Alright. Here’s an update on how the last Black History lesson went with my middle year kids.
Review classroom contract We wrote it together in September but I wanted to review it. Two out of the three classrooms didn’t have anything else to add. The other 1/3 did… We were missing a couple of extraverted students that day which allowed some of my other kids to share. The kids of colour were the clearest voice in the room and added more boundaries around racist remarks or comments. This was one of the most rewarding parts of the convo because I could hear where they were at. I was relieved when they shared because then we could pinpoint the problem. Now I’ve got to figure out a solution. We agreed on what would happen if kids didn’t follow the “everyday” rules; three warnings, then I talk to principal/classroom teacher and their parents. However, if it’s a racist remark, I’ll give them one warning and then we bring in the principal, etc.The reason I’m giving them one warning is because the racist statements are very subtle and some of the kids aren’t aware of how their comments are harmful. There have been situations where they were held accountable by other kids in class and that healthy peer pressure seemed to cause a catalyst for change. With that said, some are blatantly rude and disturbing so I may need to make alternate plans entirely for my main offenders…
Black History Month slideshow We talked again about the problem with the resources I brought before and then I showed them this free slide show I found on Teachers Pay Teachers. I can’t find the name of the person who created it but she/he/they shared some Black History in Canada and Saskatchewan. This person’s work is REALLY good and I plan to purchase from them again. Here’s the website: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Sje-With-Saskteaches
Theatre of the Oppressed exercises I did variations of this activity with each of the classes and added extensions to each depending on where the conversation went. Here are the basics:
- Ask the kids to choose a spot in the class where they feel most comfortable and go to that spot. Ask them why they chose that spot.
- Then ask them where their least comfortable spot is. Go there and ask them individually, why they chose that spot.
- From their desks, I ask them to point to the most powerful/influential place in the room. Usually, it’s the teachers desk or the front of the room. A couple of witty kids will point to themselves.
- Still at their desks, I ask them to point to the weakest place in the room. They like pointing at each other and start giggling so I had to explain it’s weak places, not people.
- Finally, I ask them where their “true” place is? I don’t define what true means. I let them decide and when they ask me to explain what do I mean by true, I explain that it’s whatever it means to you.
Art journal/Collaboration I ask the kids to do a visual art journal about what just happened. They can do whatever they want OR they can create their own classroom floorplan where power is equal. What would that look like? I adjusted this for other classes so we created the floorplan together on the board. It was way more fun and the kids had interesting ideas.
The following day, we played another game. I don’t remember what this game is actually called but I call it OVERTHROW.
HOW TO PLAY OVERTHROW
- You’ll need a small table, two chairs and a plastic bottle (or an empty kleenex box or eraser).
- GOAL: Through movement of the objects/furniture, show a move of power over the person who moved last.
- You can only move one object once until your next turn.
- You cannot move one object and then another and another. Just one move per person per object.
- Try to NOT break furniture.
- Examine each move with the class and discuss how each move is a form of power. I usually offer a play-by-play to get the kids started and help them find different forms of it. Often you’ll see forms of resistance/rebellion, tiny passive aggressive movements, apathy (removing certain objects entirely from the scene), solidarity, force/violence, judgement/superiority, among many others.
- EXTENSION: Make tableaus (human statues) with the same goal. One person begins in a statue of power, the next person comes in to make a tableau that overpowers the last one and so on and so forth. Until you have a full scene of conflict.
Something I forgot to do this time was to chase the tableaus with scenes of UNITY. It’s a nice way to finish off the class rather than leaving in them in this state of competition. Shall try to bring that in next time.
- Kids associate power with the size of your desk. When I did this exercise pre-COVID at another school, the kids ran to the couches for places of power. I read that as comfort=power which made sense given the demographic I was working with. For the middle years I worked with this week, power was a bit more materialistic.
