I recently visited the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, MA, an important site on enslavement in the north during the Revolutionary War period. In addition to the well-done tour, I was impress with the evolution of the site from one focused on the family and house to one emphasizing the role and significance of the enslaved who made it all possible. You can read about that in this article. As is true for so many families and institutions in the north and overseas, wealth was gained through Caribbean sugar plantations. Slowly this complicity is becoming more known — institutions are grappling with how to deal with the fact that they exist because of enslavement. I highly recommend exploring their website as it is rich with resources such as documentation of those enslaved by the Royalls, the important story of Belinda Sutton and her petitions, and Parallel Lives, Common Landscape: Artifacts from the Royall House & Slave Quarters. I plan to use this alongside the Whitney Plantation in my teaching of enslavement this coming year.
I’ve written about the teaching of slavery before and will again. It is a topic I feel is urgently important for us to grapple with in the classroom. A couple of years ago I wrote the blog post, “In the Classroom: Teaching About Slavery” in which I described my unit with my fourth graders on this challenging yet critical topic. Since then I’ve learned more and adjusted my teaching accordingly, especially after spending a week this past summer at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Here are links to a couple of posts about that experience:
Now I’m preparing to teach my unit on forced migration from Africa and using what I learned at the museum and more to set it up anew. In particular, I’m doing a large presentation on the Atlantic World, giving a greater sense of the African Kingdoms and agency prior to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. And then giving a greater context for it, reaching beyond the United States.
And so how amazing to find the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance new project, Teaching the Hard History of American Slavery working off a thorough study on what is done now as well as what we can do in the future. Here are some excellent links related to this:
I highly recommend taking the time to read all of these, especially if you are teaching.
Regular readers of this blog will know of my appreciation for the work of Philip Pullman. Most recently I raved about his latest, the first volume of The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage. After reading and listening to this I went back to the full-cast audio production of His Dark Materials and was happy to find that it was as good as ever. But there are others he is written outside Lyra’s world, among them the charming middle grade fairy tale, I Was a Rat!. Here’s the publisher’s description:
“I Was a Rat!” So insists a scruffy boy named Roger. Maybe it’s true. But what is he now? A terrifying monster running wild in the sewers? The Daily Scourge is sure of it. A victim of “Rodent Delusion”? The hospital nurse says yes. A lucrative fairground freak? He is to Mr. Tapscrew. A champion wriggler and a budding thief? That’s what Billy thinks. Or just an ordinary small boy, though a little ratty in his habits? Only three people believe this version of the story. And it may take a royal intervention—and a bit of magic—to convince the rest of the world.
Set against the backdrop of a Royal Wedding—and a playful parody of the press, I Was a Rat! is a magical weaving of humor, fairy tale, and adventure.
Over the years, as part of my 4th graders’ study of Cinderella, I’ve read the book aloud and, most recently, showed the movie. This year, after another teacher told me that her students had been captivated by the book I decided to read it aloud after not having done so in years. I quickly discovered that our current obsession with “fake news” made the book’s thread about sensationalism in the media highly relevant. My students took quickly to sweet little Roger, his love for patients (need to read the book to understand this), and the fairy tale connections as well. The story is lively, adventurous, suspenseful, and great fun to read. I highly recommend checking it out.
I frequently see tweets, links, and more to articles or videos celebrating methods to make something easier. In the “100 Life Hacks That Make Life Easier” you can learn how to waterproof your shoes, use newspaper to absorb fruit juices and more. So I figured I’d offer three that I’ve found helpful in my 4th grade classroom. Love to learn of more in the comments!
- Lamps. I find low lighting in my classroom soothing, calming, and a great help to keep my students focused during work periods. Unfortunately, I have no way to dim the glaring overhead lights. And so, a few years back, I found these little portable lamps for kids to use (turning off the overhead ones). The price has gone down and so I’ve now managed to get enough to have for every child. They need batteries, but over three years I’ve not needed to replace them yet. I wish I could show them in my classroom, but can’t (due to privacy requirements).
- Tiny notebooks for our BoB (Book of Books) periods. This is a weekly time when my students read (using those lamps), fill out their BoBs with what they’ve read in the past week, and confer with me. I started this a few years ago when I decided to drop kids having to log their nightly reading. (See this post for more information.) I found some blank ones here so kids could decorate covers as they wished.
- “Offices.” I am not a fan of cardboard cubbies like the one below as I like to see my students at work. So instead I give them “offices,” These are spots they move their desks to so they are all away from each other, not facing one another (usually their desks are in groups of six), and able to focus on their writing. My room is small and in order to have a rug I have to put those groups of desks fairly close together around it. It isn’t practical to have them permanently in offices — messy, hard to get around, and I want them to work in groups too! — but it is great to use when needed. I’ve a post about this here.
