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Teaching Opinion

Lessons for Teachers From George Floyd’s Death & Black Lives Matter

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 03, 2020 16 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What specific changes are you making in your teaching this year as a result of what you have learned from the killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests?

In Part One, Keturah Proctor, Erika Niles, Dr. Theresa Capra, and Mark Holt shared their plans and suggestions.

Today, Keisha Rembert, Ann Stiltner, Tracy Sangare, and Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman contribute their commentaries.

Changing teaching in light of George Floyd

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world’s most renowned universities. She was named Illinois’ History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

In light of the racial reawakening sparked by the deaths of Black men and women across the nation and the subsequent protest, this year, and in all subsequent years, it is imperative that I teach for liberation and humanize learning by making space for students to express their joy and process their trauma, I must integrate civics and rhetorical analysis into instruction every day and I must include texts, resources, and discussions that center Black joy as resistance. And I encourage you to do all these and more.

Teaching for Liberation

According to Barbara Love, a liberation worker is one committed to changing systems and institutions characterized by oppression to create greater equity and social justice. My goal this year is to be an educational liberation worker developing the liberatory consciousness of students and myself while working together to dismantle the oppressive systems we encounter in and out of school. Freedom from the repressive and oppressive systems students face is the ultimate goal and one I’ll share with them at the beginning of this school year.

Humanizing Learning

As society continues to dehumanize BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, and People of Color—and anti-Blackness pervades, my instruction must actively be a space where BIPOC culture and identities are more than bodies on asphalt and all students, especially BIPOC students, have agency. This means recognizing that students are human first, and they can’t receive the fullness of my lessons until I acknowledge and provide space for their joy and pain occurring inside and/or outside the classroom. My celebration and mourning with students cannot be an optional aside. It is pivotal to our collective growth. In this way, I will respect their stories and experiences and make these the building blocks of learning, acknowledging that our classroom exists not as a fishbowl but instead exists as the world itself.

Civics and Rhetoric Every Day

Because I want students to know and exercise their rights, civics education is more important than ever before. I realize it must be part of my instruction every day. As students watch police bullets riddle the backs of Black men and women or police officer’s knees choke the life out of them, students naturally question the rights of the victims and their own rights. These questions and answers permeate their thoughts, and our classroom must be the place to explore these answers and teach students to civically engage and act. Our classroom must also be a place to examine, understand, discuss, and dissect rhetoric. After horrendous incidents of Black death, students are often bombarded with rhetorical messages that challenge their very humanity. I’ve heard the internalization of these messages and their damning effects. To not teach students how to read this rhetoric, even at a young age, leaves them with no way to analyze the message and hold it to the light of truth.

Black Joy as Resistance

In the twirls of Copeland, the beats of hip hop, the power serve of Serena, LeBron’s dribble, the prose and poetry of Jason, Angie, Nic, Kwame, Renee and Ibi, there is both joy and resistance. These are the mentors of the present I intend to use as everyday guides for students, as well as the joy of Baldwin, Angelou, Hughes, Giovanni, Hurston, Nina Simone, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and so many more. It’s necessary to bring in the soul, creativity, courage, agency, and self love of these Black folks and others who bring us joy through their transformative work. It is my hope that students find themselves in the myriad brilliance of Black folks, always.

“I need to challenge my white friends”

Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 .Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:

I have worked for 15 years as a white teacher in a school where the majority of students are students of color. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and numerous others, plus the Black Lives Matter protests, confirmed what my students of color had told me for years. These current events push me to reflect on the biases that prevented me from hearing them, to change my mindset and to alter the ways I teach.

Read More There has been a plethora of books outlining our nation’s history of white supremacy. I have made use of my summer vacation to read several of these books. Robyn DeAngelo’s White Fragility was a wake-up call for me, but change did not happen all at once. It took me a while to sit with the ideas in order to identify my defensiveness. There is plenty more for me to read and process as I continue to challenge my biases, develop humility, and open myself to learning the lived experiences of others.

Reflect More Reading alone does nothing unless I let the ideas sink in, understand them, and allow them to change me. I find structuring time for reflection useful. The meditation practices outlined in Ruth King’s book Mindful of Race is one way to make time for self-reflection. Talking with colleagues, attending webinars, and following teachers of color on social media provide structured time to reflect on the ideas I have read. But this is not easy work. I am learning to get comfortable with discomfort and understand that discomfort is a necessary good to make things better. As Ijeoma Oluo says in her book So You Want to Talk About Race, “You have to get over the fear of facing the worst in yourself. You should instead fear unexamined racism. Fear the thought that right now, you could be contributing to the oppression of others and you don’t know it. But do not fear those who bring that oppression to light. Do not fear the opportunity to do better.”

