I don’t just speak about it I be about it: A lesson in Dying and Giving Life

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Pedagogy has been about stockpiling our resources within our classes and has centered on the teacher for so long that we are now grappling with what teaching looks like in the midst of a revolution that is no longer grounded in White Supremacy.  Social Justice grants are making their way into schools all over Brooklyn and The Bronx. Schools are charged with “figuring out” how the heck to cut suspension rates in half for Black and Latino boys citywide and principals have to contract out PDs aimed at dismantling racism in education.

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This year I’ve dedicated my practice and pedagogy to answering this question: How does culturally relevant pedagogy affect student engagement and outcomes?

I’m proposing that this kind of inquiry be centered around not just outcomes, like HS diplomas and college, but in something more fundamental that has the potential to reverse the generational harm done to the Diaspora.  

Ever seen students attempt a task and think, YES! They are engaged in the task.  


This is compliance, the anti-engagement indicator. Compliance is the lowest form of any indicator of cognition which is not likely to be remembered or internalized.  

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What I’m looking for in my practice is metacognition, which is visible and measurable to the teacher when students do the following:  
Offer suggestions about activities
Express a viable and relevant preference
Ask questions about what is being learned

I’ve been using this as my own rubric for student engagement and success.

Let’s engage the greatness of our children.

I got this unit about two weeks before it was about to be unleashed and when I saw it…Da Fuq?  I fell asleep reading it.  And then I got mad.  I immediately thought back to a post by Edunlevy that asks why wypipo join Black and Brown conversations.  Did the teachers that designed this want to teach this because they wanted to occupy or control the conversation about a Black man’s inability to get a fair trial?  I still have no idea, but what I did know was that I was not about to teach Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying through the lens of whyteeshers.

I redeveloped this unit asking myself these questions:

  • What aspects of this story do I want these kids to connect to and why?
  • What lessons can they learn that will directly affect them outside of this classroom?
  • How can they go on the journey in a way that is not contrived?

My answers came back to these points:

They need to know White Supremacy doesn’t want you to know how smart and capable you are because then it means the power shifts to you.

My Black and Brown Kings and Queens need to know that language is at the base of all power dynamics and if they don’t learn how to wield it, they will be at the mercy of it.  

White Supremacy manifests in schools and they must combat it with the same tools used on them.

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I almost want this blog to be about going from being complicit to a lazy pedagogy to developing an anti racist pedagogy.

The White Supremacist curriculum wants me to ask Black and Brown students the following:

  • “I can identify the central idea and list three relevant supporting details in chapter 4 of A Lesson Before Dying.”
  • “I can read the text and provide an objective summary for each chapter.”


My students can do better than a self-answering question.  I have scored the Regents.  As long as they say theme, one literary device that doesn’t even have to match the theme, a bunch of transitions, and two pages of run-on sentences, they get to graduate high school.

Not on my watch!

This novel is riddled with subtle communication cues like White men repeating themselves until the Black man remembers that he must lower his eyes and never square off in front of him. They need to know about this power dynamic and how it shows up in their own lives.  Ok, time to pull out my leadership textbooks, communication handouts, and psychology notes.  

They are about to get some learnin!

The Anti Racist, teaching-them-how-to-advocate-and-make-the-system-work-for-them pedagogue in me pushed me to learning targets like this:

  • “I can critique conclusions White characters have drawn about the Black characters in A Lesson Before Dying using Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.”
  • “I can create a model that shows how language and communication styles affect power dynamics between Black and White characters in A Lesson Before Dying.”

Under the White supremacy ed, half of the students (including the two White students in the class) sat silently attempting the task,  and the rest of them are sleeping and doing what bored teens do.  

No one got over a 75… except the White students.

The Anti Racist, I’m about that life pedagogy, resulted in everyone not only doing the task, but also talking, drawing, cutting, trying to build ladders out of pencils, and asking if they could go on their phones to look up statistics.

Because I believe in what I’m doing, I invited two other teachers to administer the formative assessments with me, and they too recorded that more than 75% of students mastered the learning target.

I needed to be able to cut out the bullshit cheating that happens under wyteesher tests, so I created personalized questions in one-to-one conferences.  Before you say that it’s not fair, for the nervous student, I added an option to follow up with a written response.

Some of the questions asked were:

  • What is intelligence and how do you know who is smart?
  • How are power dynamics controlled by language?
  • What facts would you use to determine intelligence and how might people use that to control you?
  • Compare the use of the different communication styles to the goals of the people using them.
  • What are the pitfalls of having several ways to measure intelligence?
  • How do people communicate to get what they want?

I set the timer for 90 seconds and did not interrupt them.  

They all passed.  

My results show me that when I make teaching about centering students in what it means to have power and control; and give them the tools to assess the world around them for what it is, they are metacognitively engaged and it correlates to gains in student outcomes.

To all the children that were told they would never amount to nuthin’…  We’re on our way.

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