In the midst of national debates, Connecticut teachers take on anti-racist education
As high schools across the state prepare to pilot the new Black and Latinx history elective, the Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective is working to support teachers.
Today’s lesson is on “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Tomorrow, “Moonlight.” Next week, “Dear White People.”
In her 20 years of teaching, Ruth-Terry Walden has always put the curriculum to the side to teach her students of color about their histories. Now, she gets to do that full time.
Walden is one of the many teachers across Connecticut who is piloting the state’s new Black and Latinx history course this year in advance of the elective becoming a requirement next fall. A former lawyer and teacher at Westhill High School in Stamford, Walden taught a literature course prior to participating in the pilot, in which she introduced Shakespeare at the beginning of the semester and then moved onto more contemporary, less white, writers. Her reasoning for starting with Shakespeare was not arbitrary.
“A lot of hip-hop and contemporary pop culture reference[s] Shakespeare,” Walden said. “So I give them the foundational tools for them to understand what a lot of the hip-hop artists infuse in their videos and in their music. A lot of people think hip-hop is not intelligent, but it is. And if you don’t have a solid literary foundation, you don’t understand what these brothers are saying.”
Walden brings her knowledge of the law and Black literary works into her teaching. She knows that for students of color, knowledge of their history is power, which is why she spent a week teaching her students about water. Her students understand that clean water is power, she said.
“If we’re powerful, and we’re empowered and we’re intelligent, how is it that Europe and colonial powers are able to come in and destroy all that and destroy our confidence over the centuries to the point where we feel as if we can’t do anything, that we’re part of an achievement gap?” Walden said.
In teaching Black and Latinx history, Walden believes that she is giving her students a “sense of self, a sense of history, a sense of culture, a sense of intelligence.”
“Teaching the curriculum is about teaching children about historical empowerment,” Walden said. “The most important thing is to give them the empowerment to understand that they come from intelligent people.”
Walden is a member of the Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective, a Connecticut organization composed of students and educators committed to advancing anti-racist education and pedagogy in the state. Teachers like Walden have expressed concerns about the curriculum as developed by the State Education Resource Center, or SERC. An external agency hired by the Connecticut Board of Education, SERC has instructed that their curriculum be “followed with fidelity,” according to some teachers in the collective. Because of the expectation to cover history as early as ancient African civilizations, contemporary topics that are of greater interest to students are left for the very end of the semester — if teachers even make it that far into the course. Teachers are finding they are unprepared and that the curriculum is too fast-paced. Thus, the collective has been working to support teachers as they get ready to teach the new course in the upcoming school year.
The new course comes out of the 2019 Connecticut Public Act No. 19-12. Originally HB 7082, the law mandates that a Black and Latinx history elective be offered at public high schools in the state beginning in the 2022-23 year. The course as written by the state is divided into 11 units, with the first semester focusing on Black history and the second on Puerto Rican and Latinx history. The content spans from pre-colonial times to the present day. Some schools like Walden’s have begun to offer the course this year and others have done so in the past.
Those who were involved in the early passage of the bill anticipated the concerns of teachers that would come later. Students for Educational Justice, a youth-led advocacy organization in New Haven, is an anchor group of the Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective. Its members were active in advising the state legislature and writing amendments to the bill in 2019. Among these amendments were anti-racism training for teachers, the creation of a student-led committee to write and oversee the implementation of the curriculum and the inclusion of race and racism in the title of the course.
Benie N’sumbu, former program coordinator for SEJ, was involved in the efforts to pass the bill as a high school senior.
“If it was just going to be African American history, it’d be very easy and simple for them to just teach the fun facts,” N’sumbu said. “Martin Luther King did this, Rosa Parks did this, Harriet Tubman did this and now we have a Black president and everyone’s happy. That’s literally what we get in schools, and we never go deeper into it. If we have it called ‘The History of Race and Racism,’ everyone knows this is what we’re going to be talking about.”
SEJ hosted a town hall and gathered student testimonies in support of the bill with the additional amendments. Other organizations — Hearing Youth Voices, Connecticut Students for a Dream and Citywide Youth Coalition — mobilized in support of SEJ’s amendments. Even so, state Rep. Gibson and state Sen. Douglas McCrory refused to incorporate any of SEJ’s recommendations into the bill to avoid alienating other members of the state legislature. The legislators’ reasoning foreshadowed the current debate over “critical race theory” in schools.
“It was the beginning of this whole CRT argument now because what we were proposing was basically for critical race theory to be taught in schools,” N’sumbu said. “And they were like, ‘No, people aren’t going to be for that.’”
Harnessing collective power
While SEJ and other groups in the state were advocating for the passage of the amended bill, members of the community, including teachers and youth organizers, convened to discuss the new curriculum. Among these people were the directors of SEJ and of Hearing Youth Voices, along with Yale Ethnicity, Race and Migration professor Daniel HoSang. The group would become what is now the Anti-Racist Teaching and Learning Collective.
HoSang began his work with local teachers as part of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, a partnership through which New Haven teachers attend seminars taught by Yale faculty. At the time the bill was proposed, he was teaching a seminar for New Haven Public Schools teachers about anti-racist teaching and colorblindness in education. He admired the teachers’ commitments to learning about anti-racism, yet noted that their lack of previous exposure to these topics is a “structural failure.”
“Many teachers in California, for example, might have gone through the California State University system where there’s ethnic studies programs on every campus,” HoSang said. “It’s just not the case here in Connecticut. If I’m working with the most motivated and self-interested teachers, and they’re new to all of this, even though they were so wonderful, absorbing so much, giving me new insights, they will still benefit from additional structured support, training and professional development.”
