The Way the Story is Told
Last night I had the pleasure of listening to an online discussion between Ibram X. Kendi and Clint Smith. Clint Smith has been a favorite poet of mine for several years and he has just published his first work of prose, How the Word is Passed. I listened to the book discussion in bed, after another exhausting day of parenting 2 teenagers, and teaching 3 classes of other people’s teenagers. I laid in bed listening to Smith discuss the essential role of the teacher in relaying facts and truth to children and although my brain was filled with a long to-do list and other thoughts of a busy parent and teacher, Smith’s words began to replace all of my immediate concerns. He talked about teachers as gatekeeper of stories and facts. As a teacher, I get to decide how children learn about the history of our country. The leaders of my school system, and the state of Virginia, get to decide upon a version of the past as a part of its curriculum and its standards and the children that learn at our institutions are at their mercy. Telling and listening to stories is the avenue for our students to learn about themselves, their country, and their future. As Smith spoke of the opportunities and failures of our task as educators, I grew angry.
A big part of my career as a teacher has been fueled by anger. At the age of 47, I have accepted that often times I am at my best as an educator when I focus on hurtles rather than calm seas. I work constantly to overcome problems by thinking, discussing, reading, and learning. Anger helps to fuel my need for creative solutions; it often moves me to act rather than to sit back and enjoy the quiet. Clint Smith’s book has consumed my thoughts since I finished reading it because reading it allowed me to explore my relationships with my students from a completely different vantage point. Smith writes about the power of storytelling. He discusses the immense power that a storyteller has upon listeners, stories are our history. His words struck a nerve. I am a storyteller, someone who chooses, curates, and withholds the stories that my students listen to. With the power to effect their thoughts and opinions, comes the responsibility of making sure that the stories that I weave respect and value the lives and experiences of each one of my students. Each day my students come to class with their expectations, their biases, their trauma, their multiple identities, and I must hold most of my classroom space for their stories to be listened to and told. As a teacher, my power becomes my decisions and frameworks in which my students will either thrive, or wither.
I teach in a high school that was last renovated before I was born. Almost all my students are Black and their families are struggling with poverty, housing and job insecurity, systemic racism, and generational trauma. Their experiences at school can provide comfort, joy, pride, and a sense of belonging, or these experiences can lead to policing, hopelessness, and shame. Teachers, administrators, and the decisions made at the upper levels of our school system have the power to either engage our student’s minds and hearts, or assume that they are not capable of critical thought. It is power that is more than often abused. This power? Its all about how we tell stories.
My school system’s central story is about test scores and literacy rates. Our state is concerned that after a year of virtual learning, and decades of low achievement to begin with, Black children are “falling behind”. With this narrative of learning loss in mind, the district is enacting new policies and curriculum changes to address this “learning gap” by increasing remediation in Language Arts and Math, and shortening our children’s learning time in Science and Social Studies. We are buying curriculum that promises rigor, using high expectations to obtain achievement. We are telling the wrong stories. These expectations are white expectations. We are telling a white-centered story. We are telling students that their story is not important. We are teaching to a test written by white people made to evaluate information that is white-centered and then asking Black students to measure up. We are doing what scholar Bettina Love calls “Spirit Murdering”. We are using public education to belittle and bend Black students to accept what we teach. We are forcing them to deny their own stories to learn ours. I am angry.
We are in desperate need of different measures of success. All levels of our public education system prevent our Black students from loving who they are and embedding the strength and power of their communities into their learning. We use words like “resilience” rather than “thriving” and “achievement” rather than “learning”. Lifetime learning happens when people are invested in the knowledge that they gain from it. Learning is fueled by passion and imagination but our Black children are learning in public school settings that passion and imagination are not meant for people with their lived experiences. When we prioritize our students’ stories, ask them to analyze our collective stories as Americans, and invent new stories for their future, we are doing it right. Trying to raise literacy rates by remediating, reteaching standard after standard, is about our students reaching the very minimum of success. Our current model is about underestimating student potential, reaching state requirements, and controlling educational outcomes. We are failing our Black children…on purpose.
Many of my students come to school because it is the law. We keep Black kids in school with threats. We police their families so that the kids show up. We employ truancy officers to force kids to attend class. We are not addressing the experiences that our kids have when they come to school. We are not imagining a school in which students love education. We are looking at the problem as our students’ problem when it is unquestionably ours. At its core, we as a public school system, do not believe that Black students deserve to love learning. We do not believe in listening and celebrating student stories. We believe in assimilation, in hiding whole truth, and in keeping Black children from being whole people in the classroom.
We believe that our students do not deserve beautiful buildings to learn in. We believe in withholding funding from schools with a majority of Black learners. We believe that Black History is an elective rather than a paradigm. We believe that the stories of our students are not relevant. We believe in curriculum that is grounded in White supremacy. We believe that Black children have a deficit that we must work to overcome. We only see one path to achievement and its our way. We believe that our current system is adequate, because our goals are not bound up in justice. We don’t want liberation and abolition, we want to keep our power.
Clint Smith’s book is at its core about how we remember. Its about our country’s past and how we control who knows about it and how we grapple with or whitewash our country’s past communal reliance on chattel slavery. He talks about the fact that slavery is not something that happened in our far collective past, but is recent and still part of our lives. We are living in a country right now in which truth is politicized and people make a living by denying that slavery was as devastating as it was. There are legislatures across the country trying to prevent teachers from teaching truth to their students. There are classrooms full of students who never learn the richness and multi-dimensional beauty of their cultures in school. In my experience, I see my students, 4 generations from their enslaved ancestors, trying to wrestle with the consequences of how personal and collective stories are being told. The fact that my students attend school that is falling down from neglect, and enter the buildings through metal detectors, suggests strongly that our past is still part of our present.
We are in desperate need of different measures of success. All levels of our public education system prevents our Black students from loving who they are and knowing about the strength and power of their communities. We use words like “resilience” rather than “thriving” and “achievement” rather than “learning”. Lifetime learning happens when people are invested in the knowledge that they gain from it. Learning is fueled by passion and imagination but our Black children are learning that passion and imagination are not meant for people with their lived experiences. When we prioritize our students’ stories, ask them to analyze our collective stories as Americans, and invent new stories for their future, we are doing it right.