An Ever State of Rage: Being Woke & Teaching to Be It

“There is a reason that no one wants our children educated. When we attempt to do it ourselves, we find ourselves up against a vast machinery of racism which infects the country’s entire system of education.” James Baldwin – “On Language, Race and the Black Writer”

Is the school year over yet? No – not at all.

Screen Shot 2017-12-15 at 6.36.28 AMIt is just three months into the year and I’m currently grappling with increasing my own wokeness while doing the same for my students. The Woke Cypha unit I developed includes a series of topics to help students increase their awareness of societal issues, specifically those that affect youth of color.

Executing this unit hasn’t been easy.

I am in no way an expert on liberation.

The process of “being woke” or developing a consciousness that daily identifies with our ancestral struggle and the effects of modern day racism… is a growing pain of mine.

However, over the past few years that I’ve spent as an educator, I’ve learned that if I am to be a liberator, I must inform Black & Brown students of what the “real world” entails. This means that while teaching U.S. History, I must also teach “A People’s History” and incorporate the stories of people who have gone nameless, forgotten or ignored, due to their viewpoints. Despite seeing the relevancy in this, there is no way to predict what the students are ready for or how they will respond.

Despite uncertainty, in the past six weeks, we’ve covered the following topics:

“What Does it Mean to be Woke?”

Love & Hip Hop – The Creep Squad & Representation of Women of Color

The Bloody Massacre & Dominicans Who “Aren’t” Black

Colorism & Internalized Racism – Kodak Black & Hazel E

Malcolm X – Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?

What’s in the News? –

Using the N-Word: White Cheerleaders Video Rant, Chinese Museum’s Depiction of Africans as Animals, Tennessee University President Cotton Arrangements for BSU, Gentrification in Brooklyn

Media Representations for People of Color

#WhoAmI – Poem & Identity Circles

As we near the two month mark in the unit, we will be covering cultural appropriation, students will analyze their first song to the revolution in class using the topics from our initial lessons as a reference point. I have been excited to see students interpret some of the meanings within their favorite songs from artists like Migos, Lil Uzi, Cardi B and of course Kendrick, J.Cole and more.

However, as I and two other teachers have implemented this unit we’ve heard responses that force us to focus on further developing the unit. There are two key things: many of our Latinx students identify themselves based off Eurocentric and/or materialistic values that limited some conversation. They uphold lighter skin, question “what are thossseee” if they aren’t Jordans, disassociate themselves from Blackness as much as possible and isolate students of color in the classroom since they are the majority. As the unit began and we discussed colorism. Many Latinx students expressed that “the topics didn’t relate to them.”

For an entire week I struggled with these statements and ways to adjust the unit in order to ensure that I was addressing students who were approaching the lessons from all angles. I wanted to be sure I provided in-depth assignments for students who were diving right into the unit ready to discuss Jay Z’s 4:44, as well as those who fell silent or felt disconnected from the topics.

While doing this and experimenting with varying classroom structures to improve the discussion, one student’s statement last week in a fellow teacher’s class hit home, “Miss, why yall tryna make us angry? Ya’ll tryna make us hate white people?”

Now – as Malcolm X would say, “Before you come askin’ if I teach hate, ask yourself, who taught you to hate yourself?”

Screen Shot 2017-12-15 at 6.36.38 AM.pngI immediately felt the need to defend the purpose of the unit but upon reflection, I realized that although “hate” may have been misused, I as the curriculum developer was creating a unit that would spark their inner rage and as Baldwin puts it, “To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” The students were right. My “Bad & Boujee” unit is meant to ignite their rage. However, it is done so with intent. The purpose is to raise their awareness so that when they watch films, TV shows, apply to colleges, sit in college classrooms, overhear conversations and listen to music they have a filter. A critical lens through which they can further understand history,  media, the importance of them questioning it and developing an understanding of how they want to improve society.

However, the structures in place to secure White privilege and uphold its placement within society have made educating our own one of the most difficult things to accomplish. Because we as educators are attacking the root of the issue, knowledge of self and one’s TRUE history. A history that has been stripped away, hidden and ridiculed to be infested with the myth of our inferiority. At the age of 16 and 17 my students have been taught to love Whiteness. There’s a personal investment in assimilating and this units’ questioning of whiteness is forcing students to confront what they’ve been both directly and indirectly taught; White does not equal superior.

