When I was a middle school special education teacher, I taught ELA[English Language Arts] and Social Studies. My students were black and Hispanic adolescents who were burdened with the stigma of special needs diagnoses. A group of youth who were raging bodies of pure hormone intoxication, their ‘normal’ behavior, like most kids their age, was difficult to manage on most days. My students spent almost every school year in classrooms with teachers who neither looked like them, understood them and, in my opinion, didn’t or couldn’t appreciate their individual gifts and unique outlook. Disruptive behaviors had become their norm, due in part to their ‘label’. It brought stigma, an association with failure, lower expectations from others and hence, they showed very little interest in learning and developing new skills in school.
History and Social Studies teachers have certainly heard this from Black students, either being disruptive or not engaging in the content during a lesson: ” I don’t care about those [white] people!” That is the response to your verbal prompt to a student who refuses to engage, or behave appropriately in class. Acting out behaviors can often stem from the consistent presentation and “culturally exclusive” delivery of irrelevant, low-interest content in the classroom. Students will eventually tune out, disrupt, disengage and lose motivation, and it is our fault, not theirs.
An overwhelming majority of children enrolled in our nation’s public schools are black and brown. In a national effort to eliminate learning disparities and inequity in our public schools, education policy and decision-makers have spearheaded many new reform policies. We have state common core curriculum standards, STEM and STEAM initiatives, implemented strategies to improve school culture/climate, adopted family engagement practices, and the reforms continue.
Yet, disparities still persist. Children of color continue to drop out and travel along the pipeline at unacceptable numbers.
That concerns me very deeply, and informs me that ‘WE’ have overlooked something huge. The obvious element that has been shamefully neglected pertains to the scope of subject area content within the general curriculum. It’s not how we teach as much as what and how inclusively we teach that matters.
Shouldn’t we consider that it is more than just the impact of poverty that contributes to the learning and achievement gaps?
We have dismissed black history, omitted it from the curriculum, and have not considered the profound impact that one class, or just one lesson can have on student performance. School culture, climate, student engagement and achievement would certainly rise. Instead, we deliver content with historical references that disrespect black and brown children and denies potentially valuable lessons from all students. They are a captive audience and we continue to ‘mis-educate’ or under-educate black and brown children across this nation. It is usually these children who are challenged by ‘risk’ factors that can be mitigated by presenting culturally relevant sources of information to ensure more positive learning experiences in school settings.
So, my own middle school students were hard pressed to pay attention or engage in my Social Studies lessons, until… a breakthrough! Because I wasn’t provided with any textbooks to accompany or guide my instruction, I consulted with my go-to teacher supply store. There I found a multitude of resources, and this is how my lessons were designed:
I used the teacher’s editions and guides, of course, and photocopied excerpts from pages in the books to give each student. Mostly, they were traditionally covered events and figures in history, and only one black person noted in the texts. My usually unruly, preoccupied students became transformed into actively engaged students when we covered Crispus Attucks-whose life was highlighted.
Eureka, I thought! That was it! I had found the key to engaging these special needs, middle school, black and Hispanic adolescents. From that first lesson that featured a black person, someone who looked like themselves, I never had another outburst, spitball throwing, dancing in the aisles, note passing, giggling, hallway pass asking, bulletin board erasing episode from any class or group of students. Life was great as an educator.
My cues came from them, and I responded to what excited them. Though I still taught the proscribed content, at every point in the history of this nation, black people were there, impacted and instrumental. Their histories are indelibly intertwined and woven into American history, and everyday, I covered stories previously untold. We perform a profound disservice to children to omit the roles that people of color played at any time in America, and…
THAT’S HOW WE ARE CONTRIBUTING TO THE ACHIEVEMENT GAPS AFTER STUDENTS ENTER THE SCHOOL SYSTEM.
I therefore challenge every educator in schools everywhere to give black and brown children a piece of their history, people to look up to, and reasons to engage in learning at school. Try something different. Teach outside of the box and then take note at the level of engagement of your students. They need this from you and you CAN deliver!
P.S.: I will raise the stakes next time! Are you up for the next challenge?