At first glance, the spate of police brutality cases over the past year has little to do with the science I teach Monday through Friday. But the reality is that racialized violence is a systemic injustice. That means it needs to be tackled across systems, including our public schools. In this work, teachers have an essential role to play.
One case hit home for me. A few weeks ago, a Cleveland judge exonerated police officer Michael Brelo of any charges related to the 2012 killing of two unarmed black suspects, whose pursuit began with a turn signal violation. As a teacher in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, I felt the courtroom decision acutely in my classroom.
When we think about what it will take to end police violence and other forms of oppression, giving our students an education that validates their identities and develops critical thinking are key pieces of the puzzle. And yet, more often than not, we find this type of validation tucked away in pockets—in Black History Month projects or Martin Luther King Jr. Day assemblies—if it exists at all.
Our kids need more. Decades before February was named “Black History Month,” Dr. Carter G. Woodson, known as the father of black history, established “Negro History Week.” He envisioned an event that would be a catalyst to learning black history throughout the entire year. He imagined that, eventually, Negro History Week would no longer be necessary. He knew what every good teacher knows: It’s only by connecting past to present and future that lessons come alive.
With Dr. Woodson’s vision still far from realized, as a teacher, I feel a responsibility to be a part of it. During “family time,” as we call it, my all-male advisory group comes together to address a wide variety of issues in black life from the history we share, to the police brutality in the news, to our own unique experiences.
One afternoon after advisory, one of my students noticed the theme. “Why do we always have to do black stuff,” he asked, apparently concerned about my co-teacher—consistently the only white person in the room and very supportive. We told him that it’s important for him to understand events and policies that affect him and that, ultimately, these same events and policies impact all of us as Americans.
By taking on these issues, I hope my students will partake in challenging systemic oppression. Indeed, this was a big part of my own decision to join Teach For America. In 2015, the body politic is still unaware of how deeply entwined black history is with our national story as well as the present. It hurts most when our own children are not aware of the history of their ancestors and its implications for their lives and communities.
I want them to recognize how education is entangled in the history of black greatness. Before we were kidnapped and brought to this continent, there were black scholars across the African continent. And even through the atrocities of slavery, our commitment to learning endured. In America, educating Africans became punishable by law. And yet our ancestors proved by risking life and limb to read and write that you can take a great deal from a person, but never his or her intellect.
Generations later, my own personal history with education has landed me in a unique position. I now have a bachelor’s in Africana Studies, a master’s in history and I teach high school physical science. That means that every day I get the chance to teach science from a lens that is steeped in responsibility to the ancestors as well as our collective future. I make it clear in my classroom that STEM is not a “white” discipline, but a critical thinking and problem solving discipline. Who better to solve the problems of today and tomorrow than those strong enough to overcome some of the worst atrocities in history?
The scholars in my classroom have the blood of kings, queens, scientists, explorers and fighters in their veins. I’m grateful every day for this knowledge and am determined to do my part to impart it to the next generation. I can’t wait to see the future they’ll chart.