Hear More Many times my students of color shared their mistrust and mistreatment at the hands of police. But I did not hear it. It was only after the too-long-list of people of color murdered that I finally got what they were talking about. I am ashamed that people had to lose their lives for me to finally hear what my students had been saying. I now give the lived experience of my students of color primacy. I also take into account all their identities and how they intersect to create the young people they are. I attempt to define my students beyond the identities I see or assume are most important to them. I listen to what they are saying and trust it. I need to remember to stay quiet, let others speak, and focus not on listening but hearing what they are saying.

Plan More Our school curriculums are places of systemic racism. As an English teacher, I have the chance to address this by including more authors of color, by providing more contemporary writers, and letting my students choose the texts we read. I follow what Christopher Erdmin calls reality pedagogy: “about reaching students where they really are, making sure that their lives and backgrounds are reflected in the curriculum and in classroom conversations.” This applies to all my students in light of all the unique and varied ways they identity themself.

Challenge More My goal is not to just care about the Black and Brown students but to change the systems that continue to oppress and marginalize them. As Bettina Love writes, “So, the question is not: Do you love all children? The question is: Will you fight for justice for Black and Brown children? And how will you fight?” I need to challenge my white friends and teachers when they share racist ideas, question systems that continue to perpetuate racism, and engage all my students in discussions that explore assumptions and biases.

I know this is not going to be easy work for me, nor for many of us teachers. We’ll make mistakes. But that is a risk worth taking.

“I swore to myself that I would take action”

Tracy Sangare is a national-board-certified teacher entering her 24th year of teaching. She teaches English/language learners in upstate New York. Tracy longs to live in a world where we no longer have to worry about the trauma, fear, and oppression of our students. Until then, she promises to dedicate herself to love-filled liberation:

Of the many things I learned through the national-board-certification process, the most impactful was the importance of being intentional in everything I do in the classroom. I took Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s “Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors” very seriously when planning curriculum. I was intentionally, as Dr. Ibram Kendi teaches us, anti-racist in my planning and interactions. I took Cornelius Minor’s advice to make my classroom the social-justice classroom I wanted it to be and to build my professional community from there. I was making mistakes, I was constantly learning, but I was feeling good about what I was doing in my classroom and my community of educators who were committed to change.

And then we watched a police officer kneel on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. We watched Mr. Floyd plead for his life as three other officers did nothing to stop his murder. How do we explain this to our students? I was feeling so inadequate at making any sense of our world and so unable to make anything better. Over the past few years, I have leaned heavily on Val Brown and the Clear The Air community to learn and be a better educator and I leaned on them again to try and make sense of what I need to do in my classroom. I reread Ibram Kendi and Cornelius Minor and Bettina Love and Sara Ahmed and so many others who have taught me that I can be better. And I swore to myself that I would take action.

I am starting the year with two changes I am making in what I do in my community. The first is I am explicitly talking about systematic racism and trying to draw the connections of how it works in our country. We cannot talk about equity in education without talking about why we don’t have equity now. Educators need to understand that this is not a broken system; it is a system created to uphold an American caste system that is multilayered but first and foremost, it is based on racism. Educators need to be able to make the connection between redlining and underfunding schools while still paying for school resource officers and how this fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.

We need to understand that this is not about kids not having enough “grit” or families not “valuing education.” Without understanding how systematic racism works, we will always look at some of our students and families through a deficit framework. Nothing good ever comes from a deficit framework. After all, not only are we responsible for providing an equitable education, we are the people who teach future police officers that every person in our classroom has worth and value.

My second change is making a commitment to what educators shea martin and Elizabeth Fortin call “Love-filled Liberation.” They build on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and his belief that we maintain the status quo by limiting possibilities for our students by controlling their imagination. Elizabeth Fortin and shea martin believe that teaching our students how to radically dream is an act of resistance. Radical dreaming is so much more than telling students they can do anything. As shea martin says, “White supremacy is explicit in its oppression and in the effects of that oppression and so our dreams have to be as explicit as the systems we are dreaming beyond.” And so, I will be explicitly working on radically dreaming with my students.