- One class is a pretty solid as a team and from what I’ve seen, power is pretty evenly spread out. There is conflict, for sure, but each of the kids have a say and they are very open about their culture or differences. White privelege and racism still exists in this class, however, the peer pressure to remove it is strong. The white kids don’t get a way with it for long. There’s high accountability. I was interested to know how their class would rearrange the floor plan if they could. A small mutiny against their teacher (who wasn’t in the room) took place. It was the first mutiny I’ve ever witnessed. The kids drew up plans to put him in the weakest place in the room or to completely remove him. “I’ve never seen this,” I say, “But you can’t just remove the teacher/source of power. He’s a part of your class.” So I told them about King Arthur and the Knights at the round table. One of the kids came up and problem solved by placing the teacher in the middle of the room and building a circle of desks around him. Not in a way were he was centre stage but more so to trap him there. Again, never saw this before and I didn’t fully understand why they were so opposed to their teacher because he advocates for them a lot and looks out for their best interest. I’m assuming that they just had a bad day? I don’t know. It was a bizarre mutiny. Anway, we all agreed that this jail cell of children would not work to hold him captive because he’s a very tall man but I appreciated the creative thought. The final plan was to build a horshoe formation around him/ the front of the room. That seemed to work for the kids.
- When we did the tableau with the kids in the same class where the mutiny was taking place, the first tableau involved a lot of violence. I let this play out for awhile because it shows the kids what form of power they default to: force. There was a line of assassins killing eachother. This went on for awhile. We stopped and I pointed out their default for power is violence and they nodded. We began another tableau but this time, I told them they weren’t allowed to use force and I would let them volunteer. Rather than going in a line. One kid began it by rolling up his sleeve and making a fist pointing to the ground. When I asked him if it was a fist, he said, “No. It’s the colour of my skin.” I said, Oh! and almost immediately the scene took off. One kid tried to block him off and take centre so all attention was on him (which totally something this kid would do) but the kids following him chose to make poses of solidarity with the one who began it. They jumped in quick, too. Very little pausing in this one. One of the white girls came in and sat in the teachers chairs (a place we had already declared as one of the most powerful places in the room) and another one elevated herself by sitting on a tall desk. Both watching from the sidelines. Finally, another kid came in and said, “Can I be a journalist?” I said sure. By that point, we a had the beginning of a very tense scene which would be great for improv. Then the teacher came in.
- The uniquest idea for a floorplan of equal power goes to the grade 6/7’s. We agreed that the most powerful place in the room was the front, especially by the teacher’s desk. The least powerful place was the back (interestingly, many students chose that area as their most comfortable or “true” place). In order to make both sides equal, they decided to get rid of the lockers at the back and put another whiteboard in it’s place. Then they planned to give the E.A. a desk so that there would be equal accountability on both sides and instruction could occur in both places. It took us awhile to arrive at this point but it was the one that seemed to mutually satisfy the majority of the class.
- One of my classes is my biggest challenges in terms of creating a safe place. I suspected prejudice would reveal itself but I wasn’t prepared for the subltely of the racist comments. I can recognize an inappropriate joke about minorities but the subtle responses of privelege or passive aggressive racism is harder for me to catch and name. In the moment, I couldn’t put a finger on what made it so uncomfortable or wrong. After hearing the responses from some BIPOC in the room, it clarified the issues and the harm it’s creating. I’m hoping I’ll be able to take some time over the reading week to plan possible responses or plans of action. The issue gets more complicated when politics are involved. That’s the hard part.
- One big thing I learned about teaching Black History or anti-racism/anti-oppression is how carefully you have to introduce trauma to kids. By that I mean, you have to balance it out with messages of empowerment so that kids see both the beauty and the pain of the things black people have endured. To only focus on one side gives a narrow view of the culture and causes more stereotypes– good and bad. Another thing I’m learning is it’s really important to find resources about Black History that have been written by black people. Too many white people have tried to tell black people’s side of the story and our white privelege gets in the way. Black history by black people is VERY helpful.
I could write about this forever. What I charted today is only a fraction of what happened. There were some really rewarding moments that happened out of our conversations. One blog post can only fit so much!