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Teaching for Black Lives

5 Questions with Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian is a high school teacher, a staff member of the Zinn Education Project, and an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. He has edited and co-edited a number of books, including Teaching for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice and More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing. As part of a growing movement to bring racial justice and people’s history to classrooms, he is on the forefront of the Black Lives Matter at School movement to connect educators with accurate curriculum and support their work with students to “root their concerns and daily experiences in what is taught and how classrooms are set up”. Just weeks before the 2021 Black Lives Matter in Schools Week of Action, we sat down with Jesse to learn more.

How did you become involved with the movement for Black lives?

I grew up in Seattle and graduated from Garfield High School where I now teach ethnic studies. I began my teaching career in Washington, D.C. teaching elementary school.

To borrow from the great educator and author Jonathan Kozol, the schools there are “savagely unequal” (Kozol, 1991). The elementary school at which I taught was completely segregated, serving 100 percent African American students until my third year when one white student entered kindergarten.

Our school offered neither a grass field nor a basketball hoop for kids to use at recess. The library’s book collection was more appropriate for an archeological study than a source for topical information. Our textbooks were woefully out of date and we seldom had enough for every student. Police roamed the halls of our elementary school looking for mouthy kids to jack up against the wall.

My experience driving by the White House on my way to work and then teaching in an impoverished, completely segregated, school taught me so much about how power and racism function in our school and in our society.

As an educator with a lesson plan for liberation, how would you describe your vision?

Human liberation is about achieving a truly democratic society where resources are used to meet human need and where racism, sexism, homophobia, and class exploitation — and all forms of oppression and exploitation — are eradicated from the structures and institutions of society.

Achieving this kind of society means first understanding that we don’t currently live in a liberated society—contrary to what is generally taught in “master narrative” schooling around the country. To achieve the education needed to help people understand the history and current ways oppression functions in our country we must both transform pedagogy and curriculum in schools and build social movements that educate the broader society. Collective struggle—not individual efforts—is critical to building the social movements needed to uproot institutional racism and other forms of oppression.

Why is Teaching for Black Lives so important to implement in schools?

Teaching for Black Lives (T4BL) is a vital contribution to undoing racism in pedagogy and curriculum. This book gives educators a framework for understanding what it means to center Black identity and struggles for liberation in the curriculum. Our book takes care to help teachers think about how to nurture the social and emotional wellbeing of Black students in a society marked by white supremacy. Additionally, T4BL helps gives educators powerful teaching activities that help students understand the many eras of the Black Freedom Struggle that are often erased in standard corporate curriculums.

Posters by students at Cardozo Education Campus, Washington DC participating in Black Lives Matter in Schools, 2019. Photo credit: Teaching for Change, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 Handmade posters of protest supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

What can students, educators and caregivers do to have an impact in their schools?

There are many ways, big and small, that educators and caregivers can challenge oppression in their schools and help make them more inclusive. Educators can teach beyond the textbook and begin teaching a people’s history—like the lessons found on the Zinn Education Project website—and teaching for Black lives. Parents and caregivers can join with educators in demanding that the school district implement ethnic studies and Black studies in the district. One of the most important efforts that is being organized to transform the schools and eradicate racism is the Black Lives Matter at School movement.

Four major demands are animating this movement:

  1. End “zero tolerance” discipline, and implement restorative justice
  2. Hire more Black teachers
  3. Mandate Black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curriculum
  4. Fund counselors not cops

You are a key part of the Black Lives Matter in Schools Week of Action. What is the goal of this week and how can people get involved?

In 2016, educators at John Muir Elementary school organized an event to celebrate Black culture and history and the plan was the school staff decided to wear T-shirts that read “Black Lives Matter/We Stand Together/John Muir Elementary,” designed by the school’s art teacher. When the story of this event went public, political tensions exploded. Soon the white supremacists began sending hateful emails and phone calls began to flood the John Muir administration and the Seattle School Board, and then the horrifying happened: Someone made a bomb threat against the school.

The school district official canceled the event. I got in touch with several educators at the school and brought them to a meeting of the Social Equity Educators where we all developed a plan to launch a Black Lives Matter at School day where we called on every teacher to wear a Black Lives Matter shirt to school and teach lessons about the Black freedom struggle. After a great organizing effort with many allies, we got some 3,000 out of 5,000 educators to come to school wearing the shirt. [Read more.]

The idea continued to grow and during the 2017-2018 school year, I joined the newly formed national steering committee of BLM at School. We organized a week of action from February 5 to 9, and thousands of educators around the U.S. wore Black Lives Matter shirts to school and taught lessons about structural racism, intersectional Black identities, Black history, and anti-racist movements. Educators in over 20 cities participated in this national uprising to affirm the lives of Black students, teachers, and families including, Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and beyond.

You can learn more about Jesse and his work here.