Courageous Conversations

2014_health_equity_SHR_health_equity.pngCourageous conversations are those which we have about difficult topics that can make one or both parties uncomfortable. These conversations are respectful, thoughtful and deeply analytical, and based on active listening, when done correctly. At least, this is how I define them. There is no winner or loser. There is only thinking and talking.

My students and I are embarking on a new unit that explores African American vernacular traditions. Our unit is driven by four questions:

Q1. How do writers use words differently depending on genre, audience and message?

Q2.  How do writers’ words affect tone and mood in their writing?

Q3. How have the experiences of African Americans changed over time?

Q4. How have varying genres been used to communicate these experiences?

We opened the unit with a jigsaw activity that explained what a vernacular tradition was and explored the characteristics of seven different traditions (spirituals, secular songs and work songs, blues/Jazz, R&B, sermons, hip hop and folk tales).

Students were then given a sheet of paper with one event from African American history. They created a human timeline of the events, without verbally communicating. It was immediately evident to me, and some students, how little they knew about the ways events fit into the larger narrative of American history and the ways in which these events were intertwined. Originally, this time line activity was meant to serve as a preassessment of their prior knowledge. But some excellent conversations blossomed and misconceptions became clear. During reflection, we noticed that the only period in history students were sure about was the Civil War. They had misconceptions about how major events (ie: the invention of the cotton gin) affected enslaved people. They also realized how compact their historical understanding was based on the curriculum framework and pacing guide that teacher’s use (ie: thought the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were all ratified at the exact same time). They also realized where their gaps in knowledge were, especially when I introduced events that did not fit into the dominant narrative of America’s history (ie: who the heck is Marcus Garvey?).

Then they journaled about how the experiences of African Americans have changed over time and this led to wonderful conversations tying their understandings to modern America. For instance, students noted that we don’t have legalized segregation anymore, which led us to an excellent conversation about how de facto segregation still exists in housing and schooling, for example. Again, biases showed up that we addressed as best we could in the short window of time we had. Some of those include:

  • But not as many black people have done as much as white people.
  • But because black people had to work as slaves they are better at sports (another kid took that one on for me)
  • But the NBA is 75% black
  • But why don’t they just try harder? They have all the same opportunities.

These honest and open conversations are so important people. When are kids can voice these biases in safe containers, we can work towards a common understanding of the truth of our history. When we choose to silence these dialogues, we actually create division but allowing misconceptions and biases to fester.

This is why I spoke last night at the school board. We can not silence our past.

Maya Angelou said, “History despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”

My comments to the HCPS School Board are below…

My name is Teresa Cole and I am an alumni of Henrico County Public schools, a resident with three children who will enter the school system in the near future, and a teacher in a Henrico School.

Tonight I am speaking in reference to the decision by the Henrico County School Board and Superintendent Patrick Kinlaw to apologize for and ban the African American Policy Forum’s Unequal Opportunity Race video that was shown at Glen Allen High School. Henrico School’s mission specifically states it’s dedication to actively engaging students in diverse educational, social, and civic learning experiences.

I am concerned that the HCPS School Board is denying students the opportunity to fully understand the issues and promote meaningful dialogue around our country’s painful racial history and its continuing legacy of racialized disparities.  In 2010, the median wealth for black families was $4,900, compared to median wealth for white families of $97,000. As of January 2016, the unemployment rate for Black Americans is 8.8% compared to 4.3% for white Americans. Infant mortality for Blacks Americans is over twice the rate for white Americans. Black Americans make up around 14 percent of the national population, but comprise 38 percent of the total prison population.

We also know that in Henrico County four schools account for 20% of the suspensions and that these schools serve a predominantly African American population. HCPS has an achievement gap that disproportionately affects Black students and students with disabilities and the gaps are growing worse yearly. In Henrico, only 30% of African American students graduated on time with advanced degrees and African American students are also underrepresented in advanced programs. And lastly, HCPS disproportionately issues the hardest forms of punishment to African American students. This is not new information to the school board which is why the vision, mission and strategic plan have been created to address these issues.

What should be noted is that this is the legacy of a systemic oppression playing out in our schools and with our children. It will not be dismantled until we are able to have these courageous conversations with our children openly and without fear of backlash.I’ve heard from teachers and families that they are scared to speak out. Teachers are scared to broach these difficult conversations with their students because they fear that their efforts to honestly engage in conversation will not be supported. Parents and students fear speaking out because of perceived threats of retaliation. This is unacceptable. This is not the climate or culture schools our should promote. I believe that encouraging these difficult conversations is integral to building “contributing citizens.” I am asking that in order to start this conversation the HCPS School Board engage the community authentically on this issue- beyond this comment period. I am asking that the school board sit down with a variety of stakeholders in order to hear more than the one-sided perspectives fueled by the media.

I believe the board’s censorship of this video attempts to obscure and ignore the historical facts of United States slavery, racial segregation, genocide, and colonialism and of Henrico’s own problem with equity. But this ban is also in violation of HCPS policy: R7-05-008 GUIDELINES FOR SELECTION AND REVIEW OF INSTRUCTIONAL MATERIALS and the Functions of the Instructional Materials Review Committee (IMRC) who have been tasked with reviewing “those instructional materials used in our school division which have become issues and  to review materials which have been challenged in our school division.” The policy outlines a multistep process for challenging materials that was not followed in the board’s unilateral banning of this video. I am asking that the board unban the use of the video in HCPS schools.

Additionally, the current strategic plan includes language about building relationships and outlines a commitment to build cultural understanding and appreciation among staff through focused staff development. I would ask that HCPS advance this component of the strategic plan through the creation of a community advisory group to help develop an action plan that includes, among other things, a top down initiative for diversity, equity and inclusion training.

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