16 Jan Bringing Brown to Life Today
Schools are not immune from the inequities and societal issues that plague our society at large. Brown v. Board of Education was a poignant example of that when it was argued in 1952, while segregation was rampant in society, not just in schools. Today is no different. “Public trust in the government is near its historic low. And in 2017, Americans were far more politically polarized on topics like immigration and healthcare than in the early 2000s, according to Gallup. Journalists are now routinely assailed by politicians. The bruising confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court led The Washington Post to speculate that even ‘our least damaged institution’ might now be viewed with increasing levels of skepticism” (Sawchuk, 2018).
A few recent headlines from the October 24, 2018 issue of Education Week show how societal issues and inequities show up in our schools.
- Education Dept. Will Attempt to Address Racial Bias in Special Education
- How History Class Divides Us
- In Fla., Citizen Activists Set Sights on Textbooks
- We Shouldn’t Teach Young Men to Fear #MeToo
- Groups Sue Trump Administration for Details of Requests to Arm Teachers
- The Trump Administration’s Latest Attack on Immigrants
As was the case in 1954, our schools reflect, challenge, or advance the inequities and issues at play across our nation. Brown v. Board of Education embraced this reality and actively moved to replace it with a less discriminatory one.
The Brown v. Board case remains a watershed moment in the history of education in the United States. It overturned years of discriminatory practice in education supported by legal decisions and was a key element of the larger Civil Rights movement. In order to reach the final decision in the case, the Supreme Court had to reconsider long-held truths about education in the nation. In the syllabus created after the Brown v. Board decision, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren wrote:
“The question presented in these cases must be determined not on the basis of conditions existing when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, but in the light of the full development of public education and its present place in American life throughout the Nation.” (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954)
It is worthwhile, 65 years later, to revisit this language for the sake of our students and future generations. What, actually, is education’s “present place in American life throughout the nation”? In 2018, many schools are still segregated (though not legally) and there are many indicators that despite the reality of desegregation, many schools are not in fact truly “equal.” How must we build on the foundation set by Brown v. Board? How must we, as educators, continue to fulfill the promise envisioned by the plaintiffs and the justices after that landmark decision?
First, context matters. Many argue that it is difficult to create desegregated schools in segregated communities. Not impossible, but difficult, given residential segregation is actually the result of racially motivated law, public policy, and government-sponsored discrimination (Rothstein, 2013). However, culturally relevant teaching practices, teacher coaching, and strategic use of technology could help us overcome the barriers that our neighborhoods present to desegregation. Whereas helping students explore and unpack disparate perspectives on the reasons behind the Emancipation Proclamation may have been a part of the curriculum in woke educators’ classrooms for some time, that approach to teaching — contesting long-held historical narratives — has certainly not been present in every classroom across the nation.
Now, it is possible for educators to share the lesson plans that lead to these types of rich discussions and connect their classes to students across the city, country, or world to make those discussions occur in real time, with real people. This can be accomplished with an older version of a smartphone, and so it is definitely within the reach of every educator in the nation.
For example, as students are learning about the arrival of Europeans to the Americas in the 1400s, educators could support them to compare and contrast how those events are taught in the U.S., Canada, and across the Caribbean. Unpacking this history could involve connecting with students across North America over a learning platform like Skype in the Classroom or Digital Promise Story Map to learn about how the arrival is taught similarly and differently. This could lead to generational research as students interview family members about their memories of how this important history was taught and support a deeper shared analysis and debate of the different ways in which important cultural events are reflected, depending on authorship.
Though the context may be a segregated one, the learning does not need to be. In this example, teachers in racially segregated classrooms can guide their students to unpack the reasons different perspectives exist on a topic and learn how to engage with others, perhaps in desegregated classrooms, who hold different perspectives. They also learn to have disagreements that are not disagreeable, a worthy skill to develop. Overcoming the physical barriers that segregate students supports them to develop real relationships, to understand and practice the civic discourse that has become so hard to find recently.
This leads to a second point: connect teaching to life. What are we preparing our students for? Think: is every lesson in my classroom or school driving towards the answer to that question? If our lessons help us prepare students for life and not just the next assessment, our teaching helps to close the gap that segregation creates. Conversations become less about what is in the textbook and more about what is in the world. The most skilled teachers follow Freire’s advice to “teach the word and the world,” (Freire, 2007) driving students to learn a literacy that works for books, people, and community-building. Here are some examples:
- Ask third-grade students to share with one another why they need to understand what the text says explicitly and make logical inferences from it. Where and why might they need to do that in real life? The goal is for students to understand that what is meant may not be what is said and what is said may not be what is meant. What might happen if they DON’T know how to do that?
