to see Reconciliation Park,” he says. “It’s about identity. You find your role in life, a perspective in life. I have researched the Massacre for decades now and learned the stories of other people and their survivors. I learned that my own family was a part of this history. My great-grandfather had a club that was destroyed during this time. I-244 sits on his property to this day. I’m finding out things I really didn’t want to find out. My family goes all the way back to the Trail of Tears. My family played a role in that history, and I can learn what went into such a rich history.”
Empowering teachers with the autonomy to create curriculum centered around their own voices and experience, like Ross’s, can open the doors to anti-racist pedagogy. Training and providing resources for all teachers to question and understand their own role in an anti-racist vision for education can bring transformation.
“Sometimes teachers’ hands are tied [by the curriculum a district is using],” Nowell admits. “The textbooks don’t give you a multitude of voices. You have to go back to primary sources. It’s a challenge. It’s hard work.”
Vision and Leadership: Opportunity for Structural Change
“You have to recognize that there is a problem,” says Darryl Bright, founder of Citizens for Better Educational System, (C.U.B.E.S.) and a long-time education advocate in north Tulsa. “If you come from a particular world view, that’s how you’re going to look at it, and your world view can be skewed by biases and lenses. These institutions have to be rattled into looking at how they evolved and for what reason.”
Bright says that some individuals see schools as institutions to transmit the dominant culture, or white, middle-class values.
“Others see it as an instrument of control. If I’m a person who wants to control this thing, then everything looks like a potential employee. Those at the top are not going to commit class suicide.”
“The history of schooling in America,” Nowell says, “was to Americanize this nation of immigrants. It’s racist. ‘Americanize’ can substitute for ‘white’.”
Current school reform has done little to address inequities in pedagogy. In a paper for Yale EdStudies, “The Power of Pedagogy: Why We Shouldn’t Teach Like Champions,” Layla Treuhaft-Ali writes about the history of public education and racism.
“The public school has historically been a major site for enforcing working-class norms: at the turn of the twentieth century, corporate philanthropists took an especially strong interest in public education, much as they have today. They worried that, as rural America became industrialized and poor people entered strictly controlled factory jobs, the lower classes would rebel against their poor pay and dismal working conditions.”
To address this fear, schools became factory-like institutions where students were the product.
Treuhaft-Ali writes about the Hampton Idea for Black education that was popular with white leaders: “Wealthy white philanthropists poured money into two Black schools: Armstrong’s Hampton Institute and Washington’s Tuskegee Institute,” schools where Black teachers “were supposed to learn behavioral habits like self discipline, obedience, and diligence from their arduous manual labor routines, which they would then pass on to their students. The effect was a devastating lack of available high-quality academic education for Black children until the widespread desegregation of the 1960s.”
No Excuses charter schools such as KIPP follow that model today. Treuhaft-Ali writes that “white corporate philantrhopists pour money into charter schools that almost entirely serve Black and Latino/a children and place a high value on order and efficiency…Most disturbingly, this vision includes behavioral norms that are eerily similar to those meant to preserve social hierarchy and prevent them from challenging injustices done to them by the powerful.”
Bright believes that people in power naturally want to remain in power, so equity goes against their own self-interest.
“After the Civil War, Black people had to have social studies,” he says, “which meant they had to learn the social graces to serve white people.”
Teachers, however, can be “change agents” and “problem solvers,” but they may have to “unlearn some things,” Bright says. “You have to build relationships with students, how they learn, what their culture is, how they think. Each one is unique.”
Cultural Identity and the Child
Katy Crawford-Garrett, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico, created a Mexican –American Studies program in Tucson in 1998. As part of the Ethnic Studies movement, Dr. Crawford-Garrett advocates using “rich educational experiences for Black and Brown youth in an effort to connect academic achievement to students’ cultural identities.”
Literature and history focused on Mexican-American identity. The program was implemented as an alternative to the growth of No Excuses charter schools with their harsh discipline techniques and white-centric values.
“By every measurable metric,” Crawford-Garrett writes, “the program was a success as…[it] led to an increase in graduation rates, college attendance, and academic performance while simultaneously validating students’ cultural histories and sense of identity.”
However, without financial investment, the program was not scaled up, the Mexican-American program was deemed illegal by the state of Arizona and shut down in 2011.
