Beyond King, Parks, Douglass and Tubman


Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman—these names are virtually synonymous with Black History Month. After all, their contributions to United States history are indisputably noteworthy, firmly cementing their place in curricula across the country. However, it’s time to rethink this central focus. There’s so much more to the history of African Americans in this country than slavery, and even then, there’s more to the slave narrative than is usually revealed. Moreover, while the history of black oppression in the United States is long and ongoing, the fight for civil rights also is not the only story to be told of African Americans.

Yes, slavery is the reason the vast majority of Africans were brought to North America. Yet, prior to being snatched from their homelands, they had thriving civilizations, with solid economic structures, flourishing societies and deeply entrenched traditions. They were not slaves until they were brought here. Theirs was a proud and rich history, one not generally even alluded to in classrooms or anywhere else. Yet it’s foundational to who the people were when they were brought here in chains.

Equally compelling is a truth about slavery that is even more often omitted: Slave uprisings were a fact in this country. The Gabriel Prossers, Nat Turners, and Denmark Veseys who led these revolts were not downtrodden men, afraid to speak or act in defiance of the slave codes, nor were they happy slaves, content just to exist. If we’re going to devote time to discussions of slavery, let’s tell the whole story. Yet how often are such names spoken, to say nothing of how often they are spoken in celebration of their contributions to the history of the United States and to the cause of freedom that the U.S. ostensibly represents? Not often.

Then, moving beyond slavery, a vast array of African Americans have withstood oppression of all kinds. Overcoming the outrage of white supremacy and its overt racism as well as the insidiousness of white privilege and its pervasive discrimination, they forged paths that no one of any color had walked before. Students of every color need to know this, as a relentless narrative of slavery and oppression paints a one-dimensional portrait of African Americans, seeming to preclude the possibility of a Garrett Morgan, Charles Drew, Katherine Johnson or Marie Van Brittan Brown (look them up!), to name a few. They are every bit as laudable as the abolitionists and civil rights workers.

What’s more, because history is a living thing, not stagnant, African Americans continue to contribute to it, leading, creating, inventing and otherwise doing what no one else is. Let’s expand our definition of “Black history,” not excluding slavery and civil rights, but moving beyond them to delve into the plenitude of African Americans who have accomplished and still are accomplishing great things. All students need to know how very awe-inspiring, not pity-inducing, African Americans are.

Teachers, Do You Care?


It’s the middle of the school year, and the enthusiasm that started your school year may have waned a bit, dimmed by a combination of weariness and reality. After all, you know your students quite well at this point. You know who is eager to comply and who is a behavioral challenge. The academic achievers have risen to the top, and you have identified those in need of academic help. You even know which students shouldn’t be seated near each other because they never get along or because they get along too well.

But here’s the first question: What else do you know about your students? Not a question about your class as a group, it’s about your students as individuals, their personalities, character, talents, abilities and, yes, even their individual faults and flaws. It’s a question about who they are individually. Requiring you to consider not only how much you already know about each of your students, it’s also about how interested you are in discovering these traits.

And while you’re contemplating that, here’s the second question: What do you think of your students? Be honest. It’s an opportunity to examine whether the details you know about each student draw you to them or repel you, whether they broaden your understanding of your students as individuals or simply serve as minor details on the periphery of learning. Let that percolate in your mind for a little while, pondering your real opinions of your students. Then assess whether you use these details as a basis for camaraderie between you and each student, or as reasons for keeping them at arm’s length.

Now here’s the final question: Does all this matter? If teaching is solely about educating students, then maybe we don’t need to know our students individually. Ensuring that they acquire new information each day satisfies that goal. What we know and think of our students don’t even fit into that paradigm, which would mean there’s no need to consider any of this.

However, there’s so much more to education than the mere acquisition of information.
So, the answer to that final question is an emphatic “yes” because we educate the whole child. That means we also know and care about the whole child. We see their potential, not only their shortcomings. We value each student and what each brings to our classrooms. We resist the urge to disregard students we deem challenging, difficult or simply irritating.

