Celebrating the Lives in #BlackLivesMatter
In September I asked some critical questions with them about our reading curriculum. The first unit was "How America Began" and we discussed the stories it told (white men) and the stories it didn't (everyone else). In February we participated in the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action and learned about activism. But in between and after, I only responded to race or racism when it came up, which wasn't often. By third grade, my students have already learned that this is a taboo topic. It's all around us, but we don't talk about it.
The murder of George Floyd and the protests have made this conversation unavoidable, especially when my students are quarantined at home, often with the news on TV non-stop.
I have to admit at first I felt proud of myself during these conversations. I made space for the kids to share what they knew, their questions, and their feelings. I felt like I had created something beautiful by holding this space. I was being the "good white teacher" I so badly want to be. When I debriefed the conversation with my Black co-teacher I realized that I was viewing these conversations entirely through my experience, instead of my students', and I felt ashamed.
My students are feeling sad, angry, and afraid. And hearing them share felt so heavy. We created a K-W-L chart about the protests one morning, and one student asked, "Who will they kill next?" That question hit me hard.
But I didn't fully grasp the weight until the conversation with my colleague. Then I stopped thinking about my role as a white person and a teacher and reflected on what this conversation might feel like to an eight-year-old Black child in America. There is nothing beautiful about a group of third graders being forced to process such profound feelings of grief, rage, and fear.
I decided then I needed to do more than just hold space to process the news. I wanted to help the kids understand the meaning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Since then we've been looking at the 13 Principles of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM at School created a beautiful set of posters illustrated by Caryn Davidson with kid-friendly language provided by Laleña Garcia. We've used these posters during morning circle to discuss the principles and what they might look like in school.
I also started ending our day with songs related to the theme of Black Lives Matter. For these songs, I've avoided certain common protest songs associated with Black Lives Matter. Instead I've sought out songs that just celebrate Blackness. We started with Beyoncé's BROWN SKIN GIRL from the Lion King soundtrack and have gone through a mix of classics like James Brown "Say it Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" and newer classics like Kendrick Lamar's "i."
I don't share this work as a way to pat myself on the back. Instead I just want to reflect publicly, to "show my work."
When I reflect on the past weeks I think about what it means to teach about Black Lives Matter fully. I want to think beyond the deaths that sparked this current movement. As a teacher I want to honor the memories of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and too many other Black children who have been murdered by white supremacy. But I also need to honor the lives of the Black youth alive in my classroom. To reduce Black Lives Matter to a memorialization of Black death is to perpetuate a form of what Dr. Bettina Love calls "spirit-murder." I want to celebrate and honor my Black students' humanity now, and create space for consistent joy and celebration of Blackness.
I won't pretend it's all this simple. There is still the internal work of my own learning. There's the work of building a stronger anti-racist school community that supports Black teachers and includes a culturally relevant curriculum. A school that celebrates Black lives has to do more than just play an affirming song once a day. And still... at 2:45 pm each day, when the music is playing and my third graders are dancing on the other end of the video call, it feels like a small start.