unnamed (1)For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, suffocated George Floyd. Chauvin dug his knee into Floyd’s carotid artery, starving Floyd’s brain of blood and oxygen. How much hate or fear has to be in someone’s heart to push their whole body weight into an unarmed man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds? How much hate and fear has to be in a retired police officer and his son’s heart to chase Ahmaud Arbery and shoot him to death for what they “suspected”? As an educator, I wonder how much culturally responsive teaching did these murderers have? How did the U.S. educational system produce monsters? And I wonder, as presumptuous as it may be, what would have happened if these murderers had spent some time in Room 304 as students?

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Throughout my teaching career, I have valued social justice. I feel that it is my duty, not just the “right thing to do” or something we “should” do, to provide students with social justice infused curriculum. If you come into Room 304 at City Neighbors Charter School, you will always see me advocating for social justice. Whether I am reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy with my seventh and eighth graders, making sure my library is stocked with culturally responsive texts, or having students write research papers about social justice movements, I am committed to an anti-racist curriculum. And this commitment has already inspired concrete action beyond the classroom. Last year, a student executed a protest action during the school day about gun violence. I am thankful that I am at a school that supports my social justice efforts and provides training on race-equity work. We aren’t perfect but we are making tremendous strides. 

But mostly, I am deeply committed to the work of deconstructing anti-black racism in my classroom because I take this personally. I know firsthand what happens when children are not taught about their history. I grew up in a small town in Calvert County, MD. I can count how many teachers of color that I had from K-12 on one hand. I can also count–on one hand–how many books written by people of color that I read at Huntingtown High School — a blue ribbon school when I was a student. Yet every single time I signed up for an African American history class, it was never offered because there was not enough interest. I grew up where my neighbors cheered for my pain and ignorance. I never learned about my people or my history until I went to college.  

I work tirelessly, often not leaving City Neighbors until nightfall, so that I can say that I have created a utopia for my students. It’s not a perfect utopia, but it’s better than what most U.S. students experience. No matter a student’s race,  sexual orientation, class, or ability, I value them and do my best to make sure that they feel and experience it too. And I have created this utopia not just for them, but for me too. In many ways, as I teach, I right the discrimination that I experienced when I was their age. 

Yet now in our socially distanced world, where I do not get to see my students daily, I realize that I, just like many parents, cannot protect them from this world. A world that literally wants to step on their neck, kill their creativity, and blame them for it. I can’t protect them from those who see their passion as threatening or label them as dangerous before they even get to know them. 

In the last couple of months, my utopia has been shattered by not being able to connect with my students like I like to. In the last couple of weeks, my students and I have seen black men and women be brutally murdered by cops and others who saw their blackness as threats. In my own hometown, peaceful protesters were marched into a trap by the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s office had promised to walk alongside the protesters but instead marched them into a wall of local and Maryland state police officers ready for a riot, gas masks on, shields up. The officers ordered the protesters to disperse and mere minutes later, started firing less-than-lethal gas canisters at their fleeing backs. I’ve listened to my own father beg me not to come to the protest in fear that there would be retaliation from the community. I’ve read messages about how people in my hometown were planning on disrupting the protest by bringing paintball guns. I’ve lost count of how many times people I referred to as friends call my people “thugs.” And remembering my late grandmother’s stories of having rocks pelted at her when she was a child. And reading friends from high school’s Facebook posts, pretending that they have the same fear for the life of their unborn white baby. And looking at the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page, where they shared a card from the community promoting the destruction of my existence…and the destruction of people who look like me…and the destruction of “my kids.”

And these people likely received the same white-washed education that I did 8 years ago or even worse years before me. 

My utopia (that I thought I had created) for my students is no more. But it is still my duty to provide a culturally-responsive education. To teach my students the importance of voting. To teach my students to stand up for injustices they face as well as the injustices of others. To instill values in my students that they will need to face in their worlds. Although Room 304’s four walls have been broken, I know that I have instilled in my students what they need to face the world and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for them.

Whether you are on the front line or the sidelines, as educators, parents, and community members, it is our duty to continue providing culturally-responsive teaching and learning opportunities. It is our duty to defend our teaching practices. It is our duty to make sure our most precious resource–our children–know their true history and aren’t afraid to speak up when the time comes. 

No matter what demographics are in your school, everyone needs culturally responsive teaching. Whether you teach 100% white students, a mixed group of students, everyone needs culturally responsive, anti-racist teaching

In Memory of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd

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City Neighbors Charter School’s Black Lives Matter Week 2019

 

~Brittany Brown, 7th & 8th Grade Language Arts Teacher, City Neighbors Charter School~