After receiving a grant from the Graustein Foundation, the collective began sending out resources in a periodic newsletter and created communities of practice for teachers across the state to meet and build networks. Last spring, the collective held a series of webinars to give teachers “bite-sized introductions” to different fields. Among these were “Teaching Indigenous Studies,” “Teaching Latinx Studies” and “Teaching Asian American Studies.”
As part of his work for the Collective, HoSang has been meeting with organizers and leaders across the state. HoSang recently met with leaders of teacher unions to begin to draft an educator bill of rights in light of the national attacks on anti-racist education.
“Especially at an over-resourced institution like Yale we have an obligation in our field to think about how our work can be supportive of lots of other folks who are in struggle with us together, including K-12 educators,” HoSang said. “Otherwise we risk turning ethnic studies into this island. That was never the purpose of the field. It was always supposed to be public facing and collaborative.”
Teachers speak out
On the evening of Nov. 9, teachers from across the state logged onto Zoom from their homes and offices after a day of instruction. Of the 18 people in attendance, 12 were teaching the ethnic studies course. The meeting, hosted by the collective, began with the teachers introducing themselves and sharing a positive memory from the school year so far. Those teaching the course told stories of cultural fairs, spoken word poetry and a pop-up Latinx history museum.
After introductions, the conversation shifted to a large group discussion about what has gone well with the class and issues they have faced. Teachers were eager to share highlights from their experience but noted difficulties with the pace of the curriculum. A recurring theme was that teachers were using the curriculum as a “backdrop,” despite the fact that SERC advised it be “followed with fidelity.” One teacher described the curriculum as a “menu” of topics to cover from which teachers can pick the ones most aligned with students’ interests. Another teacher likened the curriculum to a “huge playbook,” with the success of “plays” depending on the players — the students.
The meeting broke off into two smaller groups to continue the discussion before reconvening to debrief. A teacher who has been teaching Black and Latinx histories even prior to the new law talked about her positive experience combining the two rather than teaching them separately. Another teacher said she wanted to combine the two histories but did not know how, so the two teachers agreed to discuss strategies at a later time.
During the meeting, the members from the collective took notes to send a list of recommendations to the state committee. The attendees concluded that the core issue was that the most fruitful learning occurs when teachers use the curriculum flexibly in response to the needs of their students. Teachers who relied more heavily on the state curriculum expressed frustration because they felt as though they were just filling out a checklist rather than building a community of learning.
Scott Martin, one of the attendees, described his experience teaching the course so far as “tremendous.” Martin, a teacher at Stafford High School, has previously taught Advanced Placement history courses, which incorporate some of the topics in the new curriculum. However, it is his first time teaching Black and Latinx histories to this extent. He attended a week-long summer workshop in preparation for the new course but has found himself doing extra work on his own time to get himself familiarized with the content.
“I tell the students each and every day that I’m learning new things,” Martin said. “It’s exciting to learn new things in general, and frankly it has energized my teaching.”
Though he is excited about the new content, Martin has concerns with the length and rigidity of the curriculum. In addition to expecting teachers to get through too many topics, the curriculum does not leave room for missed classes due to typical high school events such as assemblies and half days, he said. Moreover, his students are either completely engaged in the material or not at all.
“Some of the reading material given to us is well beyond the ability of my students,” Martin said. “It feels too much like a college curriculum, and it is overambitious for a highschool-level course.”
Daisha Brabham, a teacher at Windsor Public Schools who moderated the Nov. 9 meeting, had similar issues with student engagement. She found that students are less active when she sticks to the state-issued curriculum and more engaged when she supplements it with her own material.
“I have a lot of really good ideas that I want the students to engage with,” Brabham said. “All of those ideas are based on my experiences with them. I’d rather take that approach of working with them and then responding to their needs as opposed to trying to deal with a curriculum that for the most part is inaccessible to teachers, let alone students.”
Brabham encourages her students to guide their own learning. For example, as part of a recent lesson on the abolitionist movement, her students led a mock meeting in which they role played as an abolitionist and discussed their stances on several issues of the era. They wrote autobiographies for their characters explaining why they got involved with the movement and voted on topics such as whether they should support the women’s movement or provide funds for churches that speak about abolition but do not allow Black members.
“That’s kind of typically how a day will go where it’s more of them leading themselves through this history and allowing themselves to kind of be in it and out of it,” Brabham said.
Reimagining learning spaces
Brabham has been involved with the collective since February of this year. She met HoSang through his seminar at the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Since then, she has helped facilitate the communities of practice alongside other teachers.
“The collective has been a really awesome experience,” Brabham said, “just being able to collaborate with all these teachers across the state in a really innovative and vulnerable way, of being able to come and share not only the successes and all these other great best practices, but being able to talk about positionality and being able to have a nice sharing space.”
Unlike Martin and other teachers who lack previous exposure to the content of the new curriculum, Brabham has an academic background in African American and African diasporic studies. Her research experience was the reason her new school chose her to teach the new class. Now, she gets to focus on her interests in the classroom alongside her students. Working with the collective allows her to build community and support teachers who are newer to the content.
Like other members of the collective, Brabham has concerns about the way the course is currently being rolled out. She notes that student and teacher voices are being “steamrolled over” while other people come in and mandate what the course should look like. She hopes that in the future, there will be more space for teacher creativity and student voice in shaping the curriculum, rather than the state prepackaging and sending over the content.
Even so, Brabham remains optimistic.
“I really think that this course has the possibility to innovate not only how we see African American and Latinx history but how we incorporate Indigenous histories, Asian history, how we incorporate queer histories,” Brabham said. “How do we reimagine the U.S. history classroom? I think that we are in need of that type of learning. I’m really excited to do that.”