By Isaiah Moore
Before the name Black Panther conjured images of a superhero, I’d heard it mentioned only once in school. My eleventh-grade US history teacher said blandly, “People died because of the racist beliefs of the Black Panthers. Their berets signified a militancy that wasn’t good for our democracy.” She pointed toward a projected image of a man holding what appeared to be a twelve-gauge shotgun across his chest. (Later in life, I’d discover this man was Huey P. Newton.)
For about five years after that, I harbored negative feelings for the Black Panthers and their ideology, their brash use of firearms, and the trail of violence they left behind. Then I was forced to delve deeper into their history in a senior-level college course. As I learned more, I felt a veil being lifted.
I went from rejecting the entire organization to lauding their dedication to caring for their community, to being educated and informed, and to standing up for basic civil rights. Their mantra became the foundation on which I wanted to live: I wanted to help my community through education, and I wanted every student to succeed, regardless of background. Learning the truth about the Black Panthers changed the trajectory of my educational career and my life. For this reason, I’ve decided to use my position as a teacher to ensure my students have all the information they need to confidently navigate their educational journeys.
Nontraditional books and information provide a holistic view of society so all students see themselves in their education and can make informed decisions about happenings in society. A recent technological and educational trend is helping teachers share such information. #DisruptTexts is a crowdsourced initiative that aims “to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve.”
This year I decided to participate in this trend using literature by one of my favorite authors, Jason Reynolds, who collaborated with Ibram X. Kendi. Using their book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, I was able to guide a few of my students on a journey of educational discovery. Here are some of their takeaways from this disruptive text.
History Isn’t That Boring
There is a misconception among teenagers that history is stale and boring. As a result, many students end up either accepting fallacy as truth or obtaining only a cursory understanding of historical progression, especially for people of color. Often the timeline students learn about African Americans goes something like this: brought from Africa, slaves, Martin Luther King, hip-hop.
I’m glad Reynolds and Kendi say Stamped is not a history book. This statement removes a barrier that sometimes deters children from learning. Kids are not intimidated by dates and facts, but they may need reminders that the issues of the past still exist today.
Students can see similarities between what they read and what they see and experience from day to day. For example, Stamped addresses the Fifteenth Amendment, which states that no one can be prohibited from voting based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” My students were quick to bring up allegations of voter suppression in the most recent presidential election. They asked if these allegations were true. I implored them to delve deeper to find the answers.
This may seem like dreary information best kept from students. However, I’d argue that it makes them more astute in dealing with society and gives them an appreciation for history.
The Importance of Language Variation
Traditional American learning has treated language variation as something with no clear applicability to real life. This disruptive text says otherwise. It uses terms like “real haters” to describe antagonists and what the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project calls “invariant be.”
Both terms are examples of African American Vernacular English, and my kids noticed the usage immediately. It reminded them of how they communicate on a daily basis, which made taking in the information much easier. This usage achieved more as well. My students had been taught to suppress their home language because it lacks professional appeal, but in Stamped they saw it used to educate the masses. This affirmed not only the way my kids speak, but also their culture, as the two are closely aligned.
Students are more apt to take learning seriously when they feel the information presented is meant for them. In fact, because of the language Stamped uses to present the case of Angela Davis, the American political activist and author, one of my students is now aspiring to be an attorney. She appreciated the way Davis spoke up for herself. This student’s first attempt at advocacy was presenting a case to her peers and me as to why she thought Davis deserved her innocent verdict.
The Moral Arc of Humanity Bends Toward Redemption
I am glad the young lady who took an in-depth look at Davis didn’t simply classify her as a criminal because she stood trial. I say this because the recent trend of “cancel culture” teaches our kids to judge individuals who make mistakes, then ostracize them. Since all people make mistakes, this approach can be a bit problematic for teenagers, whose brains are still developing and who are bound to make their own mistakes.
Stamped presents a more realistic view of how to measure a person’s character: whether they change. Some of my students had heard of W. E. B. Du Bois and his contributions to society, but they didn’t know that Du Bois was prejudiced toward African Americans who did not present the upstanding image he thought was acceptable. And many had no clue who William Lloyd Garrison was, but once they found out, they were confused as to how an abolitionist was actually upholding racist ideology.
As we continued reading, we found out that both men changed their stances on their respective issues. This is realistic; it shows the natural progression of life. All individuals, even historical change agents, are wrong at some point. But what makes them exemplars was that they redeemed themselves.
Using #DisruptTexts Caused Students to Think Creatively and Advocate
The progression of an atypical book is an atypical evaluation of knowledge gained, and that’s exactly what my kids are doing. After all the thought-provoking conversations Stamped provided, the students decided to use the power of communication and technology to create a five-part podcast series. It will discuss the central topics of each section in the book then give tips to teachers on how to broach these topics with students.
They’ve assigned themselves different chapters to cover, come up with an agenda for each episode, and are even wracking their brains to give the podcast a creative name. Not only are they creatively using newly acquired skills and knowledge, but they’re also using it to advocate for themselves and others. This information will not simply sit in their brains; it will be used to further equity in education for their peers. This is the true goal of education!
How Can Educators Introduce #DisruptTexts for Transformative Learning?
1. Realize that with this decision, you, the educator, are now disrupting the power dynamics inherent in traditional American teaching and learning. Teachers have always been characterized as the keepers of knowledge. When you are introducing diverse texts to the curriculum, this very well may not be the case. Because you cannot be an expert on all information, especially about the cultures in which all students participate, it is quite possible that they may know more than you. This is where we as teachers must check our pride and truly embrace the role of learner. This can be challenging, but remember that as the educator disrupts this power dynamic, students gain more confidence in the spaces meant to nurture their intellectual growth.
2. Know your audience, students and families alike. You should know the interests and values of both groups. This allows you to better select texts that not only cater to their interests, but also fill knowledge voids. Knowing the values of family members will increase their buy-in so they’ll help solidify the lessons learned in school at home.
3. Pair disruptive texts with existing texts in the curriculum. This helps broaden the scope of knowledge of existing content and objectives while allowing children to see the role their culture plays in education. The existing curricular reference can make proposing a new book more palatable to those who may not want to venture from traditional curricular choices.
4. Present the new book, how it can impact students and families, and how it can expand the existing curriculum to school administration. This should be your last step. When you are suggesting curriculum modifications, it’s best to come with as much information as possible, including the benefits.
Isaiah Moore is an eighth-grade English teacher in Virginia Beach who’s had the pleasure of speaking to crowds of over 1,000 but still becomes nervous when conducting a 45 minute session for 30 students. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t show it.) An Albert Einstein quote guides his life: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Through word and action, this quote was taught to him by four Black male teachers in high school. Because of their impact, he decided to pursue education in hopes of impacting others the same way. To do so, he attended Morehouse College and became an Oprah Scholar while receiving his undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, he obtained his Master’s of Arts in Education from the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Isaiah believes that education should be relevant, so he prides himself on developing lessons that incorporate real-world topics. This shows students their education extends beyond the four walls of his classroom. When Isaiah’s students apply these concepts to their daily lives, it is at this point that he sees his value. Here is where he becomes a man of success. Isaiah writes about his daily life in the classroom at his blog, Running Thoughts . . . Can’t Let Them Get Away.
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