Many of us good white teachers have been in the profession for a long, long time. We’ve stayed in it because we love teaching and feel we are good at it. Our identities are wrapped tightly up in this. And now we are having to rethink who we are professionally as we navigate difficult and necessary conversations and situations in our classrooms involving race. While we veteran white teachers may have successfully resolved conflicts, dealt with festering situations of non-race-based social aggression, and led sound social emotional learning activities with our classes, these experiences may very well not be models for us as we engage in work with our classes on race.
While I have been teaching about Sierra Leone, about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, about Civil Rights, and more for a very long time I have not done nearly enough of direct and frank work with my 4th graders and race. But I have to and I will even though it feels challenging and –hardest of all — one that I’m not going to do well. Something I will probably fail at and have to try to do better the next time. And that last is probably the toughest of all for me, a teacher in her fourth decade as a classroom teacher. To fail in this sort of thing is difficult and disturbing. And I say this because I suspect that is the case for many of my older white teacher colleagues. We are so proud of our work as teachers, our reputations as smart and caring, and we are doing the work to be better when considering race. But in our own classrooms? Changing what we do there is probably way harder.
We tell our students that taking risks is good. That they need to be ready to fail and try again. But are we veteran good white teachers doing that when it comes to race conversations? We need to be prepared for that. We are not experienced in this at all, at all. We are no better and probably worse than those just entering the profession. We need to do all the learning we can, we need to take advantage of POCs around us who are interested in helping us, do a whole lot of listening, read, go to workshops and the like, and we need to try, understand where things went poorly, and try again.
We veteran white teachers still dominate our country’s classrooms even though the children in them are more and more POCs. Considering how to acknowledge this and have necessary conversations from kindergarten to twelfth grade is something we must do. But we also have to be aware of ourselves and that we need to not assume we know how to do this as well as we do so much else.
Avoidance is not an option. Failing and picking yourself up, thinking about what went wrong, doing more listening and learning, and trying again is.
Whew — coming back to school after being away on sabbatical is exhausting! I did expect it to be given the more leisurely lifestyle I had so it wasn’t a surprise, but still…. I hope I can keep my resolution to continue my writing even as the school takes over more and more every bit of my thinking.
The good news is that getting my room in order (and I am so so grateful to our building staff who helped me unpack and shelve my many books), reconnecting with colleagues, and learning about my new students has me excited for tomorrow, our first day.
As always, I’ve put a lot of thought into the first books I will read. There are the ice-breaker picture books I read right away to get the kids to relax and chuckle. They will be the same as last year: Adam Rex and Christian Robinson’s School’s First Day of School, Jared Chapman’s Steve, Raised by Wolves, and Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School.
And then there is the first read-aloud for the year. I’ve decided it will be Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth. I’m a huge fan of this author (who needs to be more embraced in the US) and have been reading his Cosmic aloud yearly for a long time. This new one is a total charmer (here’s a Q & A I did with Frank about it) and I can’t wait to begin.
Last week I visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was incredible and overwhelming and I have been yearning ever since for a way to return as I feel I barely skimmed the surface of what was there. Then, perusing the website, I came across a page featuring Professional Learning Events, one a week-long workshop titled “Let’s Talk: Teaching Race in the Classroom.” It is being held July 10-14 and I registered immediately. While I have done other workshops on equity and race I feel my learning and work on it is never enough so this can only help me to do this work with my colleagues and students. And since, at my school, we are continually grappling with the best way to teach the Transatlantic Slave Trade with our 4th graders I’m also hoping to learn how to do that better.
Here’s the description:
Race is an aspect of our American culture that is often ignored, glossed over or mishandled. Additionally, to succeed in promoting equity, tolerance, and justice, childhood is the time to address these issues by understanding children’s development and encouraging positive feelings about their racial and cultural identity, as well as others’. Working with youth makes it incumbent that educators are prepared to address issues of race whenever they surface such as in history or social studies lessons or when current events brings them forward such as events in our recent history.
Through presentations from researchers in the field, small group discussions, and reflective exercises participants will engage in conversations about race/racism, explore ways to address issues and topics that will meet students where they are in their racial development, and practice techniques for creating safe space for difficult discussions.
- learn and practice strategies for building a personal connections within their classroom
- be introduced to and deepen their knowledge of racial identity development
- reflect on their personal racial views, experiences, and implicit bias
- practice facilitating interactions/discussions around racial issues by performing role-play situations
- identify implicit bias and recognize how it affects teaching in the classroom
- learn strategies for resilience and self-care
Due to the nature of the workshop material, the layering of activities and the sensitive nature of conversations that may develop, we require participants to commit to attending the whole week.