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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘There is Still a Lot of Work’ Schools Need to Do in Supporting Black Girls

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 25, 2019 17 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How should schools and districts respond to discipline disparities affecting black girls?

Part One of this special series guest-edited by Dr. Terri N. Watson examined the voices and perspectives of black girls. Dr. Watson and Yolanda Tomlin contributed responses in that first post. Dr. Watson, along with Drs. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz and Venus Evans-Winters, also participated in a 10-minute conversation on my BAM! Radio Show about this topic.

Part Two of this series will feature practices schools and districts have and/or should implement to improve the schooling experiences of black girls:

Response From Gholdy Muhammad

Gholdy Muhammad is an assistant professor of language and literacy at Georgia State University. Each year she holds a summer literacy institute with black girls called, Black Girls WRITE!, which reflects literacy practices found in 19th-century black literary:

Black Girls and the Need for Agitation Literacies in Schools

To the Members of the Anti-Lynching Bureau:

... the need for agitation and publication of facts is greater than ever, while the avenues through which to make such publications have decreased. When the bureau was first organized three years ago, it was thought that every man, woman, and child who had a drop of Negro blood in his veins and every person else who wanted to see mob law put down would gladly contribute 25 cents per year to this end. Nevertheless my faith in the justice of our cause and the absolute need of this agitation leads me to again address those who have shown 25 cents worth of interest in the matter heretofore. ... In view of the recent agitation in Congress and out anent the disfranchisement of the Negro and the causes alleged therefore it was thought best to throw some light on those times and give some unwritten history.

- Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Chairman

On Jan. 1, 1902, Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote a letter to the Anti-Lynching Bureau outlining the urgency to respond to the terroristic acts of violence projected on the lives of black women and men. She stated that 135 human beings met death at the hands of lynching mobs and she consequently used her pen in unapologetic ways to bring light and attention to these horrific crimes. Through her writing, she further urged members to agitate—to trouble the waters and disrupt oppression.

This was not the first or last time where black women used their pens to agitate. In my study of historical archives of black women, I find the words, agitate and agitation throughout their literary writings from the 19th century onward. Black women used writing practices to define their identities, resist oppression, and for social change. In this way, they weren’t just readers or writers, but they were also activists working toward a better humanity. The need to agitate historically spoke to the social unrest at the time, and I argue that the need to agitate is still necessary and pressing, especially with the literacy and writing practices of black girls in classrooms today.

I define agitation literacies as ways of reading, writing, thinking, and speaking that is connected to both the intention and action of upsetting, disturbing, and unhinging systemic racism and other oppressions. Teachers need to move toward agitation literacies in pedagogies and foster learning spaces where black girls can name, understand, critique, and ultimately dismantle oppression. Agitating-literacy practices such as writing for social change is especially key for black girls because they have a history of being marginalized, dehumanized, and underserved in and out of schools.

We have policing in schools, and the presence of whiteness in nearly everything from nursery rhymes, cartoons, children’s literature, and learning standards. Just a few years ago, a young girl in South Carolina was physically and verbally abused by a school resource officer. No one came to her aid, not even the person who was hired to help her most—her teacher. And, in just the last year, black girls have reported being strip-searched for appearing to be “giddy and hyper,” and punished more often and harshly than peers. Other articles reported bias dress codes and discriminatory hair policies. This, unfortunately, is not an exhaustive list of the attacks and intellectual assaults on black girls.

This begs the questions:

− What are our responsibilities to the lives and literacies of black girls in schools?

− How can agitation-literacy practices serve as a protection and a tool of empowerment and activism for black girls as it served for black women historically?

− When are we going to create spaces in classrooms that reflect black girls’ histories?

I argue that if we get it right with black girls, given their unique histories and oppressions, we begin to get it right with other students. To respond to the problems black girls experience in schools, I have been creating spaces over than past nine years in summer literacy institutes called Black Girls WRITE! (Writing to Represent our Identities, our Times and our Excellence).

