In June, when the Black Lives Matter protests first broke out in cities across the country, something clicked. The protests kept spreading, radiating through suburbs, hopping oceans and crossing borders. There was an undeniable momentum — one that teacher Joana Chacon and her colleagues wanted to seize.
“This summer has opened up spaces in which teachers have begun to speak more openly and honestly about race in our school systems,” Chacon said.
Chacon, an English teacher at Newton South High School, was inspired by the work of Bettina Love, a pioneer of abolitionist teaching, instruction rooted in combating systemic oppression and racism. Chacon and her colleagues formed a book club to discuss anti-racist teaching. That quickly evolved into an online conference. At first, she thought maybe 50 people would attend.
"Within days, we had hundreds of teachers from seven states," she said. "Now we're in all 50 states and we're in 24 countries.”
The response has been overwhelming. Nearly 6,000 teachers — and counting — are attending the National Educator Anti-Racism Conference, which kicks off this weekend. Attendance is free, thanks to local sponsorship. Love, a Black professor of education at the University of Georgia, will be the keynote speaker. She and other prominent education experts will provide training on how to create an anti-racist school and curriculum, spanning every field, from the arts to math and special ed to counseling, all the way up to the principal’s office.
Anti-racist teaching is not new, but it has picked up steam in recent years, with educators around the globe forming anti-racist educator collaboratives. And it now seems more urgent, as COVID-19 has exposed deep social and racial inequities. Add to that the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the country appears finally to be poised to face its ugly past and address systemic racism. That, Chacon said, can start in the schools.
“An anti-racist teacher recognizes that racism exists in our school system. Second, an anti-racist teacher agrees that to do nothing about the racism in our school system is to be complicit,” she said. “And third, an anti-racist teacher makes a commitment to fight against white supremacy in our school system by working with communities of color and by allowing their work to be led by those communities.”
So how does anti-racism fit into a math curriculum, for example? If the STEM workforce is any indication, race plays a large role. A2018 Pew Research Center report shows that people of color are largely underrepresented in the STEM workforce, with Black and Hispanic adults holding bachelors' degrees or higher making up only 7 percent and 6 percent of the STEM workforce, respectively.
Luis Leyva, an assistant professor of math education at Vanderbilt University, said the absence of Black people in the pipeline starts in the classroom.
"One common type of an event would be if an instructor says, 'If you can't do this problem fast enough, you should consider dropping down or no longer continuing with the calculus pipeline.' And so if we think about that, there is no explicit naming of race," Leyva said. "But in our work, we found that students who are coming from racially minoritized backgrounds and thinking about representation, about who's in that classroom space, who is in STEM fields, they might register this in a way that they might be saying, well, maybe, mathematics isn't for me or maybe STEM isn't for me, questioning their belongingness, or no longer continuing with mathematics."
Leyva, who identifies as Latinx, will be speaking at the conference with his Black colleague, Nicole Joseph. Her research explores how white supremacy shapes underrepresentation of Black girls and women in mathematics. She said educators need to unlearn a lot of what they internalized as students themselves.
"Learning how to be an anti-racist math teacher has a lot to do with the self and less to do with math content. I think you have to do a lot of internal work. You have to read a lot. You need to be in community with, you know, communities of color." Joseph said. “I try to help our secondary teachers understand that poverty, segregation, gentrification, all of these things [are] going to impact your child sitting in your geometry class. And we talk about how, and a lot of that is historical.”
Leyva added that contextualizing problems and presenting them through a social justice lens could make math more culturally relevant.
“What are the problem-solving opportunities that students are having and how is that reflecting their own lived realities?” Levya said. “How can you do your job well, still teach standards-based approaches to instruction, but doing it in a way where you allow — especially racially minoritized Black and brown students — to see themselves reflected in the work and feel as though they're developing positive mathematical identities?”
That positive reflection is what Chacon, who is Latina, wants to foster in her classroom.
“In my classroom, as an English teacher, anti-racism means that I'm teaching a balance of white authors and authors of color. It means I'm teaching lessons that go in-depth about communities of color and doesn't just teach about the oppression those communities face,” Chacon said. “It teaches how those communities have in the past advocated for themselves and how they continue to advocate for themselves.”
These are lessons that Imani Fonfield, a rising senior at Newton South who is already an established student activist, said everyone should learn.
In June, she staged a die-in in front of Newton City Hall during a Black Lives Matter protest. As a peer leader in the high school’s Anti-Defamation League and co-president of the Black Student Union, she said conversations about race don’t really take place outside of those circles. When they do, she’s often the only Black person involved.
“It gets frustrating when I'm the only voice, and only Black voice, that has to represent a whole culture. And it's intimidating. And I don't think I should have to,” Fonfield said. “So having this anti-racism curriculum really shows the voices in what we're learning. And you could take the pressure off of me and some of the other Black students and students of color.”
Fonfield will be leading a discussion this weekend about students and anti-racism. She’s hopeful this conference is the first step towards lasting change.
“I don't expect everything to just change overnight. And I don't expect us to have the conversations around race normalized immediately. And I don't think it'll get more comfortable,” Fonfield said. “I do think that teachers will really reflect on what they've done in the classroom or what they haven't done and that will show in their teaching.”
That's why Kate Fussner is attending the conference. Three years ago, she “decolonized” her ninth-grade English curriculum at Fenway High School in Boston, to better reflect the largely Black and Latino student population.
“When I was growing up, it was very much, everyone reads one book. We talk about that book. We write about that book. We move on. Most of the writers that we read were white. Most of the writers that we read were dead,” Fussner said. “My curriculum focuses on giving students choice to find what they love to read and to find their voices, their inspiration in living writers, in particular, writers of color and queer writers to make sure that students are really seeing themselves reflected in the books.”
Fussner, who is white, said the conference is an opportunity for white educators — who make up the vast majority of public school teachers in the U.S. — to build on the progress that teachers of color have made over generations.
“We cannot make all of this work the work of Black educators and Latinx educators,” Fussner said. “It's our turn to make sure that that work continues to get done. And so we need to be there to push each other, to call each other out and to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because ultimately, I think that's what's going to move us forward.”
When the conference wraps up next week, Chacon said everyone should leave equipped with strategies that they can immediately use to move towards creating anti-racist lesson plans. Then, what she is really excited about, is making those available to any teacher who sees racial justice as part of their calling.
“We're hoping that they will be the founding contributors to our database, who will contribute hundreds of thousands of lessons with every content area in mind to support the work of our teachers today, [and] teachers decades from now,” she said.