How to Ensure that Black Lives Matter at School and in Your Classroom
Local communities have gathered for protests and marches in response to the death of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, and other African Americans. Chants calling for justice and an end to racism and police brutality have become the rallying cry. Research shows that the majority of educators support the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement is calling to defund the police, and while not all educators are in agreement with this, their support for the movement helps identify a need to address the current need for social justice. How can teachers respond to this? How do they help their students understand racism and talk about Black Lives Matter at school?
The Early Years
While young students may not be able to understand the BLM movement as a whole, they can understand what it means to feel left out or treated unfairly.
#1 - Use Analogies for Understanding: A student who hears "Black Lives Matter" may question why one color is being chanted over another. Don't all lives matter? Of course, they do! But right now, society is coming together to help those who are hurt. Share these word pictures with your students: Imagine you fall on the playground and break your arm. When you go to the doctor, which bone do you want him to fix? Your arm! If he puts a cast on your leg, that won't fix the pain. It won't heal the bone or the hurt. All bones matter, but right now, it's your arm that needs the attention! Or imagine you lose your dog. You'd make flyers with his picture and hang them all over your city. You'd drive around looking for him and calling his name out the window. Do all dogs matter? They certainly do! But right now, your dog is lost. Your dog is missing. You're afraid that your dog might be hurt. You need your friends to come and help you find your dog. That's what the BLM movement is trying to accomplish, too.
#2 - Talk about Prejudice and Profiling: The brutality that George Floyd and many others have experienced might be too graphic for our youngest students to comprehend. As educators, you can use his death, and the deaths of so many others, to talk about prejudice and profiling. What does it mean to judge a book by its cover? Can you tell if someone is a bad or dangerous person just by looking at him or her? Use blue Gatorade and Windex to help illustrate this. Pour the Gatorade into one glass and the Windex into another glass. Just by looking at the two glasses, can you tell which one is safe to drink? Can you tell, just by looking at them, that one is poisonous? No. The same is true with people. The BLM movement wants police officers and people to stop assuming that someone with dark skin is dangerous. Help students understand that African Americans are often treated like they are dangerous criminals before something bad has happened. While we shouldn't judge anyone based on the color of their skin, like the "All Lives Matter" statement suggests, it is the black community that needs our support right now as this happens to them at an alarming rate. Use the Windex and Gatorade example, as well as other hands-on lesson activities to help illustrate this.
Upper Elementary Students
Older elementary students have possibly been exposed to more of the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. While they've heard the phrases tossed about, they may not know what words like privilege, systemic racism, and bias mean.
#1 - Begin to Address the Idea of White Privilege: White privilege doesn't mean that all white people have had easy lives. It doesn't mean that they haven't faced hardship or adversity. What it does mean, however, is that the color of their skin has not made their lives harder. White people have certain privileges and advantages that African Americans and other brown-skinned people don't. This video about systemic racism helps students understand how they've received, and continue to receive privileges and opportunities, not based on things they've done. Instead, they continue to benefit from decisions made long ago that have created and paved a future for them to have a head start at success.
#2 - Create Mirrors and Windows: Educators can use the current culture and their current neighborhoods to examine racism and the BLM movement. If you live or teach in a culturally diverse area, are there historical documents you could use to learn about redlining or housing inequities? If so, have your students reflect on their own history through this lens. You can also create a window in which they can peek at and learn about Stonewall, South Africa, Palestine, and other places where civil rights were tested. This can be done using short articles about African Americans and other underrepresented populations from around the world.
Images are another powerful way to illustrate this concept. Walk through a series of children's books to look for issues of race and racial identity. Use this window as a springboard for discussion. What do you see? What is missing? What is defined as beautiful? Another option is to host a gallery walk. Display a variety of images of resistance throughout the years. Allow your students to walk around the room and view each one. How do the pictures make them feel? What do they notice? If you hear them comment with implicit bias, ask them to support their claim with evidence. The goal is not to influence your students' beliefs with your own, but rather to help them begin to think critically about the civil rights movement over the years and throughout the world. Creating mirrors and windows for our students allows them to reflect on race, racism, and social justice.
Middle School Students
As students grow and mature in their ability to think critically, many will feel a need or desire to express their thoughts about the BLM movement or racism and inequality as a whole. You can create those safe environments and foster those conversations within your classroom and teach black lives matter virtually or face-to-face.
#1 - Embed Social Justice into Current Curriculum: While not every district in the nation will be quick to adopt some version of culturally sensitive curriculum, you can find ways to embed social justice into your current content. Consider using novels about black history year-round, not just during Black History Month. Or begin choosing literature with black protagonists, rather than some of the more traditional books you're used to teaching with. Consider assigning art projects with the theme "What does Black Lives Matter Mean to You?" or inviting guest speakers of color in from the community to talk not only about race, racism, and social justice, but also about their lives and careers, in general.
#2 - Community Circle Discussions: Create an environment where students can sit in a circle and share their thoughts about the different guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even quick, daily, five-minute conversations about these principles will lead to greater understanding of society as a whole and the struggles that many groups or individuals face.
While there is no one right way to begin teaching about the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice at school, there are countless options and opportunities. The only wrong way is to remain silent. Your students are looking to you for insight, support, and education, and now is the time to show them that you are supportive.
Black History Reading and Writing Workbooks