Reconstructing Public Education

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Critical Race Theory F*cked my Husband

Last Wednesday I opened Twitter and checked my messages for any amusing memes that might have been sent my way and was greeted by this gem from #PettyPendergrass. Pardon the language if it’s not your speed, but if you’ve seen 1997’s Soul Food, you get the reference: you let family in your house only to find out that family done ya’ dirty! I chuckled at the meme and closed the app but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the panic-inducing words “critical race theory” (CRT) and the inexplicable terror that seems to accompany them. I emphasize words, because recent conservative political commentary reflects no understanding of what this legal theory entails, just how the words make said commentators feel. David Theo Goldberg summarized the nature of the attack on this area of scholarship when he wrote,

“CRT functions for the right today primarily as an empty signifier for any talk of race and racism at all, a catch-all specter lumping together ‘multiculturalism,’ ‘wokeism,’ ‘anti-racism,’ and ‘identity politics’—or indeed any suggestion that racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes, the result of choices made by equally positioned individuals in a free society.”

This coordinated attack includes broad state legislation banning critical race theory from schools.

Far Below Expectations

I am not a critical race theorist but I am a public school teacher—one that cares deeply about the holistic development of my students and their preparedness to be skilled, knowledgeable, critical thinkers. What we are witnessing is the epitome of baseless, uninformed claims—the type teachers hope our students never make. Standards-driven English/Language Arts instruction (the instruction new CRT critics insist teachers should stick to) expects high school students to be able to introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience's knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases. Were our students to follow the model of fear-filled media talking heads, their work would currently be far below expectations. Why is that? Because the arguments we teach our students to make are grounded in an organized, logical presentation of ideas driven by facts, not predetermined agendas.

But, Our Tax Dollars!

For those that insist the public dollar ought not be spent on indoctrination factories, I direct you to a history of public education in America which included “public and Latin schools designed to teach children Puritan values and how to read the Bible”. Public education began with the intent to teach pupils to fully accept a set of ideals and waste no time considering other opinions or beliefs. Regardless of religious inclination, it's important to acknowledge that indoctrination does not suddenly become an issue when it no longer aligns with one’s personal agenda. Now, the mission of our United States Education Department is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” I wonder how we expect our students to compete with those of other nations when we, as a nation, are not committed to providing them with accurate records of its inception, development, and sustainment. What is “excellent” about lacking the courage to face our history, learn from it, and forge a path forward that is not built on the backs and blood of Black people, the theft of indigenous land, and the criminalization and imprisonment of those we fear? Teachers have a unique opportunity to help students see the world through a lens of equity with the books we read, the units we design, and the conversations we facilitate. This is the type of public education all students deserve. It is the type of education that will equip them to make their own arguments, find and evaluate their own sources, and engage with agreement and opposition alike.

Shortly after the publication of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson reflected on the opportunity for this resource’s integration into our families’ conversations and teachers’ curricula. “As educators,” Jackson wrote, “we are always looking for new tools and strategies to help students contextualize the world around them so they may one day become informed and effective citizens”. Context is key. The thoughts we generate, the words we say, the actions we take, and the judgments we make are results of the lenses through which we see the world. Students need accurate information about how these lenses come to be, and how, regardless of our lens, we are responsible for the impact our thoughts, words, actions, and judgements have on others. This American experiment has resulted in some amazing products. And those products are blood-stained. How can we and future generations clean up a mess we refuse to collectively acknowledge? How can my students dismantle a system some teachers believe does not exist?

Which One We Gon’ Be?

In a recent interview On One with Angela Rye, Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff was asked whether or not we “are we moving fast enough” as it relates to the reconstruction of policing in America. His answer so poignantly spoke to the thorn in all of our institutions, education included.

“The answer to the question of ‘are we going fast enough?’ is always no,” Goff insisted. “We’re never going fast enough. We could have constructed a country that made good on all the things that got written down and sounded pretty and we chose not to do that. There’s always two versions of this country: There’s the one that got written down and the one that people were living; There’s the one that said we hold these truths to be self evident, and there’s the one where that passage was written by a person who owned other humans and raped children. Which one we gon’ be?! We’re always both. We’re always the people telling the myth about ourselves and the people living the lie to that myth. We could just live a life that’s consistent with the values we say we have and that would be fast enough.”

I want to be a public education teacher that moves fast enough. I want each one of my students to know what values are. I want them to know how to express them, live them out, and tell the difference between the two. A common retort to culturally relevant instruction is, “that’s too political for me”—an excuse that ignores the inherently political nature of education and centers the comfort of the educator over the needs of students. I implore my fellow educators to move at the pace our students require or step aside, lest you get run over. If you’re staying, buckle up because this is a long race and it’s not for the faint of heart. But together, we can advocate for the resources we need to provide students with the instruction they deserve; we can collaborate to design content-rich learning activities that push students to be the change they wish to see, and reconstruct public education so that it’s not just “excellent” but “equitable”. 

Reconstruction

My dad was about five years old when he and his sister walked past a brand new park on their way home. They were tempted by the shiny new slide and rust-free monkey bars. There was another park right next to it: run down, neglected. His sister, one year his senior, eagerly asked my grandmother, “Ma, can we go swing?”. My dad didn’t say anything. He recalls that even at that age he knew “the new stuff wasn’t for us”. My grandmother remembers the story almost exactly as her son does. She remembers a moment of wanting so badly to let her kids play on those swings, the fear of what might happen if they were caught, and the disappointment of taking them home without a chance to run around on an empty playset. 

We live—I teach—in a country where my students often know that certain stuff just “isn’t for them”. I teach so one day none of my students will know that feeling. That feeling emerges when our students are ignored, denied, ridiculed, and threatened because of any part of their identities. We cannot eliminate these realities if we tackle them as isolated experiences rather than systemic issues. We cannot eliminate these realities if we strip teachers of the tools needed to critically engage with culturally relevant texts. We cannot eliminate these realities if we are more worried about who we’re letting in the house, than the very foundation it’s built on. It’s time for another reconstruction because our students deserve to wake up every day, look at the country they live in and know, “this is for me”.

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This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Debbie Reese (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).