When Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country months ago, in response to the police killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men, the social unrest deeply impacted Islah Tauheed, an elementary school teacher who had switched to remote learning due to the pandemic.
“My gosh, how am I going to address these topics, when we don’t have that physical closeness?” said Tauheed, who teaches second grade at Linden Tree Elementary School, P.S. 567, in the Bronx. “Black people in our community are hurting right now. Black children are hurting.”
In the final weeks of the last school term, separated into tiny squares on Zoom, New York City teachers had to find ways to explain to their students what was happening across the country. Now that the fall school year has started, many teachers are continuing these discussions about social justice. But in most cases, it is up to individual teachers and their schools to decide how to integrate anti-racism curriculum into education, if at all.
In response to the murder of George Floyd, Richard Carranza, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, released a statement in June condemning racism and offering educators pedagogical resources on the topic, but stopped short of mandating curriculum changes. “We must answer the call to be anti-racist,” he said, in the statement. The DOE did not respond to requests for comment.
When Tauheed spoke to her students about George Floyd, she realized she had to approach it differently than the past because of Zoom. “I wanted so badly to be back in the class,” said Tauheed. Instead, she started making short videos for her students where she discussed race.
Tauheed said she informed parents about her classroom discussions. Although some did not see a need for them, most were supportive and some even joined in on the Zoom conversations. In her talk about George Floyd, a white parent asked to help co-moderate. “Instead of just me and the students sitting in a circle, it is me, my students and their parents,” said Tauheed.
The discussions take on many forms. Tauheed said she’s invited guest speakers of different races who are urban gardeners, health care workers, as well as white teachers who care about being allies. Tauheed said she believes in being “purposeful about representation” and mindful of “letting the kids know that it’s OK to imagine yourselves in those roles.”
At Brooklyn Landmark Elementary School, Andrea Castellano, a third-grade teacher, lets the students lead the discussion without a plan, script or agenda. “We just listened to the children,” she said, explaining that she only interjects to redirect the discussion or to correct inaccuracies.
“They understand a lot about the world, but they are also easily confused,” said Castellano. Her 9-year-old students understood that George Floyd was killed by the police, and that it should not have happened, but the difficulty was getting her students to understand “how that could possibly occur in their world where things are supposed to be fair,” she said.
As a white woman teaching in a predominantly Black and Brown school, where many of her students and parents went to protests, Castellano felt a responsibility to have conversations on race, understanding that denying these conversations would in effect, “deny the reality we’re living in,” she said. “I have a responsibility to not censor myself. I have a responsibility to do anti-racist work.”
Although the DOE supports anti-racism education, schools have to decide on their own, how to integrate it and to what degree, according to Jodi Friedman, assistant principal of STAR Academy P.S. 63 in Manhattan, which added anti-racism education to the school’s curriculum in 2016, she said.
But anti-racism education is difficult to implement in schools, because it’s not enough to prescriptively apply the curriculum, said Friedman. “You’re never done,” she said, explaining that cultures and attitudes must also change at schools.
In addition to diversifying reading lists and emphasizing critical thinking on historical trends and issues of power and identity, STAR Academy changed the school’s policies on discipline, attendance and homework. Friedman said that 10 years ago, if a student yelled and walked out of class, the immediate response would be punishment. Now she and her teachers try to listen, understand what the student is trying to convey and understand why the student thought something was unfair or unsafe. “Was there a role that we played in our school? And what do we need to do differently?” she said.
Katie Harlan Eller, a part-time instructor at Columbia University’s Teachers College said that although New York City has a higher awareness that racial justice is necessary in schools, “there’s still a long way to go.”
According to Harlan Eller, predominantly white schools might need anti-racism education more than schools with mostly students of color. “I think, in some ways, that’s where it’s needed most,” said Harlan Eller, who explained that there is constant feedback that whiteness is the status quo. Left unchecked, this could lead to internalized feelings of superiority by white students, she said.
Much of anti-racism work also relies on individual teachers having resources. “Teacher education programs have not done enough to support teachers learning about and interacting with race in their classrooms,” she said. Harlan Eller added that some of the best resources she has seen have been on social media.
Although some schools may not support anti-racism curriculum, teachers can still teach it, according to Olivia Roach, a special education and ninth-grade English teacher at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Brooklyn. Roach is also an organizer for Black Lives Matter at School, a coalition of teachers nationwide organizing for racial justice in education. She said part of the group’s mission is providing information on how to teach and talk about Black Lives Matter, especially for teachers with unsupportive principals. “This is really sometimes the first way that teachers get information, to be able to teach these things,” she said.
Roach noticed a surge of teachers looking for resources to discuss race in the classroom and said with a city as diverse as New York City, teachers can’t remain silent on the issue. “It doesn’t make you apolitical. It tells that you support the people who are doing the violence and oppression,” said Roach.
(Main photo of STAR Academy by Seiji Yamashita)