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As our country wrestles with the murder of George Floyd, Daunte White and far too many other Black individuals at the hands of white police officers, as a public school educator, I wrestle with how to help my fourth-grade students make sense of the violence they see being perpetrated against people who look like them.
I teach at Rocketship Rise Academy, an elementary charter public school east of the river in Washington D.C., where 98 percent of our students are Black and 83 percent are at-risk. At Rocketship, we believe in the potential of all students, and our school is intentionally designed to help our students understand their value. One way we do that is by giving them what we call windows and mirrors. We give them mirrors with a teaching staff that looks like them and understands them — 86 percent of our staff are educators of color. And we give them windows by helping them envision a life beyond what they currently know, while celebrating their culture and community.
For my students, the trauma of police brutality stretches beyond high-profile incidents that they see in the news and on social media. In their own daily lives, my students struggle with the dissonance between being told that the police are trusted adults, while already having witnessed — despite their young age — countless examples of the police mistreating their family, friends and neighbors.
It’s the ultimate responsibility of our public education system to prepare students to be engaged and informed citizens. Our democracy literally depends on it. For that reason, understanding modern society through the context of history should be a critical part of every student’s education.
But the same structures of systemic racism that have made the type of police accountability we saw with the Derek Chauvin trial incredibly rare have also allowed the history books and social studies curriculum that are mass produced for use in public education to be told, almost exclusively, through a white, male lens. History stories often treat the white actors kindly, while failing to recognize the contributions of African-Americans or actions that have undermined their well-being. We can’t teach Black students how to become active citizens if we’re not giving them a true understanding of how 400 years of history has shaped their lives today.
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So last summer, as protests against racial injustice spread throughout the country following the murder of George Floyd, our school community felt the pain of this injustice deeply — and we knew we needed to do more. Our school principal asked me to develop our own social studies curriculum. We call it Seeds of Civil Power.
The idea is that we are planting the seeds of a civic education for students so they will one day be able to convert that understanding into power. The definition of “civil” is, “relating to ordinary citizens and their concerns.” But since history is rarely taught in a way that relates to ordinary citizens and their concerns, our public education system is preventing the masses from truly being empowered. While elementary students may not fully embody the learning that they’ll need to change society, we can at least plant the seeds. We’re doing this by helping them learn, think about and question the world around them.
The curriculum is designed as a series of five units, starting with a study of community and how our students fit in. The units build on each other. After community, the units cover culture, economics, government and activism, all through the lens of the Black experience. Too often, students are taught history and culture as something that only happens to others — that was definitely my experience growing up. I was never made to feel, as a Black person, as an American, that I had a culture. I want my students to understand that their lives as Black people are part of a rich, historic culture that’s worth studying.
Lessons are implemented once a week, during our regular community meeting time. Each lesson involves both discussion- and project-based learning, and includes a series of guiding questions that open the floor to discussion on the topic we’re exploring in depth that week. This format is designed to encourage critical thinking, so students can reflect on their own experiences as well as information about societal structures and the experiences of others, and begin to envision how they can influence the world in which they live.
Some of the first lessons were about family structure. We looked at the history of families in the African-American community and discussed how they are similar and different today as compared to the 1800s, when many Black people in our country were enslaved.
Part of the discussion included students sharing what their own families look like. One student, who I know lives with his single mom, intentionally misstated that his dad lives with him as well. We discussed that there’s no right or wrong family structure, despite what the dominant narrative in society tells us, and by the end of the lesson, the student felt confident in sharing with the group that he actually just lives with his mom. He may not even realize it, but his perspective about himself changed that day.
By design, the curriculum we’ve developed is equal parts social studies and social-emotional learning. If we start by getting students to think of themselves as social beings within a specific culture, we’re not only improving how they view themselves, we’re also laying a foundation for them to understand and accept other cultures. Most importantly, they begin to understand that all cultures and societies have been shaped by individuals throughout history, and it’s something they can work to shape, as well.
Seeds of Civil Power in its current form is really just the beginning of what it can be, and where I hope to take it. All students should be learning history and civics through a variety of perspectives. But for now, at our elementary school, our Black students are seeing themselves in these lessons and, therefore, know that they matter.
Riah Williams is a fourth-grade humanities teacher at Rocketship Rise Academy in Washington, D.C.
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