I’ve often felt a certain anxiety towards the month of February. It is the time of year where, as an educator, I am bombarded with expectations to teach the entire inclusive history of America in just 20-something days. As a teacher of first graders, I am also tasked with teaching this history in a grade and age-appropriate way. The responsibility of cramming the “highlights” of Black History always comes with a tinge of guilt, because I know that it is not enough. Twenty eight days is never enough time to answer all the questions these tough lessons raise and respond to all the quizzical, wrinkled noses. The challenge of helping my students understand the history of people that look like them becomes overwhelming as I scramble to connect injustice as a systematic institution that extends far beyond one mean person, or one violent act.
It is my fourth year of teaching and this year I was finally able to view Black History through the lens of my students. It is through their eyes that I understand the depth of institutional racism and its impact on our smallest citizens. While reading stories, it is the blonde, blue-eyed characters —not the ones of color who most closely resemble them -- that they point out as beautiful. They marvel at the long, straight hair of their favorite Disney characters and are often frustrated that their hair texture doesn’t match. When drawing themselves, they often paint their skin and eyes as lighter and more fair to resemble what they understand as beautiful. It is the attachment of worth and value to whiteness and the absence of people of color in accessible media that create a message that tells my students people who look like them are unworthy, voiceless and less than.
I believe that to combat internalized racism, students must have a core believe that they are valuable, worthy and capable of attaining their highest goals. This February my students engaged in activities to affirm their identities and to remind them that they are special and unique, kind-hearted and compassionate. We have read books with heroes, which look like them, who persevere in the face of adversity. As a class we engage in weekly community gatherings where students are able to “shout-out” the great achievements of their peers. We create books where students collect items from their community and write about why it is special to them. We discuss issues that face our class community and problem solve solutions as a group to reinforce that we are agents of change and together we can create the community we want to learn and live in.
It is my hope that my students will begin to see themselves as I see them; as beautiful, inspiring and brilliant citizens who can transform their world. As an educator, it begins with giving my students opportunities to celebrate themselves and build their community (in and outside of the classroom) in a way that gives them voice beyond a twenty-eight day period.
by Alexandria Linn ‘11
Alexandria Linn is a 2011 alum with Teach For America-Metro Atlanta. She teaches first grade at Harlem Village Academies.