Students know what we think of them. We need to be equally aware. It’s incumbent on us to get to know them, to understand them, to care about who they are and who they hope to be. Therein lies the difference between midyear angst and midyear exhilaration.

So the first two questions matter, and matter a great deal. What we know and think of our students determines whether we relate to them, how we interact with them and, ultimately, whether they can learn from us. As with any situation, we educators enjoy education more and put in greater effort when we know and care about the people involved. So do our students.

If we’re feeling wearied by the realities of being in our classrooms right now, perhaps a little self-reflection is in order. When we set out to know our students—genuinely know who they are in all their facets—we begin to care about who they are as well. And when we care, we build relationships with them, we see the best in them and bring out the best in them. That’s what we would do for our own children. Our students deserve just as much.

When Dress Codes Are Really Race Codes


Long or short, braided or pony-tailed, blow-dried or worn exactly as it grows from the scalp—hair is so closely tied to individual identity that it stirs emotions. It’s a form of self-expression. That’s why so-called dress codes that are being wielded as weapons against students and their hairstyles are so egregious.

Even if you’ve only paid cursory attention to recent news items, you’ve likely noticed several related to students’ hairstyles or the covering of their hair over the past few years. Premised on the idea that certain hairstyles are “disruptive” or that the inclusion of hair extensions is somehow unacceptable, students are being singled out for a variety of punishments. Yet, while rules serve a purpose—ostensibly, delineating what is and is not acceptable—these supposed dress code violations involving hair are not equally applied. And that’s the problem.

In short, students of color seem to be the ones repeatedly accused of dress code violations based solely on hair. Of course, they are the ones ostracized and otherwise punished by school authorities as well. “Twin 16-year-old sisters, Mya and Deanna Cook, for example, who live just north of Boston, discovered this when they were barred from prom, removed from all their extracurricular activities and threatened with suspension all because their braids included hair extensions. As the girls’ parents pointed out, to no avail, white girls wore hair extensions to school as well, and were even photographed wearing them in the school yearbook. Yet those students faced no repercussions.

Similarly, Butler Traditional High School, a public high school in Kentucky, changed their dress code a few years ago. It now specifically includes prohibition of “twists, dreadlocks, afros longer than two inches, jewelry worn in hair, and cornrows,” which they misspelled as “cornrolls.” Clearly, this amendment to the dress code is intended solely for students of color, who are almost exclusively the ones who wear these styles.

Moreover, even girls who choose not to show their hair at all are not safe from the arbitrary imposition of rules and punishments, as was demonstrated at a cross country meet in Ohio just a few weeks ago. When 16-year-old Noor Alexandria Abukaram crossed the finish line, her seventh time doing so this year, she discovered that the hijab that covered her hair in accordance with Muslim tradition had disqualified her. This was despite the fact that she had worn the same hijab during the previous six cross country races as well as in other sports, without incident.

Not to be left out of these discriminatory practices, boys of color experience punishment for their chosen hairstyles as well. A case in point, six-year-old Clinton Stanley, Jr. was denied entry into his Florida elementary school because he wore dreadlocks. Meanwhile, New Jersey teen Andrew Johnson was forced to cut off his dreadlocks on the spot or forfeit his wrestling match.

Just a few among numerous instances of students of color being singled out for reprimand and negative consequences not exacted against white students, they highlight discrimination against students of color and their natural hair. Not merely a matter of taste or opinion, these increasing instances of hair discrimination convey disrespect for cultural differences and contempt for a feature that epitomizes beauty, heritage and pride for students of color.

These are not dress codes; they’re race codes, a way of codifying racism, bigotry and prejudice. What’s most distressing is that these actions are not done in a vacuum, carried out by people who have no concept of the importance of hair nor any understanding of the strong links between hair and race, culture or even religion. No, these actions are being perpetrated by educated people, those given the responsibility of educating others. Yet these educators are those actively seeking to undermine students’ sense of pride and to express their own disdain for students’ race, culture and faith.

