Teachers and students embrace Black Lives Matter Week in city schools

Organizers said people in 100 schools participated. Students said the activities were affirming. The District barred coverage of in-school events.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Issues of social justice were pervasive in Philadelphia this week – in the classroom as well as on the streets.

As thousands of people protested President Trump and the Republicans from Congress while they were at a retreat at Center City’s Loews Hotel, many of Philadelphia’s teachers and students were taking part in Black Lives Matter Week.

The week was organized by the Caucus of Working Educators’ Racial Justice Committee. The caucus, a group of about 300 members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, spent weeks developing classroom resources and activities for various ages.

It received significant media attention, despite the District’s decision to limit coverage.

Among the activities have been afterschool and weekend events, such as film screenings and panel discussions, all meant to spark conversations about the 13 guiding principles of the group Black Lives Matter. The principles include embracing diversity, practicing empathy, affirmation of queer and transgender students, and how to live unapologetically Black, among others. The point was to encourage conversations among teachers, parents, and students about issues of race in their schools and communities.

The decision to use the materials in classrooms was up to individual teachers and principals, and organizers estimated that one or more teachers from about 100 schools did something to participate, based on requests for materials and other feedback.

Several teachers from the WE caucus reported that the themes and activities had been well-received by students, staff, and parents in many city neighborhoods.

“We had several faculty talk about [using] the curriculum, and we had a lot of faculty attendance at our student-run events,” said Catherine Khella, a biology teacher at Franklin Learning Center in Fairmount. “So overall, I would say our faculty has been really engaged and very supportive of our students.” She described activities in her school as “student-led and student-run.”

The campaign for a “week of action” was inspired by an event in Seattle in October, where teachers across the city wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts to show support for students of color. Although the week’s events were not organized by the group Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania, that organization did eventually endorse the initiative.

For many students, the commitment from their teachers and schools to embrace the week’s events has been affirming.

“It means a lot to me because this is something we should be talking about. I don’t think it should be ignored,” said Jamoni Quarterman, 16, a junior at Franklin Learning Center.

Quarterman said that although she and her peers often talk about issues of social justice and Black Lives Matter, the topics are rarely discussed in her classroom. She hopes that this week will help change that.

Quarterman helped lead a lunchtime discussion group on Monday about self-love and being “unapologetically Black,” one of the guiding principles of Black Lives Matter. For the weeks leading up to the event, students surveyed different classes about self-image and used the results to plan conversations that spoke to issues most important to their peers. Topics included embracing one’s natural hair and colorism, or discrimination within racial groups based on skin color. They also talked about how individuals cope with multiple identities, such as being both Black and female – also known as intersectionality.

For many other schools, the focus on Black Lives Matter is consistent with a growing trend of using social justice issues to help teach and engage students with not only the curriculum, but also with their communities.

Joe Alberti, a 5th-grade teacher at Science Leadership Academy Middle School in West Philadelphia, said that the themes from the elementary lessons fit well into the school’s model of project-based learning.

“We have been looking at all of the different principles each day and have really been thinking about those,” he said, “looking at them in literature, thinking about what they mean for us and our school and our community, and then doing some sort of art project that is related to it that we can share with our whole school community.”

Many other schools have also been using an interdisciplinary model to discuss and engage students on social justice issues, such as the Workshop School’s symposium on mass incarceration, which took place last week. Students in small groups were given a topic related to mass incarceration and used different skills to study their topics.

Unlike past events related to social justice, the District did not allow media access to the Black Lives Matter Week events in schools, a stance that disappointed and frustrated some teachers and students.

Charlie McGeehan, an organizer of the events and a teacher at the U School, was one of them.

“The fact is that we are bringing up these conversations in our schools and in our classrooms and that media is interested in coming and hearing what students have to say and broadcasting the perspectives of Philadelphia students on these real-world and critical issues of our time,” he said.

The restriction on media coverage is “absolutely horrible” and “effectively silencing” the students, he said.

“Society too often silences Philadelphia public school students, so to now have the District [do it] is really disappointing,” he said.

