Race and History in the Classroom

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Principal Stephanie Byrd (second from left) and The Story of Our Schools ED Jen Harris are surrounded by students who worked on the project, including (L-R): Niamyah Jackson, Xari Brevard, Marlee Young, Damarjah Chase, Destiny Rodriquez and Bomani Perkins. Photo: E. O’Gorek/CCN

Cornerstone School Principal and Executive Director Derrick Max remembers watching video of the murder of George Floyd. Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police May 25 when an officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Numb, Max said he yelled at the officer on screen to get off Floyd’s neck. His heart broke for Floyd’s family, he said, but also for his students, who he knew would be hurt, scared and infuriated by the footage. Although discussions about racial issues are not new to the school, Max said, Floyd’s death has emphasized the need to address them more directly.

“For our students, I think there’s a growing sense of fear and sadness, I think bringing out in some of them anger,” he said. “I’m sure most of them were angry. It’s a real issue, it brought it home.”

As schools contemplate reopening amid the pandemic, they will also resume class in a period of heightened racial tensions in America. Educators agree it is a galvanizing moment in understanding our history as a country and as communities, and some say the historical moment is causing them to reexamine what and how they teach.

But many District schools say that they have been working to create learning opportunities around issues of racial equity long before Floyd’s murder and the subsequent unrest, and that schools can help students to understand and participate in this moment.

Bridging the Divide
Cornerstone Schools (www.cornerstone-schools.org) is a Christ-centered private school located in Ward 7. The school’s goal is to help students craft a Christian worldview, where they consider even issues such as race, racism and privilege from a Biblical perspective.

Founded on Capitol Hill in 1998 by Max, a former lobbyist, and Brandi Laperriere, a former staffer for Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra and Senator Spencer Abraham, the school relocated to Ward 7 in 2005. Cornerstone serves 175 students in grades kindergarten to 12. Ninety-seven percent of the students are black; 75 percent of staff are white.

Max said that the increased attention to race and racism is motivating an examination of what the school teaches. Cornerstone teaches critical thinking through a discussion-based classical curriculum. In seminar-style sessions, students think critically about classical texts such as Plato’s The Cave.

The school is undertaking a review of their classical canon to represent more issues related to race and to include more authors of color. Cornerstone is also looking at what is emphasized when they teach some subjects, such as the founding fathers.

“We’re in the process now of reviewing how we do teach it,” he said, “and I think that’s healthy and right, and I think that’s a positive thing that’s come out of the last two months.”

Cornerstone is in a unique position, he said, because of the relationship between the school and Congressional Republicans. “Why don’t we start using those same connections to make people think, to take action that we believe would be beneficial to our community?”

Max cites as an example a recent trip to the U.S. Naval Observatory where Cornerstone students were invited to join Vice President Mike Pence to view an eclipse. After the visit, one of the students posted a photo and commentary on social media about the event, Max said. “He was really pissed at Mike Pence because he wouldn’t say, ‘Black Lives Matter” –he kept saying ‘All Lives Matter,’” Max related.

Max encouraged the students to write a letter to the Vice President, expressing how that failure hurt and using the shared experience to express student views and experiences.

Max said that he wants students to use their skills in critical thinking and reasoned argument to express their concerns and lobby in favor of their ideas.

“Can we get our kids to pick an issue that concerns them and worries them, and really study it and find a way to get the message to members of Congress, the White House or the city council or the mayor in a way that it educates and it moves them all forward productively?”

Open to Conversation
One Capitol Hill elementary school used a history project as a starting point to discuss issues of race and gentrification in the school community.

As the neighborhood around Payne Elementary School (1445 C St SE, paynedc.org) has changed, the school population quickly changed as well. In 2012, 90 percent of the student population was black, with only 3 percent identifying as white; by 2019, 22 percent of students were white and 70 percent black.

The school community identified a need to discuss Payne’s history and use the findings as an entry point to discussions about race, gentrification and equity. They started by partnering with The Story of Our Schools (TSOS), a non-for-profit dedicated to partnerships with DC Schools that teach kids how to research and communicate the history of their school and its surrounding neighborhood.  In February 2020 the exhibit opened, presenting the history of the school and of Daniel Payne, the black educator and religious leader for whom the school is named.

“What I really wanted the community and students to see,” said TSOS Executive Director Jen Harris, “is that all these people are part of the school neighborhood. All these identities and generations are represented right here, and you are a part of it.”

The school that now bears Payne’s name was built for black students in 1896. In 1951 and 1953, parents went on strike to draw attention to crowding and inequity at the school, contributing to the desegregation of District schools in 1954.

While working on the project, fifth-grader Marlee Young discovered that since the 1930s five generations of her family, from her great-great grandmother to her mother, have attended the 124-year old school at the corner of 15th and C Streets SE.

“Learning about Payne’s history taught me a lot about my own history, and the ties my family had to the community,” she said at the opening. “Over the years, the neighborhood has changed tremendously and some historic identities may be lost. However, the neighborhood school remains.”

The project provided a shared narrative, giving the school a starting point for discussions about what it means to be a community. At the exhibit opening, PTA President Mark Jordan said that the school community was working on a new workshop on diversity and inclusion at Payne. Many of the activities that were planned to follow the opening were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the school community has begun discussions via Zoom, facilitated by Principal Stephanie Byrd.