Such educators seek to impose white standards of beauty, clearly deeming only styles worn by white students to be acceptable even when they mimic those of students of color. In so doing, these educators seek to teach students of color that their personal statement, one that expresses an important aspect of who they are, is inferior and viewed with distaste. Equally appalling, they instill a false sense of superiority in white students who witness these atrocities, encouraging them to behave the same.

California and New York made good first steps this past summer when the governors of each state signed laws prohibiting discrimination based on natural hairstyles. Yet there should be no need for laws to require people to relinquish their prejudices. Parents, along with educators with integrity, must take a vocal stand against all forms of prejudice and discrimination against students. We cannot accept this stripping away of students’ humanity. Instead, we must refuse to comply with these violations of human dignity, refuse to bow to dehumanizing standards, refuse to allow any students to be treated as if they don’t matter.

Does Your School Culture Match Your Values?


Some schools just seem to beckon to you as you enter. Providing a sense of belonging and acceptance, they offer a warm atmosphere that is at once comforting and vibrant. Genuine learning occurs in those schools along with a spirit of support and camaraderie that you can feel throughout the building. Most important, both students and teachers enjoy being there.

That’s my kind of school. Its culture encompasses all the qualities I most value in a school: respect for teacher input and student voice; emphasis on teaching the whole child, including empathy for students’ struggles coupled with celebration of their progress; and multiple opportunities for everyone to thrive. Even though no school is perfect, schools like this—whose cultures reflect the values of their faculty, and not just that of the administrators—are more unified and a better place for those teachers to work. They’re usually a pretty great place for students to learn as well.

Conversely, schools that are misaligned with the values of their faculty tend to create an us-against-them work environment. This pits teachers and administrators against each other while also turning teachers and students into adversaries. The result is a seemingly endless war. Of course, students often are caught in the crossfire between teachers and administrators, quickly becoming casualties of the war. No one wins in that educational environment.

So here are the real questions: Does your school culture match your values? Does it line up with your educational philosophy? Does it correspond to your perspective on the best way to interact with students? How about your view of teachers’ professional autonomy and input — does your school’s culture run parallel to that?

All educators need to assess how much their school culture corresponds to their own educational values. To the extent that it does, that school’s culture becomes the foundation for educators’ professional excellence. It also undergirds students’ academic and individual success.

Likewise, when that school culture is contrary to educators’ values, that culture tends to undermine everything the teachers attempt to do. It also erodes students’ ambitions and even their confidence in their ability to accomplish them. Such cultures are centered around compliance, without regard for what really matters in education.

Now is a good time to reflect on your school’s culture, to make that assessment. In fact, even without asking yourself, you already know your level of satisfaction with the way your school is run, the atmosphere in which you work and students learn, the interactions among educators as well as between educators and students. If your satisfaction is high, congratulations on finding such a great work environment.

On the other hand, if your school’s culture is out of step with your values, unless the administration is revamped, you’re not likely to see an overhaul of that culture. You’re also not likely to thrive there. In that case, the only element left for you to determine is whether you belong there. Either way, your professional satisfaction depends on it.

The Shame of Lunch Shaming


Consider this scenario: Laughing and talking, a group of students enters the cafeteria and heads for the lunch line. As they fill their trays and step forward in line, one student is singled out. His tray is taken by a cafeteria worker and replaced with a cheese sandwich and a container of milk as he is quite audibly told that his lunch account is not up to date. No longer laughing, the student takes the sandwich to a table and begins eating.

Have you heard of “lunch shaming”? A common practice, it has popped up in news reports repeatedly in recent years as school districts grapple with ways to handle it and parents, outraged, cry out against it. While the premise for the action—parents’ failure to pay for lunch—may seem like a valid reason for withholding students’ lunches, the impact on the students is devastating. That’s why this reprehensible practice needs to stop.