Crawford-Garrett writes, “[The program] honors students’ cultural backgrounds, teaches critical consciousness, and fosters academic achievement without forcing students to make painful choices to abandon their heritage and humanity to adhere to White middle class norms. The story of Success [Academies] rests on the tired binary between innovative charter schools and status quo public schools, between lazy union employees and hard-working young idealists, and the familiar trope of the White savior and the Black and Brown children who need to be tightly controlled as they learn to dress and act more White and middle class.”
When schools don’t recognize a child’s culture and race, it impacts all children, perpetuating bias and stereotypes that follow them throughout life, perpetuating generational trauma.
“The kids don’t get affirmation from their school community,” Pewewardy says. “So they develop low self-esteem, which translates to low academic performance.”
Dr. Pewewardy recalls watching cowboy and Indian movies, and being trained to root for the cowboys. Even though it felt wrong, there wasn’t an identity for him to relate to. “That’s really detrimental. Children become confused and culturally schizophrenic.”
However, when schools talk about shared history using all perspectives, it can be healing and can create community rather than dividing people.
“As students go further into their education and they get to college, they expand their knowledge base and critical thinking,” Pewewardy says. “These children become very regretful; they become angry that they were mis-educated at a younger age.”
Just as with the Black experience, Native Americans are tasked with removing layer upon layer of Eurocentric lenses, which has created a worldview of Indians as not real people. They may be “noble savages” or cartoon-like characters, or team mascots, etc. The box of stereotypes leaves little room for the real person.
“The contemporary image of indigenous people hasn’t changed in 100 years,” Pewewardy says. “Educators should challenge these stereotypes, which all reinforce the hierarchy of white culture.”
The generational trauma caused by colonialism is evident today. But healing can happen.
Dr. Pewewardy says that school districts can recruit and hire Native teachers; elect Natives to the local school board; integrate Native content into the curriculum; build partnerships with local Native studies programs in higher ed.; send school boards and teachers to Native American learning opportunities; replace Indian mascots and celebrate when you retire them in order to heal the past.
What Parents Can Do
Dr. Nowell believes that parents can help create an atmosphere where all students feel valued.
“White parents must understand the whiteness of the culture,” she says. “Often, they look at their cultural ancestry such as Scottish, European American, and that’s important, but they don’t see whiteness as a culture and their own cultural background. Whiteness is the dominant culture of the United States.”
Dr. Nowell asserts that parents must first accept that reality. “Understand that you have to make space for everyone else. I know this is hard for parents.”
Too often, white parents use the “colorblind” approach when they teach their children about race. But teaching kids not to see color is the wrong thing to do.
“You don’t see me if you talk about colorblindness. We have to make sure our students do see color,” Nowell says. “I need you to see color. I need you to see color equally.”
Parents can advocate for ensuring that all voices, including Black voices, are in every lesson, not just relegated to a day or a month or a separate class.
Dr. Nowell also believes that we should look at how we define success and our idea of what makes a “good” parent or student.
“Some cultures may not feel comfortable coming into a school building for parent/teacher conferences. Or some students may use African American vernacular,” she says. “You have to create a safe space for all students.”
Rather than assuming something is “wrong,” it may just be different from white cultural norms. American history is a shared history.
“Elevate the voice and make sure it’s heard, and then we can move on,” Nowell says. “We’re not saying someone is superior; we’re trying to make sure all voices are heard.”
Parents can continue providing varied perspectives by making sure that their home libraries reflect different kinds of authors. She recalls that when she was growing up, very few children in books looked like her.
She also suggests being purposeful in choosing your child’s friends at a young age. When children are 2, 3 or 4 years old, parents can make conscious decisions about being around people who don’t look like them. Parents can invite people who don’t look like them into their homes.
“It is natural, hard-wired, to want to be around people like you,” Nowell says. “I think if we’re wanting a more diverse and just society, you have to break that. I do think that it’s the job of not only schools, but also parents.”
As Darryl Bright asks, “What is the vision for our kids? When students walk across that [graduation stage], what do we want them to have? What skill sets, what things that you cannot measure by standardized tests? What would an anti-racist school system look like and what is the vision guiding it? We have to take into consideration what has happened in the past, what history has created. How did we get here? If we don’t know history and we don’t have a vision, then our solutions are [going to be] wrong.”