Q&A: Jesse Hagopian on Teaching for Black Lives

Michael Bennett and Macklemore gifting a copy of Teaching for Black Lives to Seattle language arts and social studies teachers

by Carolyn Bick

Former Seahawk Michael Bennett and rapper Macklemore felt strongly enough about the importance of education for Black students that they’re sending copies of Teaching For Black Lives to every every language arts and social studies teacher in middle and high schools in Seattle Public Schools. On Monday, co-editor Jesse Hagopian and his fellow co-editors will hold a discussion on the book and improving education for Black students. Less than a week prior, Hagopian announced the gift that Bennett and Macklemore are making to educators the community.

“This is the book I wish I had coming up in school but it never existed,” Bennett said in a press release. “Now we have the opportunity to educate thousands of youth about the Black history that was too often missing from my schooling—from the building of the White House, to the role of Black youth in social movements, to organizing for restorative justice today.”

Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies at Garfield High School in South Seattle. He is also the co-advisor to the school’s Black Student Union, as well as a co-editor of Teaching For Black Lives. He will join the handbook’s co-editors Dyan Watson and Wayne Au, as well as fellow educator, attorney, writer, and activist Nikkita Oliver, in a discussion about how to improve the education environment for Black students and communities, and fight marginalization in the classroom. Several student speakers will also join the conversation.

“I think there’s a real opportunity to get this book in as many teachers’ hands as possible,” Hagopian said, “because I think it will really deepen their understanding of how to teach for Black lives.”

The event will take place at 7:30 PM on Monday, Sept. 24, at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. S.. Youth younger than 22 years old may attend for free. For those older than 22 years old, tickets are $5 each. Though the event is sold out, there will be a standby line at the door. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.


Carolyn Bick: Tell me about the creation of the book. How did you and its other three authors get together?

Jesse Hagopian: Dyan Watson and Wayne Au and I are all editors of a magazine called “Rethinking Schools,” and it’s been around for about 30 years. It’s a social justice national magazine and book publisher.

Wayne and I have been very active in building the Black Lives Matter at school movement, and supporting it, and Dyan Watson is a Black professor in Oregon, and we’ve worked closely with her, and she has some really dynamic, amazing writing in the book, as well.

We wanted a way to have teachers be able to support the Black Lives Matter at school movement, and the struggle for their Black students’ lives both through their pedagogy in the classroom, and through activism in the union and in the community.

This book pulls together both teaching activities and strategies for creating social change, and combating institutional racism in the schools and beyond.


CB: What is different about the school experience for students of color versus for white students?

JH: There’s been several videos recently that have surfaced in the first couple weeks of school around the country that I think have really highlighted what I think is some of the worst aspects of institutional racism in our schools. There was a video of a … Black boy, who had dreads, and he was kicked out of his class, and his dad came and asked what was wrong, and actually did a … video of his discussion with the office staff. And it was really disturbing to see this school demonizing Blackness to an elementary school child.

There’s another … story that recently surfaced of Black students who were kicked out of school for dress code violations. And these kids had white on their tennis shoes, and they were supposed to be all black, and other minor infractions like that. … Clearly, a racialized approach to how they were enforcing this dress code. And this is something that happens every single year across the country, that Black students are kicked out of school for minor infractions. … That makes up part of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The other part of the school-to-prison pipeline I think is important to understand is the curriculum that whitewashes the struggles and contributions of Black people. When Black students don’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum they check out. And, oftentimes, when they check out, they get labeled “defiant,” but I think it might be better understood as resistance to a racist curriculum. Then, if they aren’t engaged in a classroom that doesn’t respect their culture, then there is a whole series of policies that are used to push them out of school, and you have so-called zero tolerance discipline policies that are used to punish students, rather than to help them solve problems.

That has led to dramatic disproportionate suspension rates of Black students across the country and right here in Seattle. Studies also show that it is Black girls who are most disproportionately suspended in this country.

Educators really need to study those lessons [in the handbook], and learn how the narrative of the angry Black girl is used to demonize Black girls and how the intersection of racism and sexism are used specifically to punish Black girls. It’s really a crisis in our public school system that needs to be addressed.

Once someone gets pushed out of class, they are more likely not to pass that class, and then they are more likely not to graduate, and more likely get caught up in crime, because they can’t get a job. I think the real crime not supporting restorative justice programs that we know work to help students solve problems, and get at the root of conflicts.


CB: Why is this handbook so crucial for both educators and students?

JH: I think all students will gain a lot from this. Black students certainly will, because too much of the current curriculum dehumanizes Black students, and we have some examples in the book, but corporate textbooks around the country are straight-out telling lies about Black people.

There’s a famous example from a textbook that was being used in Texas from McGraw-Hill, one of the largest textbook publishers in the world, and McGraw’s textbook replaced the word “slave” with “worker,” when discussing bringing Africans to the Americas, saying that they brought workers over here, rather than explaining that this was forced, unfree terrorism — coerced labor. And there’s another really amazing example from a textbook in Connecticut that was trying to convince the students that, in Connecticut, the practice of slavery was humane, because they were “treated like family.”

And so, Black students are used to being disrespected in the curriculum, and this book is about humanizing Black people and honoring not just our hardships, but our contributions and our great social movements that we have been a part of, since the beginning of this country.

I think that’s so important for self-esteem, for confidence, and for understanding how collective struggle can transform their situation. But I also think this book is good for all students, students who aren’t Black. I’ve seen it, having used some of the curriculum in my classroom last year. … I think it’s really powerful for white students to get to be told the full story about the contributions of Black people in this country, and give them a way to participate in the movement for Black lives, and see their responsibility to be part of a struggle for education equity, and against institutional racism.


CB: What do you feel [educators] are missing, what is the crucial issue?

JH: We really lay it out in the introduction to the book, and we talk about how we think that the chapters in Teaching for Black Lives push back against the construction of Blackness as outside the mainstream curriculum, and as sort of tangential to the main story of this country.

Throughout the book, we demonstrate how teachers can connect the curriculum to young people’s lives, and root their concerns in daily experiences, and what is taught, and how the classrooms are set up.

We hope that this book highlights the hope and beauty of student activism and collective action, and I think that’s a big part of what’s missing, is actually students being supported by educators, when they raise concerns about what they are seeing in their communities and in their schools. When they raise concerns about how segregated the upper level classes are, they need to … have teachers support their concern, and help them understand how to change that, right? When students point out that the discipline policies are … having dramatically disproportionate impacts on Black students, Brown students, students of color, they need a curriculum that helps them understand the problem, and how to change it. And if education isn’t helping students understand the problems they face in their schools, in their communities, and in their world, and then empowering it to change it, then I don’t think it’s really an education. It’s more of an indoctrination, and simply being used to reproduce inequality in our society.

And so, we think there is a connection between learning and doing.


CB: If there is anything else you think [readers] should know about this, please feel free to tell me.

JH: The book takes a really intersectional approach to understanding and teaching Blackness, so it’s focused around dismantling institutional racism, both in the curriculum and in the school system. But it’s also trying to help teachers understand that there is no one, singular Black experience, and that the Black experience is different for Black queer people, and Black women, and Black immigrants, and Black Muslims. And so, we have chapters that address those various identities, and help educators understand how to build curriculum that supports students from various, different Black experiences and identities.

For more information or to purchase a copy of Teaching for Black Lives, visit teachingforblacklives.org.