Byrd said that the current historical climate is making more people willing to have difficult but necessary conversations about critical issues.

“Everyone is coming to their idea of community from different places and different viewpoints,” Byrd said. “If we don’t have a common language behind what it means to be a community, we’ll continue to miss the mark.”

Part of A Longer History of Resistance
Other educators are explicitly linking the issues raised in the current social climate, including concerns around race and policing and the response to COVID-19 in black communities, to the history of race and white supremacy in the United States.

High school teacher Jessica Rucker teaches Introduction to African American History and Culture at E.L. Haynes High School (401 Kanas Ave. NW). She is also one of the founding teacher advisors at DC Area Educators for Social Justice, a network of educators that seeks to strengthen and deepen social justice teaching, helping private and public school educators collaborate on curriculum, professional learning, and activism.

Rucker says that her course lives at the intersection of English Language Arts and Social Studies, with history a huge component of learning. She sees learning as fostering civic engagement and as a tool for emancipation and liberation.

“One of the things that this historical moment has reminded me, and I can only speak on my own behalf, is that uprising, organizing around state sanctioned white supremacy and racism and other systems of oppression have been themes in U.S. History,” said Rucker. “This current moment is one among many and that’s the way that I frame the 2020 uprising for students.”

Rucker said that her classroom discussion was in part initiated after the killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician who was shot by police after they used a battering ram to break into her home while she was sleeping.

In her classes, Rucker tried to link the current uprising to a broader history of policing. In the last half of the school year, which ended on May 29, she focused on what students needed to know about the social unrest, but also about the long history of policing as well as of black resistance and rebellion in the United States.

“For me at Haynes, but also for many teachers in the DC Area Educators for Social Justice, this was just another opportunity to connect this moment of resistance and liberation to a longer history of resistance and liberation,” she said.

For one project, students are asked to research the government response to the disaster created when Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005. They are then asked to produce what Rucker calls “the Minority Report,” a nod to a song by Jay-Z, which reflects on the aftermath. It is a sort of soapbox speech in which students reflect on the failures of the response.

With this project, Rucker said she wanted to make connections with the current COVID-19 crisis. “I wanted to connect Hurricane Katrina, and the lack of judgement of our political administration at that time to the lack of judgment [today],” she said, “and how they continue to fail to support communities that have been marginalized.”

Redesigning Systems
A new school is trying to train the next generation of scholar-activists. Two years ago, Myron Long and Brandon Johnson began a pilot for a school with a curriculum based in social justice. The founders of The Social Justice School (5450 3rd St. NE, thesocialjusticeschool.org) say the need has long existed. George Floyd’s death has just galvanized a wider section of people, they say –and that’s good.

The public charter school, set to open in fall 2020, is designed to give middle school students the tools to become scholar-activists who will change the world.

“We believe that systems of inequality were designed intentionally to create hierarchies in a racial and gender caste system that exists in America,” said Long. “But we also believe that, because we are humans and we have agency, then those same systems that were designed can be redesigned.”

Social justice means that you are explicitly using a problem-solving method to think about how to interrupt systems of inequality in the world, said Long. Courses at the new school will use the expeditionary learning curriculum, a literacy curriculum rooted in real world issues employed to develop students into change agents.

The curriculum emphasizes empathy, problem-solving and collaboration, Long said. “Can we teach people how to talk about race and equity in a way that is rooted in love, empathy and learning integration?” he asks.

The Social Justice School believes that learning should happen both inside and outside the classroom and that social learning should be rooted in local issues.

“It’s one thing for students to read about poverty in DC and see a million charts and maps. But,” said Long, “if we actually take them into the community and have them conduct empathy interviews in coordination with organizations fighting poverty in DC, the level of knowledge that you get sitting down with someone and really understanding their plight is so much more meaningful than just simply reading it in a textbook.”

Every day, students will also go to a maker space called the liberation lab. There they will be taught to use a problem-solving method called “liberatory design thinking” to grapple with social justice issues. They use research, experimentation and reiteration to practice the redesign of oppressive identities, symbols and systems.

For instance, fifth graders read the declaration of human rights to grapple with the question of “Is housing a human right?” applying that question to the context of gentrification in DC. They might read texts such as “The Beat,” on the history of go-go in District black culture. The teacher might task them with designing a tribute to go-go with tools such as a 3-D printer, podcast studio or film making tools that could be presented to the Mayor as a way to preserve the legacy of go-go music in DC. Or they might have the option of creating a more equitable distribution of wealth map to think about how to eliminate the distribution of wealth that leads to gentrification.

Long says the school will address a civic engagement gap in education. Most student learn about how the three branches of government function, but that does not teach them how to engage in civil society in ways that can bring about change, such as through a direct-action campaign. He said the school will fill that need.

“There is a need for social justice right now in our country especially given the systematic attack on black and brown bodies,” Long said. “We believe very strongly that the social justice school is needed in our time as an opportunity for hope for our country and also to empower the young people who are directly impacted by the moments that are happening right now to change the world.”