This One’s for the White Teachers by Naomi Sharlin


It’s hard for me to write about the antiracist work in my teaching. There are a couple of layers to this. First, I know that I mess up, probably daily. I don’t have it all figured out. And that’s a tough pill for me to swallow, especially publicly. This is, of course, connected to the next layer. Whiteness. I’m white. My voice should not be amplified when it comes to antiracism. On the other hand, an overwhelming majority of teachers in New York are white, 80% as of the 2018-2019 school year, a figure consistent with the nation as a whole. So if white teachers aren’t actively engaging in conversations around antiracist teaching, well, that’s a lot of complacent teachers perpetuating white supremacy. While the need for more Black teachers is pressing, in the meantime, we white teachers need to keep eschewing perfection and deliberately make ourselves vulnerable. Because lives are at stake. This is heavy work we do. 

Because no matter how many books or social media posts you read about decolonizing your curriculum or how many seminars and conferences you attend about teaching through an abolitionist lens, we are guaranteed to miss the mark sometimes. There is so much racism buried not just in our curriculum, but in the very structures of schools themselves, not to mention in our own minds and bodies. Of course, to engage with the challenge is, nevertheless, obligatory. I do hope it’s helpful for other white teachers to read about times I’ve both hit the mark and missed it in my antiracism work. 

I want to share two concrete examples of shifts I’ve made in language and the framing of questions in the service of antiracism. I teach mostly beginning English Language Learners. Having nuanced and sensitive conversations in English can be challenging. Beyond their shared status as ELLs, my students are incredibly diverse. They come from Honduras, Yemen, Bangladesh and Guinea. From the Dominican Republic, Senegal, Vietnam and El Salvador. And more. Their schema around race is different from young people raised in the United States, and different from my own. As new immigrants, many also believe the best about this country (they have all sacrificed to be here), and I don’t want to be the one to burst the bubble. On the other hand, facts are facts. So, I try to navigate these conversations with sensitivity. One sentence I find myself repeating as a reminder to myself and to them is that regular people have always resisted discrimination and injustice. 

Upon further reflection, I’ve realized that the two examples I want to share occurred within units centered around problematic literature choices. The first was Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen. It’s a book about chattel slavery written in dialect by a white man, so I should’ve known better than to touch it. To say it is a text that centers Black trauma over Black joy is an understatement. Ostensibly, it is a story about Black resistance during chattel slavery in the United States, but it’s also obviously focused on oppression and it contains graphic descriptions of the violence inflicted on enslaved people by their enslavers. Not an empowering text! My planning partner and I realized our mistake too late, so we tried to be intentional and transparent with our word choice: slave vs. enslaved. Because our students are ELLs, we are always deliberate with word choice and sentence structure. And as long as we’re being careful with language, we might as well dive into nuanced conversations. One early pre-reading activity focused on the character, John (nicknamed Nightjohn), who escaped bondage, learned to read and voluntarily returned to slavery in order to teach other enslaved people to read. After brainstorming character traits to describe him, we introduced slave and enslaved as contrasting vocabulary words, side by side. We then asked students, “Which word do you think John would prefer and why?” Through class discussion, we teased out the primary difference: slave encompasses your identity, like student or immigrant, whereas enslaved denotes that this state was imposed on you, but doesn’t necessarily define who you are. Simply understanding the nuance between the words was the task for some beginning ELLs. Other students wrote about why John would prefer enslaved. This laid the groundwork for its use throughout the unit and helped frame the book in the most empowering way we could.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly initially felt like a much more empowering literature choice. But at its core, it is also about oppression, especially in the distilled manner that most of my students interacted with the text. We were careful, however, to avoid framing the strength and courage of the protagonists as playing to the stereotype of the “strong Black woman.” We found small shifts in language actually could accomplish this. So instead of asking, “How does Katherine demonstrate persistence?”, we asked “Why was it necessary for Katherine to be persistent?”. Instead of a bunch of responses about Katherine not giving up when her boss told her she couldn’t attend the meetings, students wrote that it was unfair that she was excluded and had to work harder to prove herself because of her race and gender. Such persistence should not have been required.

The thing about antiracism work is it never ends. You never “graduate”. We just have to keep pushing against white supremacy and bias where-ever it arises. For now, my most immediate antiracist teaching goal is to be more thoughtful with text choices. In our next unit, starting in mid-March, we plan to read 4-5 picture books. I’m already curating a list of books that might acknowledge Black struggle, but definitely center Black joy. In the spirit of continuing to get better through reflection and feedback, I’d like to know what you think about the examples I described above. Do you think my focus on word choice and framing to affirm that Black lives matter in my class is valid? Did anything I presented here resonate for you? In your lessons, how do you think about your word choices and framing, or the way changes in language shape your interactions with young people?