- Ask sixth-grade students to analyze how two texts by different authors analyze similar themes in order to build knowledge. Where and why might they need to do that in real life? Answer: People have differing opinions on the same set of facts; I will need to know how to build a perspective and back it up. How will they know who to believe?
- In Algebra I, ask students to translate the system of functions to an analysis of relationships in their own lives, texts they’ve read, or movies they’ve watched. Where and why might they need to do that in real life? Sometimes relationships get clouded by the presence of others and the systems articulated by functions in math aren’t as clear outside of math. What are the benefits of using that translation in different settings?
- In 10th grade Social Studies, ask students to analyze events in a text, working to determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them. Where and why might they need to do that in real life? Answer: I could mistakenly think that something caused something else and act on that mistaken belief, to my detriment and the detriment of others. Why and where does causality matter in the world?
When we center our teaching on questions beyond the textbook, we start to create the type of pedagogy that is relevant to students, which then drives their deeper engagement. What students are learning starts to feel as if it matters, as if it is meaningful beyond the four walls of a classroom. Suddenly, learning becomes less of a chore or a race to finish, and instead, the foundation of a life that can be carefully examined and well-lived.
Third, grounded self-exploration is possible and impactful. In our segregated spaces, we sometimes limit ourselves to the hokey activities that have been around for decades, like “International Day,” where we eat foods and wear clothing to represent a country. Or, we have the single student of a different race answer a question on behalf of the entire racial group, in a move that has disempowered learners repeatedly. Instead, we could turn our segregated spaces into mini-action research labs, where we purposely explore the diversity within our perceived sameness (Lee, Menkart and Okazawa-Rey, 2008).
In such a space, a high school Government class might hold the same in-school election of local or national candidates, as has been done for years. Leading up to the election, however, students could research candidates’ positions and the positions of their party and engage in debates serving on a side that is not naturally their own. This setting would force a deep exploration of the details behind a 30-second TV advertisement and build a case for diversity of thought where there initially may have appeared to be none.
A class of 3rd graders might share all the different ways to build and sustain friendships and try them out with the class next door. In these examples, students learn about the diversity within segregated spaces, and begin to expand their definitions of themselves beyond race and ethnicity to politics and friendship.
Lastly, coach teachers to success. Teachers need support to have the kinds of conversations that unpack their own mindsets, especially those that might get in the way of delivering on the promise of Brown vs. Board. Schools that establish a culture of coaching are more likely to ensure teachers get that support. A culture of coaching in a school establishes a few things as norms: giving and receiving feedback, stretching (and supporting) thinking, and engaging in the kinds of conversations that drive improvements in teacher practice (Borrero, 2018).
When there is a culture of coaching in my school, I am more likely to feel comfortable reaching out for support with the two students in my class whose behavior is driving me crazy. I’m also more likely to unpack with my coach how my perception of those two students (because of their performance, their race or ethnicity, their community, etc.) might be deepening their learning gaps. With coaching, I can unpack my mindsets and be better able to teach in my segregated space as if it were desegregated because I don’t see all of my students through the same lens.
We all have mindsets; they are how we think about our talents and abilities (Dweck, 2017). In schools where a culture of coaching exists, the transparent conversations necessary to discuss those mindsets in safe spaces can occur. In 1954, the plaintiffs contended that segregated public schools were not ‘equal’ and could not be made ‘equal’ (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954). Perhaps. But they can be made wholly responsive to the needs of students and their teachers. Coaching makes that possible because it normalizes the kinds of conversations that shift negative mindsets, as both the coach and teacher push one another to continually improve.
Brown v. Board laid the foundation for creating the types of schools that would drive our nation in the direction of success. And our work now requires even more from us than that case did. When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren handed down the unanimous decision of the court, this is what he said — in 1954:
“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.“ (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954)
These words remain true today, 65 years later. Let us continue to make the right available to all on equal terms, desegregating our spaces for all of our students, regardless of who they sit next to in the classroom.
Borrero, K. K. (2018). Every Student, Every Day: A No-Nonsense Nurturer® Approach to Reaching All Learners. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset. London: Robinson, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group.
Freire, P. (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th Anniversary Edition). New York: Continuum.
Lee, E., Menkart, D., & Okazawa-Rey, M. (2008). Beyond heroes and holidays: A practical guide to K-12 anti-racist, multicultural education and staff development. Washington, DC: Teaching for change.
Rothstein, R. (2013). Why our schools are segregated. Educational Leadership, 70(8), 50-55.
Sawchuk (2018). How history class divides us. Education Week, 38(10), 1, 12-15.
By Nataki Gregory, Ed.D.
VP of Education and Strategic Partnerships
Click here to learn more about Nataki’s background as an educator.
For further reading about holding courageous conversations about race in classrooms, see our article in The 74.