In these literacy groups, I connect girls to the purposeful writings of black women and literary traditions of Black Literary Societies of the 1800s. Within both of these histories, black women and girls came together to 1) build identity development, 2) cultivate literacy skills, 3) nurture intellectualism, and 4) foster criticality. The later learning goal is learning about power, oppression, and marginalization. As they are mastering these four goals, they are returning to their lineages of agitating—of disruption—of calling attention and real action to racial and gender violence. When educators move “toward history” in this way, black girls have the space and potential to live out the joy and excellence in education that they deeply deserve.

Response From Shannon R. Waite

Shannon R. Waite is a clinical assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. Dr. Waite was appointed to the Panel for Educational Policy as a mayoral appointee last March:

Increasing Advocacy and Agency for Black Girls Through GEM Nation

My schooling experiences as a black girl, often feeling unsafe and as if I did not have a voice, made me all the more determined to change the schooling experiences for other students of color and in particular, black girls. As a teacher, my focus was on empowering students by liberating and activating their voices through education. My goal was not only to get them to pass the Global Studies Regents, but also, and even more importantly, to empower them to self-advocate and reinforce that they had agency and were entitled to be active consumers in their education. As a mother of two young black girls, I am keenly aware of the challenges facing black girls and passionate about activating agency and self-advocacy in my daughters. As I reflect on the close to 16 years I have spent as an educator in an urban city, 13 of which I spent in the N.Y.C. Department of Education (NYCDOE), I realize that it was my schooling experiences, as a black girl, that shaped and defined me as an educator.

As a mayoral appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), I am committed to using my voice to increase the level of transparency and accountability students and their families deserve in the decisionmaking process. Additionally, I seek to ensure that decisions are thoughtful, equitable, and in the best interest of the 1.1 million schoolchildren educated in New York City’s public schools. As a scholar activist, I am committed to empowering underrepresented and marginalized groups in our society to become active consumers in their educational experiences. I am also invested in ensuring that all children in the school system have agency and will also be a voice for improving the quality of experiences for black girls.

The NYCDOE has made a commitment to Equity and Excellence for all students and recognizes that gleaning from the wealth of diversity is a strength, not a weakness, of our city. In that vein, with the support of our chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, the first deputy chancellor, Cheryl Watson-Harris, kicked off the expansion of the Girls’ Empowerment Movement Nation or GEM Nation at P.S. 049 at the Willis Avenue School in the Bronx on Jan. 30, 2019. GEM Nation is “an intentional citywide effort to empower girls to make choices that are right for them and to become individual and collective agents of change for themselves, their communities, and the entire world” (NYCDOE, 2018).

The vision of this program is “to educate and inspire all girls in GEM Nation to use their own voice and agency to exercise their rights as a female citizen to N.Y.C. to create what they most want to see and do in their own lives and the world around them” (NYCDOE, 2018). The program participants are referred to as GEM’s in an effort to remind our girls, and in particular our black and brown girls, that they are precious gems. A few of the program priorities are to provide an opportunity for schools to create a space for GEMs to engage in an individual and collective approach to life improvement that is focused on the foundational SEL practices of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL); to seek to influence the capacity and accountability of formal institutions, laws, policies, and practices to support and promote women’s rights and the Girls’ Empowerment Movement and to provide each GEM a space for an individual and collective focus on gender equity; and strengthening each other’s self-confidence, self-esteem, knowledge, and self-awareness focused on the foundational SEL practices of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). This initiative is vital and is a tangible first step toward improving the quality of educational experiences for female students in the NYCDOE, and particularly, for empowering black and Latinx girls to understand that they do, in fact, matter, have agency, and have a voice.

The first deputy chancellor launched GEM Nation last year through the Brooklyn South Field Services office, and she has indicated that she is committed to the expansion of the program citywide. In addition to Gem Nation, the next step the NYCDOE should consider is to allocate time and resources toward research and development explicitly focused on what is needed to improve the quality of educational experience of black and Latinx girls. GEM Nation is a significant step in the right direction, and I look forward to partnering with the participants of GEM Nation in spirit as I use my agency, advocacy, and influence to improve the quality of educational experiences for all students and pay close attention to the experiences of black and Latinx girls.