Black educators, thinkers and writers whose ideas have informed this post:

  • Blair Imani 
  • Ericka Hart
  • Sassy Latte
  • Shishi Rose
  • Sonya Renee Taylor

Naomi (she/her) is an editor of this blog and teaches high school in the Bronx.

Can You See Me? by Jenn Allen

I don’t know the 13 principles of Black Lives Matter movement but as a Black educator it is imperative that I empower all my students through positive reflections of themselves. My pedagogical philosophy is not based on social movements trending within society. For so long, myself and my people were always excluded from “the table.” My practice empowers me to provide the tools necessary for my students to bring their own seat to their table of choice. 98% of my students are students of color from various backgrounds, but one thing we all commonly share is a feeling of exclusion. 

My presence alone is not enough. I strive to be a positive role model both in and out of the classroom. As a high school English teacher, I bring in various authors from different backgrounds so all my students have a chance to see positive reflections of themselves. We talk about and celebrate each other’s cultural backgrounds. I also attempt to make real life connections daily. When you can make a personal connection to what you are learning, it builds authenticity and value to your life. One example of when I attempted to bring history to life was interviewing a historical figure with my students. We were researching segregation in our society and the struggles people went through both in the past and also currently.

When discussing historical Black movements in the 1900’s there are a slew of names that come to mind. One is Rosa Parks. But, did you know that Rosa Parks was not actually the first Black person to refuse to give up their seat and move to the back of the bus? In actuality it was a teenager named Claudette Colvin in Alabama. What an honor and pleasure it was to reach out to Ms. Colvin herself. She lives right here in NYC! Due to failing health she couldn’t visit the school in person, but she agreed to do a live question and answer with my students. It was exciting to say the least. 

For two weeks we did a deep dive researching the political movement sparked by her courage and the backlash she suffered. We also studied questions asked during interviews and the science behind open ended questions versus closed. My students worked in pairs before merging into groups. In pairs, we used the DOK levels as a model to assist us in framing our high level questions. Students also used those levels to assess the questions of their partners before sharing with the entire group. After sharing, groups decided whether the question “made the cut” to be officially asked and I wrote them down on each individual group’s chart paper. We brought the chart paper to our discussion so students could rehearse in their groups before the interview. Questions included: “How do you feel your actions have contributed to American society today?” “What advice would you give students today seeking to make a change in the world?”, “How did you feel when you were slighted by your own people? Explain”, “You made a courageous stand decades ago, do you feel society has changed much since then? Explain”.

Students worked cooperatively and so did Ms. Colvin! She was very candid and honest about that time period in American history. She explained that Rosa Parks was one of her mentors as was Martin Luther King Jr. Although she made a courageous stand, it wasn’t to spark a political movement, she was tired, both literally and figuratively. Tired of being treated like a second class citizen. She relayed how undignified basic life was for people of color. Something as simple as shoe shopping left her feeling small and invisible. They had to cut an outline of their feet on a brown paper bag and take that to the shoe store to purchase shoes. People of color were not allowed to try any shoes on. Ms. Colvin was also literally tired from being in school all day, as a 15 year old high school student.

She was feeling empowered that day after learning about other historical figures before her who courageously made history for boldly voicing their disdain for social and racial injustices encountered and endured in America. She said she felt as if those historical figures were pushing her down, preventing her from moving her seat. She was handcuffed and arrested on the bus for her “crime” and bailed out by the NAACP and MLK Jr. But they decided Ms. Colvin could not be the face of change. Two factors were used against her: her age and complexion. Not only did they feel she was at an unreliable age as a teen, but she was also of a darker complexion. It was decided that the face of change should come from someone older and with lighter skin, thus Rosa Parks was selected and used to spark a powerful political movement nine months later.

We were never taught that Claudette was among four other women who challenged the law in the Browder v. Gayle case that successfully overturned the segregated bus laws in Alabama. We learned that history taught in schools teaches us so much while not teaching us much of anything. So much is omitted, blurred and layered in political jargon that only confuses students of color instead of empowering them. Students read very little about historical figures that look like them and year after year only hear of the same handful of Black leaders that impacted society. What about the others? Why is there a limit in the first place? Sharing that historical moment with Ms. Colvin will be remembered for a lifetime. Although I am not sure how many historical figures I will have the opportunity to interview in the future, this motivated me even more to keep reaching beyond the status quo for all my students. They deserve it.

