"Who made up the lie?": Reflections on Youth Led Inquiry into Race and Racism (Part 1)

Getting Back to Teaching That Feels Good

One of the things I miss most about my former school community is the freedom I had to create my own units of study. Recently I was looking back at the work we did creating We Read Diverse Books and I felt a lot of pride. That's why I'm very excited to be launching a new unit with my 5th graders that aims to accomplish similar goals - integrate English Language Arts with social justice teaching or what Dr. Gholdy Muhammad calls "criticality."

The unit doesn't really have an official name at the moment, but it's essentially a history of race and racism in the United States. In addition to the content, I'm excited because I'm attempting to use Participatory Action Research principles in order to have my students shape the unit of study as much as possible. So far, we've had two lessons. At this point we're using our social studies block, but once we finish our current ELA unit, we'll be using our ELA block as well.

Lesson One: Generating Questions about Race and Racism

The first lesson was used to introduce the unit by asking students to generate questions. I did this using the Question Formulation Technique, a protocol I learned from Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. I began by providing the kids a bit of context - that we would be beginning a unit of study on race and racism. Then I showed them a clip of a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We focused on the section where he says:
"Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black. It's always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word White, it's always something pure, high and clean. Well I want to get the language right tonight. I want to get the language so right that everyone here will cry out: 'Yes, I'm Black, I'm proud of it. I'm Black and I'm beautiful!'"
After ensuring the kids got the basic meaning of his speech, I gave the kids time to generate, refine, and select questions for the unit of study in small groups. At the end of the lesson we'd selected 15 key questions. Some of the questions tended toward a more concrete interpretation of the speech, such as, "Who made up the lie?" and, "How can we change the definitions of Black and white in the dictionary?" One of my favorite questions stemmed from a student's connection to the movie Get Out. She asked, "If white people are trying to steal Black people's abilities, how can they say that white people are better than Black people?"

My instinct as a teacher was to plan the next lesson around direct instruction. I figured I could teach about the foundations of slavery in the United States, the meaning of stereotypes and bias, or the definition of race. But, given my attempt to make this as youth-led as possible, I needed to take a different approach.

Lesson Two: Creating a Research Plan

Our second lesson was essentially a pre-assessment, however I framed it as an opportunity for kids to design a plan for their research. To be honest, I need to do more reading on youth led Participatory Action Research. But in the meantime, this felt like an effective way to give the kids ownership of the direction of the unit, while also collecting some valuable information about what they know about race and racism, as well as their areas of interest.

Having asked adults for their definitions of race and racism as a trainer with Border Crossers, I found my students' answers weren't so different. Some defined race as skin color and others as culture. Racism was generally defined as hating someone else on the basis of their skin, although several kids candidly wrote, "I don't know." 

Something that struck me about the kids' responses was how strongly many of them have internalized colorblind thinking around race and racism. Some of them might mention skin color generally in their definitions of race and racism, but practically no one mentioned Black or white in these definitions. Many of the kids defined racism as talking about someone else's skin color.

Another section of the research plan asked kids to put (somewhat arbitrarily chosen) events on a timeline. This provided valuable information as many kids didn't know that slavery ended before Dr. King was murdered. This has given me the idea to have the kids construct a timeline of race and racism as one component of our unit.

After I asked kids to select the three most important questions (from the list of 15 we generated in lesson one) I asked them to brainstorm texts, people, and places they could use to answer their questions. They had trouble identifying specific resources, but I was happy to see them write ideas such as Black history web sites and the Schomburg Center. For people, many of them wrote down their family members, and I'm excited to pursue this idea with them.

Perhaps the thing I was most excited about is that it felt like the kids were highly engaged in this task. Even though some of them felt confused, and even frustrated at times by some of the questions, it felt different from a math quiz for example that might produce the same level of frustration. Every student in the class seemed focused on their research plan, and there were practically zero off-topic conversations taking place.

Next steps

Next week is the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools. This is a good opportunity to build in some additional lessons. However, my biggest challenge/opportunity moving forward is figuring out how to plan the next lessons while still keeping my students in the driver's seat. For truly progressive educators who are used to designing emergent curricula I'm sure this sounds silly, as this is pretty much the only way they teach. But for me this will be a pretty new experience. I know that I can just teach them a lot of what they want to know, but I'm excited to try to act more as a facilitator or adviser as we move forward.


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