New York City Department of Education, (2018), Girls’ Empowerment Movement 2018-2019 #GEMNation, Office of the First Deputy Chancellor

Response From Marquitta T. Speller

Marquitta T. Speller began her career as an English teacher in New York City. She has spent the last 10 years working at the Harlem Children’s Zone as a high school principal and executive director:

Girl Talk: Having Our Say

As a former teacher and school leader, I witnessed firsthand what happens when our unexamined biases and judgments are in control of our actions. Early in my career as a leader, a first-year teacher came to me with tears in her eyes to report an incident. She felt threatened and wanted to file a police report. I learned that the “threat” came from a 9th grader named Keisha (a pseudonym). This was not Keisha’s first time getting in trouble. She had been accused of being loud, rude, disrespectful, and disruptive. Her offense this time was cursing at the teacher.

I had to explain to the teacher that while I found Keisha’s actions unacceptable, I did not think that filing a police report was the proper response. The teacher kept repeating that she felt threatened by Keisha. The teacher was visibly shaken. The tears in her eyes were real. I wanted to be sensitive to her needs as a first-year teacher, but as a black woman who has adorned many of the same labels as Keisha, I felt protective of the young girl. When I spoke to Keisha, she was equally shaken. She knew that her behavior was unacceptable, but she did not present any threat to the teacher. She started to cry and implored me to let her apologize to the teacher. I could not find it in my heart to tell her that the teacher did not want to hear her apology, she only wanted to file a police report. To be clear, I am in no way defending or justifying Keisha’s use of inappropriate language, nor am I minimizing the feelings that the teacher experienced. However, this particular situation prompted me to start thinking about ways that black girls are viewed by society, including their teachers.

I received many reports from teachers about non-black girls cursing in class or being rude, but none of those incidents resulted in the filing of a police report. I recalled all of the times when the black girls from the school were labeled in ways that framed them as antisocial and unworthy of care. The behaviors displayed by the black girls from this school were somehow viewed as a threat. Although we were able to get past this situation, the “threat” that Keisha presented to this teacher resonated with me. I pondered: What exactly in this young girl’s actions or behavior presented a threat, and how could I help my staff understand how their implicit bias impacts their practice?

The incident with Keisha prompted me to start a mentoring program for the young girls at the school site, while simultaneously working with the staff to find alternatives to the punitive approach that we employed for every situation. We initiated a mentoring program called Girl Talk for high school freshman girls. We wanted to provide an opportunity for black girls to connect, talk, and flourish in a safe space. The young ladies from the program participated in weekly workshops, and each received a mentor. Women of color and older students served as mentors for the freshman girls. This was the beginning of a multiyear journey to help black girls from this school embrace the beauty of their authentic voice. The mentoring program provided a vehicle for these young ladies to develop a sense of agency. We wanted the young ladies to not be silenced by the stereotypes that surround and stymie black women and girls. We taught them to use their voice as a tool for disrupting the pervasive narratives that label black girls as loud, aggressive, and rude. We wanted to teach the girls that the deficit ideologies that exist serve a weapon of control, and that they have the power to control that narrative through their actions. We wanted the girls to see that there was nothing “wrong” with them for being young, black, and female.

Respectability politics that uplift middle-class standards and values without carefully examining the constructs that serve as a mechanism for the systematic oppression of black girls is unacceptable. We often operate from a place of bias as a result of our deeply embedded racial social constructs. These constructs often go unexamined. Behavior that is deemed to be disrespectful is connected to our biases. That does not mean that any behavior should just be tolerated, but it does call into question the behaviors that we are judging and how we are responding. I do not fault people who have a bias, but I do take issue with bias that is unexamined, especially when it negatively impacts black and brown children. As educators, we have a responsibility to examine our bias and refine our practice to ensure that we are not damaging the lives of black girls.