The unit itself, however, has gone fairly well. Despite students questioning the relevancy of some of the material or its purpose, they have dived deeply into discussions and questions that push my thinking and construction of the unit as a whole. One student expressed that the questions were too leading and the delivery of instruction should allow her to come to her own conclusions.

Checked. I heard her and understood the need for one’s “woke” process to be of discovery.  I’ve begun to adjust my questioning on the worksheets. The “I’m Not Racist” worksheet I developed allowed students to use music as text in the examination of the entire song. In groups their search for factual / stereotypical information within the song helped me obtain an idea of their ability to filter the video. More importantly, however, their annotations led to great classroom discussion.

It’s a process.

The lessons that have been the most successful are on internalized racism/colorism, #WhoAmI and “What’s in the News?” I’ve found that students were fascinated by the amount of news stories surrounding race and college campuses like the dinner with cotton center pieces or freedom of speech. Although some struggled with explaining their feelings towards issues, many were eager to share out their opinions.

Due to the demographic of my school being a higher percentage of Latinx than African American students, I believe the colorism conversation struck a chord for them and led to many revealing personal experiences. Last week, over two weeks since the lesson, I saw how it had a further reaching effect on the way the students communicate.

While students were supposed to be interacting with their U.S. History lesson, I heard from across the room “Wait what? What did you say?!” a student who takes my advisory course yelled for my attention, “Ayyy miss we got an issue over here,” I’m of course hoping he’s asking for assistance on the Andrew Jackson era lesson for his group but instead he follows up with, “Nahhhh miss she said dark-skinned and light skinned people don’t have the same personality. We needa uhhh have a talk on colorism today. She trippin’ we da same, we all Black.” This wasn’t the setting for that. The struggle to decolonize the classroom is too real. I couldn’t help but question, why my students couldn’t wait. Those Advance ratings get to me. This was U.S. History to them and they didn’t want to wait so it was my fault for missing the opportunity.  Out of a table of 6 students 4 of them had my advisory course and knew the moment this statement was made, they needed to call it out. One laughed, I asked her if that’s what I taught her and she said, “nah it was just a joke.” Two days later we switched seats, he didn’t sit next to her.

Screen Shot 2017-12-15 at 6.36.46 AM.pngTheir “Bad & Boujee” lesson day was days away but for some reason they couldn’t stop. After three minutes of a round table discussion on colorism, however, I had to stop them and allow time to refocus on the task.

Yet – as I reflected – colorism was the day’s task. They were discussing Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act. That opportunity to discuss colorism was missed and it caused me to think of how many moments to juxtapose my Bad and Boujee unit within their U.S. course are missed as I focus on creating new lessons for it. More importantly, their conversation, although a deviation from the lesson was key to the validity of the work we do in advisory and the work we need to do towards our liberation.

What I am realizing is that, attacking the root of our problems is not only time consuming but often times calls for one to seek out tools and resources which aren’t as readily available on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Over the past week I’ve been consumed with figuring out how to create upcoming lessons on cultural appropriation and media representation with student centered lessons and their feedback in mind.  

Right before the Thanksgiving break a previous student of mine that graduated came back to say hello. He’s a part of a cohort which was also predominately Latino and the first to be exposed to my then developing advisory curriculum in 2014-2015. Their units included 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens,  Code-Switching( now code-meshing), #ITooAmHarvard social media analysis and the college experience. Now he’s attending New Paltz and his story gave me the fuel I needed to continue this work.  

He walked up to me and said, “Yooooo miss everything you told us was true.” I of course was curious and asked what, he said, “about the racism we’d experience in college.”  He went on to tell me several micro-aggressions he’s experienced and how this year New Paltz had the highest amount of incoming Black / Latino students under the EOP program. He also didn’t hesitate to tell me that every one of his professors this semester was White and that his most recent experience resulted in him dropping a course:

“My professor was explaining molds and how to hold structures up. She said,“ for example, buying nails to help Trump build a wall.” He said, “Miss I asked her in front of everyone why she thought it was okay to say that or use it as an example?” “I came to class with my durag on everyday after that. I dropped the course though.”

This was his first semester of college and he was already turning up. I loved it.

But he dropped the course…I wasn’t loving that.

I’m left with Baldwin, “To be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”




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