Black Lives Matter in The Classroom: The Journaling of a Movement

by Donte Felder

[The following is a personal chronicle of last week’s teacher led Black Lives Matter demonstration that took place at Seattle public schools citywide.]

October 12, 2016

Dear Journal,

I am  shocked that the SEA (Seattle Education Association) Representative Assembly voted unanimously to endorse a collective statement that Black Lives Matter.  I’m also cautiously optimistic that Seattle Public Schools got on board and has also endorsed the day of “Solidarity” by proclaiming, “we stand united in eliminating the opportunity gap.”

I hope SPS’ endorsement of the BLM is sincere and they are using the platform to create momentum in hiring more teachers of color, develop more relevant, culturally diverse curriculum, invest in the arts and more play time for students which promotes a growth mindset, 21st century skill sets, critical thinking and builds empathy for others,   (Students of color are the ones mostly impacted by funding cuts to the arts and less recess to raise test scores)  and shift your ethos from an outdated, industrial age, one-size-fits all approach, test-driven approach, to an education model that teaches to the human spirit.

Please don’t go back to doing the same ol’ thing SPS!  This is the time to step up!  Transform the negative image, mistrust, and adversarial relationship you have created with the African-American community.  This is the time for a makeover – Get rid of the stigma that SPS can’t teach black kids.   Yes, you were called out by the Seattle Times when they said, “Seattle, among the 200 biggest school districts in the U.S., as having the fifth-biggest gap in achievement between black and white students.”   But if we do this right, we can become the model district instead of the “black” sheep of the education model.

 

October 13, 2016

I am having serious trouble sleeping tonight….  I’m thinking a lot about my complicated relationship with SPS.

I did hard time in the Seattle School Prisons aka Seattle School Systems for 36 years as a student and guard (Teacher).  I was sentenced to special education for five years during my elementary years and served my probation in the general education setting during my middle and high school years.  How the hell did I make it through as a black male with “special needs” in writing?   The sad reality is only a third will ever exit the special education program and many will not attend college, so what inspired me to pursue a my MFA in writing? 

I, like most of the brown folks in the SPS, particularly in special education, did not have teachers who looked like them or believed that they would amount to anything.  The expectations for brown kids were low, many teachers were not equipped and did not have the tools or training to teach children of color.  I also saw little to no representation in history books or the great western literature we were forced to read.  The folks that looked like me often were marginalized and reduced to an inconsequential footnote about slavery or MLK.   I never learned about the great inventions and contributions of my  African-Americans ancestors.  I was never exposed to the daring poets, authors, and playwrights that provided commentary on black life… I was made to believe that I was inferior, that I did not matter… that my people did not matter.   I’m still struggling with PTSD…  The culturally incompetent curriculum that SPS used back in the day caused trauma and self-esteem issues for thousands of students who looked like me.  But as hopeless and dysfunctional as  SPS has been for decades, October 19 offers hope for a district that has and is failing its students.  

I can do my part and hopefully create a kick ass lesson that inspires the students in my class.

“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”   Johnny Cash

 

 October 17, 2016

Dear Journal,

I am feeling good and sleeping much better now that I know SPS is for real!  They are not preaching empty rhetoric but are truly committed to eliminating the opportunity gap.  I was reminded what was written in the union contract referencing the opportunity gap, “there is not the luxury of time each day that passes without every effort being made to insure that all students can reach the standards set by the SPS for every student to be able to know and do upon graduation is a breach of our collective responsibility to provide a quality education.”   Dr. Larry Nyland, Seattle Public School’s Superintendent told the Black Christian News Network that, “eliminating the opportunity gaps really is the issue of our time.”  SPS also created the African American Male Advisory Committee to address the needs of African Americans males through systemic practice.   The folks with the expensive suits are moving with urgency. 

Black Lives Matter on the streets.

Black Lives Matter in the classroom.

And why am I getting writer’s block now?  I don’t want to be the guy talking junk and unable to deliver an Oscar winning lesson!

 

October 18, 2016

Dear Journal,

I have few ideas for my lesson tomorrow in my film and theater academy at Orca K-8… What if I could help students understand that as writers, filmmakers, journalists, and storytellers they could  have more influence on Black lives than the activists in the BLM movement, teachers wearing a shirt,  curriculum developers, or ineffective policy and decision makers… What if students understood the power  of storytelling and developed the ability to write complex characters that reflect all cultures, races, and creeds? How can I get them to understand that in our current political climate, art is just as important as activism? 

That these days the government is silencing journalists, and the police are shutting down protests but they can still hide their defiance in their art. How can I get them to understand the power of cloaking meaning in metaphor?  Should I teach students how conditional and implicit biases influence a frame of reference that criminalizes African-Americans?  Should I narrow the lesson down and teach about micro-aggressions?  Maybe students should write a thesis paper about why there are so many police shootings of unarmed African-American men?  I could spend a day or a week or a month or a year teaching them about systemic sexism and institutionalized racism and give them all the knowledge to teach them how the world is setup to keep them down. But sometimes, instead of teaching them how they’re imprisoned, I think I’d rather teach them how to be free.  Students have the power to flip the script.  Stories will play a vital role in changing the negative perceptions and interactions with African-American men.  Historically, Hollywood has populated their films with stereotypes that indirectly influence our social interactions. It is imperative that more stories are developed that truly reflect the lives we lead, not the fantasies some desire. Imagine how much more powerful our movies, plays, and TV shows could be if only we put the authentic storytellers in place to tell the stories. Do my students know their own power? Have I done enough to make that clear?

 

October 20, 2016

Dear Journal:

It went down yesterday! Seattle teachers looked good rocking their BLM shirts! The support we received from the community was fire; tremendous, freaking brilliantly fantastic!  Students walked in the schools with swag adorned in black, wide smiles and signs that exclaimed, “Black Lives Matter!”  Hundreds of parents asked how they could support the cause, many organizations echoed the words, “In solidarity.”

This day could be the day that shifts the narrative of African-Americans marching through the school-to-prison pipeline. This moment in Seattle history could be the catalyst for transformational changes to institutional policies, pedagogical practices, and myopic curriculum that has limited students’ imagination and their historical knowledge of one-self and diluted their awareness and empathy for the experience of the other. This could be the day where institutions turn their empty rhetoric, broken promises, and foggy interpretation of equality into a city-wide action, a rallying cry for change.

I believe in you Seattle Public Schools!

We can do this together!

Donte Felder has been a teacher in Seattle Public Schools for 18 years.

Featured photo by Alex Garland

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