Response From Valerie Kinloch

Valerie Kinloch is the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh and a black women who studies literacy, equity, and justice:

A Pedagogy of Love: Black Girls and Black Liberation

There is still a lot of work that schools and school districts need to do in relation to recognizing, honoring, and respecting the humanity of black girls. Not only must they acknowledge the histories of systemic violence—to include, among other injustices, physical, social, emotional, mental, educational, spiritual, and political terror perpetuated against black people in this nation and across the Black Diaspora--but they must also come to terms with the many ways they, themselves, remain complicit in the ongoing marginalization and degradation of black girls and also black women. They must grapple with the roles they have played and continue to play in attempting to strip black girls of their dignity, integrity, beauty, and brilliance. Until this work is done, until schools and school districts take a hard look at how they think about, interact with, and (mis)treat black girls, then they will continue to uphold an educational system founded in and guided by injustices, inequities, and inequalities.

To engage in this work, I call for a pedagogy of love in relation to black girls and for black liberation. This pedagogy requires that we center black girls and women in our work with others throughout the world. I center black girls and women because not only have they informed my education and life, but also because they give meaning to what it means to survive and thrive in a world that is hostile to us. I say their names—the names of my black aunts, sisters, cousins, and nieces: Annie, Catherine, Dorothy, Ruthie, Tit, Andre, Barbara, Barbara Jean, Cheryl, Kesha, Zan, Booty, Celestine, Debbie, Destiny, Jasmine, Brandy, Brittany, Tootsie Roll, Shannon, Tracey, Faye, Temaria, Leona, Latoya, and many others. I especially center my black mother, Virginia, whose life of 84 years is a signification of struggle, love, and silences yet to be voiced. I also center my mother’s mother, my grandmother, who died at an early age, leaving my mother and her sisters to care for themselves with a peculiar type of hardened black love in the segregated South. I center my father’s mother, my grandmother, a black woman silenced by the realities of living in an unjust world. So, too, do I center the black women neighbors who lived in the same community where my mother and father lived for nearly 47 years: Mrs. Mamie, Ms. Georgia Mae, Ms. Mattie, Ms. Brown, Ms. Crowder, and Mrs. Grant.

I center Ms. Kirkland, Ms. Ferguson, Ms. Greene, Ms. Smalls, Ms. Thompson, Ms. Glears, and other black women educators who taught me, in the words of education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond (1996), that by “participating in a pluralistic community, talking and making decisions with one another, and coming to understand multiple perspectives” (p.6) we could and would be successful.

The point is that by centering black girls and women, I am able to take up the question, “How should schools and districts respond to the discipline disparities affecting black girls’ schooling experiences?,” from a position of care, concern, and compassion. It is poet-educator-activist June Jordan (2002) who insists: “I am always hoping to do better than to collaborate with whatever or whomever it is that means me no good” (p. 3). In refusing to collaborate with that that “means me no good,” we must understand that there are many barriers that seek to prevent the academic and social success of black girls, and that many of those barriers surface inside of schools and school districts. From discipline disparities, zero-tolerance policies, silencing and alienation practices, and the high rate of suspension and expulsion to the surveillance and adultification of black girls and their bodies, schools must ask:

  • In what ways do we continue to perpetuate the criminalization and degradation of black girls, and why? And what is it that we must do to interrupt and disrupt this perpetuation?
  • How can we enact a pedagogy of love for and toward black girls, and what does this mean and include on both a small and large scale? What is it that we must give up now?
  • What are concrete ways—through pedagogies, practices, people, and policies—for us to address and not continue to foster discipline disparities that affect black girls’ schooling experiences?
  • Why are we not “saying their names” in ways that position black girls for academic and social success and that seek to both honor their humanity and save their lives?
  • Why do schools and school districts and, by extension, their accountability measures, operate as sites of black resistance and not as sites of black liberation?

For schools and school districts to take up these questions, they must commit to a pedagogy of love for black girls by understanding the following:

  • The importance of culturally relevant professional development for all school members
  • The significance of hiring and supporting black women teachers and leaders
  • The need to center texts by (and experiences of) black women authors and activists, and
  • The urgency to stand against the criminalization of black girls.

Thus, a pedagogy love, a centering of black girls, and a commitment to black liberation!

Thank you to Dr. Watson, Gholdy, Shannon, Marquitta, and Valerie for their contributions!

Look for Part Three in a few days.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.