 When teachers say “I don’t see color in my classroom, just students”, that sounds great and I truly understand what they are attempting to say, however that phrase alone still divides and excludes. We HAVE to see, recognize and learn from the cultural backgrounds of our students. See them! See their color! See their struggle and hear their stories. That is the first step in an antiracist and inclusive environment. Celebrate our differences while weaving in how we are yet still one in the same. I am them, they are me, we are one.

Jenn Allen is a high school English teacher. She is native to NYC; born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She attended and graduated from NYC public schools and has been teaching within the NYC public school system for nine years. She can be contacted at msjallen1@gmail.com.

#BlackDisabledLivesMatter in the Classroom, Too by Jules Csillag

Language note: “Disabled” is used throughout this article in accordance with the Social Model of Disability. To quote activist K Toyin Agbebiyi (they/them), “I say disabled instead of person with disabilities, because I believe that calling myself disabled is as much about describing my physical pain as it is a critique of capitalism, ableism, and the systems that lead to the disabling aspect of my life.”

At a recent event, Dr. Sami Schalk (she/her) said, “There is no Black liberation without disability justice.  There’s no way we can fight racism and anti-Black racism without addressing ableism because the systems depend on each other.” Many other Sick, Mad, Deaf, disabled QTBIPOC (queer and/or trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color) have highlighted a similar trend and call to action, noting that racism and ableism are interconnected and intertwined, thus dismantling one necessarily requires dismantling the other.

The Black Lives Matter principles don’t explicitly address disability (and The Harriet Tubman Collective, which is a group of Black Deaf & disabled individuals, has written about this in their piece “Disability Solidarity: Completing the “Vision for Black Lives”), but that doesn’t mean that as educators, we shouldn’t be including disability justice in our work, if we truly believe Black Lives Matter. From an educational standpoint, many of the same curricular, pedagogical, and systemic changes that need to be made to benefit Black students would benefit disabled students, and vice versa, not to mention disabled Black students.

First, we must start by educating ourselves, especially if we don’t hold these identities and/or are not from these communities. Some resources about disabled BIPOC by disabled BIPOC to get you started are listed below:

Learning more will help us continue to be intersectional in our work. As Audre Lorde has written, “I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only….And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination.” This will also help us attempt to understand our students with these intersecting identities better. “I cannot separate my non-binary genderqueer identity from my Black identity. I cannot separate my Black identity and my genderqueer identity from my disabled identity,” writes Phoenix Gray (they/them), so addressing only some of these issues in our learning spaces is simply not sufficient.

Representation within our curriculum is one easy way we combat ableism and racism. Erasure is one issue when it comes to the representation of disabled BIPOC. For instance, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were disabled, as are over 50% of people murdered by the police (including Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and most recently Walter Wallace, Jr), and yet their disabled identities are frequently erased.

Keah Brown (she/her) has also written about the importance of representation as follows: People don’t often think of people of color or of LGBTQ+ people when they think of [disabled people]. Instead, they think of cis white male wheelchair users who hate themselves, because that is so often the way pop culture depicts us. I’m not a cis heterosexual white male wheelchair user, so in pop culture, I don’t exist. That’s not okay because it’s not reality. I exist, I am a real person behind these words, and I deserve to be seen.”

When considering including representations of disabled BIPOC in our teaching, we must be intentional and mindful in order to avoid tokenism, one-dimensional representations, or application of a white and/or non-disabled gaze. This also includes centering joy, interdependence, and community. These inclusions should not have the tone of “a very special episode.” One way is to normalize disabled QTBIPOC, so it can be something like changing the images your students are exposed to– like using this coloring book from the Center for Cultural power or using stock photos from Affect the Verb in your Google Slides.

The real work comes in changing our pedagogy and our systems. BIPOC students are consistently identified as being disabled disproportionately– both in overdiagnosis, and in underdiagnosis. Either way, disabled BIPOC are more likely to be stigmatized, segregated, and generally involved in the school-to-confinement pipeline (increased involvement with law enforcement, dropping out, face harsher disciplinary action, etc).

