Teaching in inherently political.
Through lessons, teachers cultivate whether their students are inspired to be revolutionary or compliant. Teaching is political if you teach that Christopher Columbus discovered America. It’s political if you teach that Dr. Martin Luther King stood against capitalism as an economic structure or American imperialism.
It’s political whether you teach that Thanksgiving is about the Pilgrims and Natives coming together or that Thanksgiving a white settler holiday to celebrate indigenous genocide for land. All teaching is political.
It is true for all content areas; most visible in humanities classes, yet equally true in STEM classes.
Let’s assume that a teacher desires to empower their Black students with their content and teaching rather than “status quo” them to death. How might this teacher, say a science teacher, empower Black students to utilize their knowledge to make a positive and impactful change in their world?
The system needs teachers who regard teaching as a political activity and embrace social change as part of the job.Cochran-Smith
Most people reserve this kind of empowering work for history or literature teachers, but teaching is a political act… even for science teachers. Again, I ask, how can a science teacher empower and inspire Black students to manifest change in their communities? Should they show clips from the Civil Rights Movement in their class? Should they show clips from a Black Lives Matter rally? Should they have students create posters in protest of a scientific injustice of their choice?
Honestly, none of that is necessary.
All that science teacher, any teacher for that matter, needs to do to empower students is to make them read. Not read a textbook. Rather, have students read the words and philosophies of intellectuals, artists, activists and freedom fighters that came before. Because the battles we fight today are not new. However, our strategies yield little fruit due to the lack of intellectual and institutional memory on the part of young people.
In order to chart the course of our future, we must know from whence we’ve come.
If teaching is a political act, reading must be the chief tool we use to act with. The greatest weapon an adult can provide a child is the skill of reading; recognizing words and comprehending their meaning in sequence. Writing, calculating and articulating thoughts are all just as important, however reading directly connects to the thoughts you think, the words you say and the numbers you calculate.
Reading is paramount, but it is not enough.
One must use reading as a building block to make connections to what they read with their observations and experiences to critically think about their world and the world around them where they can accurately assess our society and their place in it. Teaching students how to read and analyze text is great… but you must give them relevant and responsive texts for them to read and analyze—with the purpose of identifying problems and creating solutions.
Young people are bright and they observe everything. This is certainly true for the students that I teach. But oftentimes in sharing their thoughts, they display that they haven’t read the kind of text to help them diagnose the reasons for the conclusions they’ve reached. When they share solutions for how to address the problems they see, they display that they haven’t read the kind of text for them to understand strategies of the past in order to inspire the solutions of today.
They haven’t read Pauli Murray, Walter Rodney, Bell Hooks, Toni Morrison, Kwame Ture, Angela Davis or Howard Thurman. They’ve been introduced to a sanitized Dr. King, but never to the unadulterated Dr. King through his own words in texts.
… and you don’t have to be a history or English teacher to introduce these texts and others like them to students.
For example, say you are a seventh-grade teacher teaching life science. There are numerous units within life science including natural selection/evolution and human biology. There is no reason why you cannot assign class reading that’s discussed the history of racial pseudoscience; assign and walk students through a lecture of Dr. John Henrik Clarke on the African’s Contribution to Science, Invention and Technology and connect it to a more recent book like Superior: The Science of Race by Angela Saini to express how science and technology was used as a tool of oppression.
Doing this provides a framework for students to think about the doctrine of natural selection/evolution in the context of society’s racist past framing these discussions that had real impacts on the lives of Black people and other people of color. It also provides for them the tools to articulate this and the history to understand that it’s nonsense, racist propaganda.
That won’t necessarily yield children marching in the streets. But it will yield them recognizing the tools of oppression and inspiring them to dismantling such tools. Yes… in a 7th grade life science class. It can be done, because teaching is a political act.
If a teacher in that situation chose to teach absent those texts (sticking strictly to the textbook), that too is political because they’ve (directly or indirectly) chosen to not expose that level of text and critical thinking to young people. That’s not illegal, but it certainly doesn’t show Black children from whence they came.
Black children need for their teachers to be political and politically act this way: connecting the social issues of today with the intellectual, political and academic heritage of Black people from the past – so that they are more strategic in charting the future. Of course, this requires that teachers love Black Children enough to engage themselves in the sort of intellectually transformative work of study so that their students might grow.
We need teachers political with purpose, on purpose. Is that you?