Part of the blame lies with the federal government’s mandate that school districts obtain household applications and then receive payment at either a reduced rate or the full rate from parents who are considered able to pay. Families below the poverty line are not required to pay, enabling children from those families to eat free. The problem is that not every family deemed able to pay actually is able. As a result, when they don’t pay, students are forced to pay the consequences.

And those consequences vary from district to district. Some provide a lesser lunch as in the opening scenario here. Others require students to clean the cafeteria after lunch. Still others demand that students wear wristbands to indicate their debt. A Minnesota high school was said to be prohibiting students from attending their graduation ceremony if they owed lunch money, which was averted when Superintendent Keith Ellison stepped in to prohibit the action. And an elementary school in Pennsylvania sent letters to parents, threatening to place their children in foster care if they failed to pay their lunch debt (a local businessman paid the debt). Ranging from the ridiculous to the outrageous, these consequences punish students for a situation beyond their control.

Yet there are solutions without any negative effect. Rather than shame students, the entire state of New Mexico, for example, provides free lunch for every student as does New York City, which has the largest school district in the country. Likewise, California’s Gov. Gavin Newsome has just signed a bill outlawing lunch shaming in his state and guaranteeing that students will receive the same lunch, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay.

Some other districts handle debt online or by phone, ensuring that students are not impacted in any way. What’s more, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a USDA Food and Nutrition Service program, provides free meals for all students in low income districts. Eligible school districts need only apply for the program to receive reimbursement for breakfast and lunch based on students’ families participation in other government programs, not on household applications.

Lunch shaming is itself a shame. Students are innocent bystanders caught in the middle of a difficult situation. They are not responsible for lunch payments, so why punish them when that debt is unpaid? The shame, humiliation and degradation they then experience is real.

Schools that take draconian measures are the ones who should be ashamed—ashamed of making a bad situation exponentially worse for defenseless children. It’s time to care about the whole child and not just the money accrued through them. Stop the lunch shaming and devise a solution that leaves student dignity and self-worth intact.

The Case for Promoting Students


If you reflect on your own third grade experience, you might recall a favorite teacher or subject, a best friend or a nemesis. But you probably don’t recall third grade as a watershed year. Yet, when it comes to reading competency, researchers say it is. In fact, one study indicates that reading below grade level in third grade is likely to result in four times the chance of dropping out of high school. That’s a rather dramatic conclusion.

With that potential outcome in mind, teachers often resort to retaining students. After all, the thinking goes, if a student can’t read on grade level in third grade, how can he or she possibly be successful in fourth grade? That’s why about 15 percent of students are retained in any grade each year, and anywhere from 30-50 percent are retained somewhere in K-12. However, while grade retention sounds quite plausible, the consequences of retention are a mixture of positive and negative, with a greater negative impact than most educators consider.

Obviously, for example, being held over is a serious blow to students’ self-esteem. Evoking feelings of inadequacy, shame and social discomfort, retention at this point in a student’s education—or worse, in a higher grade—causes a good deal of angst and anxiety that last for years to come. If we’re teaching the whole child, which should always be our goal, how can we in good conscience overlook this significant emotional side effect?

The fact that any benefits are short term is another negative factor. In Florida, for instance, keeping students in third grade caused fourth grade reading scores to skyrocket, yet eighth grade scores stagnated. So what was really gained?

Then there’s the racial component, which is reflected in the fact that students of color in urban schools are far more likely to be retained than white students with the same scores in affluent suburbs. Are we creating yet another means of devising gaps that are labeled as “achievement gaps” but are really opportunity gaps—the opportunities offered by money and other resources.

Likewise, boys have a higher retention rate than girls. This raises the issue of schools being structured in ways contrary to boys’ natural inclinations: their tendency to be restless, to speak a bit louder, to be more rambunctious than is usually permitted in a classroom setting where the expectation is that they will be quiet, still and focused for extended periods of time. While this is a topic worth exploring in itself, it can certainly engender a teacher bias against boys that can lead to their being held back more often than girls simply for acting like boys. Are we really comfortable with the prospect of punishing boys for being boys?