Many of these systemic changes will take lots of work, and it also necessitates a change of mindset away from capitalist and white supremacist ways of viewing students. It means “Recognizing Wholeness [which means] that we value our people as they are, for who they are, and that people have inherent worth outside of commodity relations and capitalist notions of productivity” (Patty Berne, she/they). It means allowing students to define themselves for themselves. It means accepting and celebrating differences authentically and meaningfully, which often comes from less hierarchical teaching. The more we can co-create and co-construct with our students, and genuinely learn from them, the better. It also means considering accessibility in our learning spaces, in the way that Eddie Ndopu (he/him) has stated: “I am not just talking about ramps, braille and sign language…This is also about giving people with disabilities access to things like joy, love and intimacy.”

I need to mention that as a cis, white, non-disabled femme, it is not my place to be leading these conversations. I ultimately decided to write this because it is free labor, and it’s unfair to burden disabled QTBIPOC folx with it…but if you’ve learned anything from those quoted (who are all disabled QTBIPOC) and/or other people with these identities, please support them! Finally, as Ki’Tay Davidson (he/him) has said, “It is our obligation to make a shift of not just acknowledgment, but inclusion of all. It starts with me. Inclusive advocacy must be lived to be reflected in our work.”

Jules Csillag (she/her) is a speech therapy consultant for an autism inclusion program across a number of public schools, an adjunct faculty member for pre-service speech therapists, and a writer. She believes in inclusion, liberation, and disability justice. You can connect with her on Instagram (@schoolsforfreedom), Twitter (@julesteaches), or her website Schools for Freedom.

Black Disabled Lives Matter logo by Jen White Johnson (jenwhitejohnson.com).

Black Lives Matter No Matter Who Wins by Tajh Sutton

What a summer it’s been!

Black Lives Matter at School NY has been engaged in the beautiful and rewarding work of fighting for equitable, holistic and justice oriented schools for 4 years now, and we are growing everyday.

As the inequities exacerbated by Covid 19 continue to bring new students, parents and educators into the fold, we offer a promise as a particularly heavy Election night looms on the horizon.

BLM at Schools is committed to the work of ending zero tolerance policies- which have negatively impacted Black and Brown students whose cameras remain off in an effort to keep their trauma to themselves. 

We are committed to having #CounselorsNotCops and addressing the mental health issues our communities are experiencing as a result of decades of divestment and the ramifications of Covid 19 on communities of color. 

We continue to stress the importance of hiring Black teachers and teaching Black history and ethnic studies in all schools, thus providing our children and school communities the knowledge, language and permission to defend themselves and their communities against the vitriol, misinformation and racist violence emboldened by a Trump administration. 

We continue to wear the armor of restorative justice, loving engagement, empathy, diversity and collective value against attacks framed as ‘discourse’ that really continue the work of white supremacy by not rooting our conversations in historical fact and contextualizing our present struggle in the history of righteous rage and organizing that Black and Brown queer, young and working class New Yorkers are known for.

Regardless of who sits in the White House, Black Lives Matter at School is committed to a vision to Black Liberation, student centered pedagogy and community care that no administration can destroy.

The people united will never be defeated.

Black Lives Matter.

What the UFT gets WRONG about Black Lives Matter

For three years, Black Lives Matter at NYC Schools, with allies from the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) have submitted a resolution to the UFT to endorse the Week of Action, to acknowledge the deep harm done by our school system’s white supremacist underpinnings, and to pledge action toward the BLM demands. Leadership in the UFT has either argued vehemently against the resolution, calling it divisive, or has refused to allow the vote by ruling the Black teacher who brought it to the floor “out of order” and silencing him. Meanwhile, teacher unions in major cities across the U.S. have endorsed the BLM Week of Action enthusiastically.

This June, after the murders of Nina Pop, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, and amid nation-wide uprisings for racial justice, BLM at NYC schools again submitted a resolution to the UFT Delegate Assembly. Instead, the UFT brought to the floor a watered-down resolution submitted independently by a white teacher. This resolution does not name even one concrete action the UFT will take, nor does it name any of the four demands of Black Lives Matter at Schools. The four demands of Black Lives Matter at Schools are:

  1. End zero tolerance; restorative justice in all schools.
  2. Mandate Black history & ethnic studies.
  3. Hire more Black teachers.
  4. Fund counselors, not cops.

Separately, behind closed doors, and without any public announcement, the UFT Executive Board passed their own toothless “Black Lives Matter Resolution” to create the impression that they are on the right side of history. We know they are not. The Executive Board resolution, along with our corrections, is below.