Earlier in the week, the District’s Communications Office released a statement saying that Black Lives Matter Week is not sponsored by the District or part of the curriculum.

However, the statement added, “the District encourages teachers to responsibly engage students around pertinent issues to develop critical thinking skills and a respect for the exchange of ideas. The District regularly encourages schools to look to current event topics for appropriate teaching content that is also aligned with grade-appropriate standards.”

When asked why this week’s events were closed to media when past events related to social justice were not, District spokesman Lee Whack reiterated that “the difference is that these are not District-sponsored events, but these are important issues that teachers are free to talk about with their students.”

McGeehan said that he had heard that the District was closing the school-based events to the media because some principals were uncomfortable with media attention given the controversy about the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement started after police shootings of Black men in several cities, and it has taken some strong positions that some regard as anti-police.

“I disagree wholeheartedly with the assertion that this is coming from principals,” McGeehan said.

He and other teachers interviewed emphasized that all of the lessons and events organized by teachers had been pre-approved by their principals.

“When I want to do something in my classroom or I host an event or bring someone in or teach a particular thing, my principal is the person who I have to speak to on that.”

Alberti said the SLAMS principal, Timothy Boyle, emailed the Communications Office at the District to ensure approval for media to come into the school and was denied.

Boyle did not respond to request for comment.

Khella said she contacted the Communications Office to report media interest in writing about the events in her school and get clearance. Instead, she was told that coverage was not being permitted.

“The District is really missing an opportunity to highlight their amazing students,” Khella said. “These kids have been super-engaged in their communities, with each other, with the curriculum because it is a topic that is really important to them and their lives. … I think it is damaging to the District’s reputation because we really need every bit of good press we can get.”

Sarafina Harris, a senior at Kensington CAPA, said that she felt like her voice was being taken away from her.

“It reinforces my desire to do something about it and shows why I do need to reinforce my rights," she said. "This shows it, plain and simple. They are not giving us a bigger platform that we deserve for a reason.”

Harris is participating in the final panel discussion on Saturday, where groups of students, teachers, and community members will talk about what’s next. The panel will include Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins.

But regardless of media attention, most students and teachers interviewed said the week was not only productive but encouraging.

“It has really been amazing and has been received so much better than I could have imagined,” said Alberti of student responses to the activities. Although he incorporated the themes into age-appropriate lessons for his students, he worried that they might be too young to really engage with some of the larger issues, such as affirmation of their identity.

“I was a little bit nervous,” said Alberti, “For 10-year-olds to grapple with some of these ideas that can be heavy and hard to think about … it has really been remarkable.”

Older students also confronted difficult questions that mirror national conversations regarding racial justice since the establishment of the Black Lives Matter movement and the election of Trump.

On Thursday, the WE caucus screened 13th, the Academy Award-nominated documentary about the legacy of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, except as “punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The film, directed by Ava DuVernay of Selma, traces to that clause racial justice issues such as mass incarceration and the disproportionate number of Black men in U.S. prisons.

Khella said that her students at FLC had been interested in these topics for awhile. For instance, they have been talking about how to reinstate a Black Student Union at the school.

“The genesis of this citywide event has been really important for our students, and they picked it up right away and ran with it.”

Quarterman said that during the discussion at FLC, some students asked questions about why the week wasn’t called “All Lives Matter” instead of “Black Lives Matter,” a question that reflects a debate in communities all over the nation.

“I think questions like that were handled really well,” said Quarterman. “We said that all lives do matter and Black Lives Matter is not to put other lives down. It is just to highlight lives that haven’t mattered for a long time and shed light on our situation so that people can actually see what living a Black life means and how they should be considered equal.”

McGeehan of the U School said that the students’ enthusiasm had reinforced the idea that these topics need to be regularly discussed both inside and outside the classroom.

“These conversations are so important for our students and our city,” he said. “Our students in Philadelphia experience an incredible amount of injustice in their school system. I think the biggest takeaway has been an interesting one: that we need to be having more of these conversations and get more of our students engaged in this discussion.”