Sure, there is anecdotal evidence that some students benefit from being held back a grade, gaining skills and confidence. However, that’s not the story of the vast majority of students. So it’s time we tried alternatives. With an estimated $10,000 spent for each retained child, multiply that by the 15 percent of students retained each year, and that money might be better spent to obtain the services of reading specialists to help students gain the skills they lack. The growth in self-efficacy alone is worth that investment.

The point is that settling for the status quo of grade retention is the lazy way out. Students deserve the opportunity to develop their reading skills—skills that are transferable to every aspect of their lives. The least educators can do is provide every resource for students to develop those skills without exacting blows to their self-worth.

Why Is Diversity Important in School?

When I taught high school students in the early 2000s, I once asked a new teacher how things were going. Her responses remain etched in my mind even now. She said the school was much better than she had been told at the school district’s orientation meeting. Asked what she had been told, she replied, “They told me this was a ‘ghetto black school.’” Wow.

While the school was certainly more diverse than when I first arrived, it was definitely neither black nor “ghetto.” In fact, it was about 75 percent white, with Latino students being the second largest group at about 15 percent. Clearly, the approximately 10 percent of students who were black did not define the racial make-up of the school. Moreover, the socioeconomic level of most students, regardless of race or ethnicity, was solidly middle to upper-middle class. Yet, unbeknownst to me, the school had somehow acquired a pejorative label based on race and class. How does that happen?

Stereotypes, implicit bias and outright racism are how it happens. Studies show that the way one defines “diversity” or “integration” is largely determined by one’s own race, with whites deeming diversity to have been achieved when the non-white population reaches 10 percent. People of color, on the other hand, don’t perceive diversity to have been achieved until that percentage is 30. While neither viewpoint is wrong, the area of disparity is where the negativity grows, where the disparaging labels arise and the discriminatory treatment of students of color is born.

The assumption that black and poor are synonymous, for example, is commonplace—wrong, but commonplace. From that misconception, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this poverty is not merely economic but also includes a poverty of character, intelligence and even integrity. That’s a huge jump, but it’s deftly made simply because “different” is viewed as negative and threatening. That’s why a school that is only 10 percent black, and not largely of a low socioeconomic level, can be deemed to be “ghetto” and “black” without evaluating the validity of the assumptions.

Even now, in 2019, the vast majority of schools in the United States are not diverse. Neither the student population nor the teachers reflect diversity by any definition. Indeed, when there is even a modicum of diversity, it’s at about that 10 percent level. More than that, and white flight frequently ensues, all based on the stereotypes, implicit bias and racism that place a negative connotation on any place—not just a school—that moves toward equal levels of diversity.

Think, for a moment, of the impact all of this has on students of color. Painted with a broad brush, these “ghetto” students are viewed as inferior on every level, and, by extension, not worthy of equity in their education, including the quality of teachers and resources. That’s why a teacher would be warned against working at a “ghetto black school.”

Now consider how seeing all this affects white students. Sensing an undercurrent of negativity attached to their peers of color, and perhaps even hearing outright statements to that effect, they can begin to acquire similar attitudes. Is there any wonder that they would repeat the patterns set before them?

For all these reasons, real diversity, going beyond minimum levels, is essential. And making diversity a priority is only part of it. Equally important is developing a school culture and even a district culture that celebrates cultural pluralism and seeks to learn about and from all the cultures in the school. And, yes, diversity training may be needed on an ongoing basis to redirect biases among the adults.

Teachers, in turn, can foster students’ critical thinking about their own biases and encourage their viewing of differences from culturally relative perspectives that respect each culture’s differences. The overriding goal is to provide real insight and to instill an appreciation for the richness diversity offers. Ultimately, everyone involved then begins to see increased diversity as an asset rather than a disadvantage.

The fact is that everyone gains from diversity, gaining a broader perspective on life in the long term and the potential for new, rich interactions in the short term. These alone make diversity worth any effort.