Brian Gallagher is a second year teacher. Brian teaches 8th grade English at McDaniel Elementary in South Philadelphia. He is also on the Building Committee.
When I was invited to write this blog post, I hesitated to accept. I realize the irony of a cisgender, heterosexual, white man talking about Black Lives Matter. This is also just my second year teaching, so I really don’t feel confident in anything I do in the classroom. But, this blog, this week, and this work are not about me. I am not a savior. I am just one person trying to play my part. Having said that…
If you have experienced public education in this city, or pay attention at all, you know that far too often, education is not what it should be. Education SHOULD NOT be about working alone in order to fill one correct bubble on a standardized test.
Education SHOULD be about teaching young people the skills and strategies to look at their world through a critical lens. It SHOULD be about affirming their identities while building self-esteem and social skills. It SHOULD be about learning to work collaboratively and creatively to solve problems without predetermined answers. It SHOULD be about helping them to develop the tools to be engaged citizens and agents of change.
The Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action is a perfect example of what education SHOULD be. It is about allowing our students, who are predominantly people of color, to see themselves as strong and capable, despite inequitable treatment at every level of our society.
My school and I had never participated in the BLM Week, so planning was a bit challenging. I helped plan for the whole school, as well as particular lessons within my own classroom.
First, we offered t-shirts and hoodies to everyone in our building. This included students and teachers, as well as our counselor, nurse, para-professionals, climate, maintenance, and food service staff. We all wore our shirts on Wednesday of the week, as part of the National Day of Solidarity. We made it a whole-school dress down day, so that those students who could not afford a shirt could still be included, by wearing all black.
Next, I did my best to share any and all information about the week with my staff. I emailed links to the week’s calendar, curriculum resource folder, and coloring book. I printed out copies of the coloring book and calendar for each classroom teacher. We even invited one of the lead organizers of the week, Tamara Anderson, to the school for an information session.
In planning for my own classroom, I tried to give students some autonomy. Two weeks before BLM Week began, we had a discussion about the 13 Guiding Principles of Black Lives Matter. Students used ranked-choice voting to choose which principles they would most like me to focus their lessons around. The top two were “Black Women” and “Transgender Affirming,” respectively.
We learned about the life of Maya Angelou, and how she overcame great obstacles that helped shape her life’s work. We learned about the Stonewall Riots, and the often ignored role of Marsha P. Washington. We focused on whitewashing and intersectionality, while drawing parallels to many of the struggles of today.
Our lessons culminated in a research poster about any Black femme and/or Trans activist they chose. The focus was on researching information, but also included reflection questions and probed them to find ways to continue the fight of their subject. For my students to recognize that many of these fights are still ongoing, and that they can play a role in that fight, was inspiring. To see them celebrate their own resiliency, and that of those who look like them, was powerful.
Lastly, we invited members of Temple University’s Black Student Union to speak with our seventh and eighth graders. Amoyah Gilliam and Kayla Williams spoke about what it’s like to be Black women in fields dominated by white men (biomechanical engineering and sports management, respectively), the importance of community, and being part of BSU. They also spoke to the general power of education, what it’s like to attend a predominantly white institution, living away from home, and meeting new people. This talk was powerful because it gave our students an opportunity to see people who look like them in positions of power – and representation matters!
A PFT representative told me that they could not endorse the week, and that it was okay because they, “live Black Lives Matter everyday.” Sure, that’s great and all, but how do our students know? How do they know that THEIR lives matter?
Again, as a white man, this week was not about me. It was about my students. It was about teaching them about things that are intentionally left out in school. It was about them seeing themselves as beautiful and valuable. It was letting them know that their lives matter, and allowing them to explore and discuss all the ways in which it does. It was about helping them develop their voice. Because Black Lives Matter at School, this week, and every week.