We will work on looking at our world and imagine all the ways it should be different. I will constantly be reminding all of us that we do not need to accept anyone’s limitations on what we can do. We will be making action plans on how our dreams can become a reality. We will talk about our own responsibilities when our goal is love-filled liberation. My hope is that when my students and I finish our time together, we will all approach problems with our radical dreams and challenge others to do the same. And maybe, just maybe, some day, the belief in the dignity of all will not be viewed as radical anymore.

4 Do’s and Don’ts for Raising Funds & Social-Justice Awareness

Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman is an educator with a terminal degree in special education, a license in school counseling, and years of experience as a college academic coach. She has written about her instructional insights in Teaching Tolerance, Edutopia, and Teach Thought. In 2020, her research on African American child and adolescent help-seeking was published in The Education and Urban Society Journal. In the same year, Jennifer established the George Floyd Social Justice Scholarship for students at Cincinnati State College, in Ohio. For updates on educational research and classroom resources, follow her on Twitter @DrJDavisBowman:

Don’t wait for other people to be loving, giving, compassionate, grateful, forgiving, generous, or friendly...lead the way!

-Steve Maraboli

How have police shootings of African Americans (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, etc.) influenced teacher leadership?

For me, they inspire action.

Instead of waiting for change in policing behavior or legal policies... as an educator, I was inspired to lead a social-justice fundraising project. The goal was to raise money to provide student scholarships. In order to be eligible to apply, students were required to respond to one of the following prompts:

What does social-justice leadership look like?

How can you be a part of a meaningful social change?

During my fundraising journey, I learned a few lessons along the way. Here are 4 Do’s (and Don’ts) for raising funds for a social-justice project.

1. Do examine resources for fundraising

Utilize websites such as philantropy.com, fundraisingcoach.com and fundraiserhelp.com. Find examples of what to say when you ask for donations. Review online templates that highlight specific words to use and phrases to avoid. The templates should provide information on follow-up dialogue and ways to say thank you. Find examples of organizations that have provided donations previously. Lastly, find examples of reasons individuals and businesses/organizations may decline a donation request.

Don’t simply begin asking friends and family for money.

2. Do engage with the potential individual or business before and after a donation request.

After making students and parents aware of scholarship opportunities in the past, it was easy to approach the same parents for assistance in building a funding base for a new scholarship. After frequenting a local business regularly, I learned that it was not difficult to talk to the business supervisor about contributing to the social-justice fundraiser.

Determine a follow-up strategy. For my project, I emailed updates (and sent text messages). Further, donors received a thank you in the mail about a week after donating, and I provided updates every 3-4 weeks. I admit, it took some time to learn how to make the follow-up messaging engaging. In time, I learned that posing questions in my update email subject lines (such as “Is our social- justice scholarship too political?”) and thanking donors individually for specific tasks (such as help with organizing our virtual raffle or sharing fundraiser information on social media) was effective.

Don’t rely on limited or isolated interactions to translate into meeting your donation goals.

3. Do determine if organizations have an interest in social-justice causes before requesting a donation.

Research the organizations you intend to contact. Examine the organization’s website. Look closely in sections labeled “community,” “giving back,” or “about us” to see if there is information related to social responsibility. Pay close attention to see evidence of the organization’s commitment to community or social change. For example, in visiting the J Crew website, there is information about the store closing on Election Day to provide ample time for employees to participate in the voting process. Or in visiting the Dewey’s Pizza website, there is a listing of community staff (including a director of community operations and a community assistant. Also, in the current social climate, many organizations have posted “Black Lives Matter” verbiage on their website.

Don’t randomly approach organizations with no knowledge of their position on issues related to social justice.

4. Do track all donation-related activity.

Document frequency of contact attempts. When contacting businesses, note the names, titles, and email addresses of the key individuals (such as managers and human-resource supervisors) you speak with. Log individuals who have yet to respond to your contact attempts. Monitor progress by identifying fundraising milestones. For my project, our ultimate goal was to raise $10,000, thus I used 10 milestones of $1,000 each. Maintain a running total of the number of supporters and the number of businesses/organizations that have expressed interest in making a donation. When individuals or businesses decline to provide a donation, inquire why and document this in order to prepare for speaking with disinterested donors in the future.

Don’t neglect donation data maintenance.

Thanks to Keisha, Ann, Tracy, and Jennifer for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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