MILWAUKEE — Teachers around the country are working on bringing the current social justice movement into the classroom.
"Our story here is one of resilience and one of resistance that's not being told," Angela Harris said.
Harris is the Chair for the Black Educators Caucus in Milwaukee. She's also a first-grade teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary school. She's using the time this summer to help prepare a curriculum around what's going on right now. She says, even in first grade, her students already have questions and she thinks it's best to start helping them understand right now.
"I've had to have these conversations," Harris said. "My students are seeing things happening on the news and they're hearing their parents and family members engage in conversations about this."
Harris says she's had to discuss issues of skin color with her students; it bears repeating, they're first graders.
"My students are predominantly black," Harris said. "We had a Latinx child join our classroom. They'd often refer to this child as white. We began to have conversations around what that means, around skin tone, and how those issues come up even at such a young age. We have to talk about them and help children have conversations about them as well."
Harris sits on the steering committee for the National Black Lives Matter week at her school. It's part of a larger national group called Black Lives Matter at School. The group focuses on racial justice education.
Tuesday, they held a webinar to help educators across the country understand how they can help fix the problem.
"These working groups we're hoping will come together to study, learn and create," Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price with Black Lives Matter at School said. "What that means is, learning a little more about statistics that center these issues and understanding what they can create by pushing policies and pushing change, true transformation in their districts and schools."
The webinar had some 600 attendees, including Harris. She says Milwaukee Public Schools will be participating in its third Black Lives Matter week. It takes place the first week of February and she hopes teachers listening to the webinar Tuesday can start educating more often about Black stories.
"Our story as Black people is well more than what happened once we were taken from Africa and forced here to America," Harris said. "Our story existed before that. It's important, not only students, but adults understand that as well."
She says this type of teaching could be beneficial within MPS, whose student body is 54.1 percent Black. However, only 16.9 percent of the teachers are Black.
It's something Harris hopes her white counterparts can help within teaching students about equity.
"The thing that's so great about the National Black Lives Matter week at schools and the week of action in our school's curriculum particularly, it provides white teachers with an access point," Harris said. "You can start at the very basics with it. Introducing the 13 guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement. Picking one of those principles to discuss with your students in the classroom. There are a lot of guided conversation prompts teachers can have with students sot hey don't feel like they're overwhelming themselves."
The 13 guiding principles are meant to help kids understand race or to spark conversation with someone who may be inexperienced at talking about race. Educators through Black Lives Matter at School are using those 13 principles to help get kids learning about injustice.
"The curriculum is connected to the guiding principles," Charlie McGeehan with Black Lives Matter at School said. "It addresses multiple injustices and encourages students and educators tog et solutions and action. It's really intended to open conversations around truth, justice, activism, healing, and reconciliation."
However, especially for white teachers, the group warns educators to make sure they understand everything about what they're trying to teach. Not fully comprehending the centuries of injustice fully may be counterproductive.
"You may not be ready to teach the curriculum," Denisha Jones with Black Lives Matter at School said. "So don't." Don't teach the curriculum until you're ready, because that's dangerous. Start there, take your time and then reach out to Black educators who may not have the time or the capacity to do the planning but find out what they would if they could and do it for them. There are ways to be in this movement but you have to let Black people lead."
"The thing I recommend, specifically to white educators, is to do self-work first," Harris said. "You have to do the internal work. Figure out who you are as a person. Figure out what your biases are before you can actively go into the classroom to begin teaching about someone else's culture."
Essentially, they hope to create more allies to help educate children about injustices.
"Anti-racist teachers identify the system is designed to harm black and brown children," Jones said. "It always has."
"I don't believe in a neutral educator," Matthew Vaughn-Smith with Black Lives Matter at School said. "You, as an anti-racist educator, have to take a stance."
But as important as education is, they want teachers to do more.
"I can't just talk about it in the classroom if I'm not engaging in the community," Aryee-Price said. "Being an anti-racist educator is not limited to the classroom."
"If you want to make sure this is not a phase, and you want to make sure this is not simply something for today or in the now, you will invest in books and invest in having a conversation," Tamara Anderson with Black Lives Matter at School said. "If you want to be an activist teacher, you have to engage friends and colleagues in the building. Find your tribe in your building and have secret meetings. We know not all buildings like this kind of work. Find your secret network and meet and connect lesson plans. Most of all, connect to Black joy. This is a lot for our students to have and a lot for instructors. Balance the trauma and the truth with some adequate Black joy and some, unapologetically Black. That's why it's the most fearsome principle. It's saying, you can be yourself in your Black skin in your space and live in your truth."