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At one high school, Black History Month looks to the present


At East Brooklyn Community High School, as at many city schools, Black History Month brought an assembly to celebrate the many achievements of black Americans.

But the small transfer high school in Brownsville also took a less traditional approach to the month. It convened students to watch and discuss a documentary about the United States government’s war on drugs, which has landed millions of black Americans in prison.

“A lot of schools are afraid to do something political for Black History Month,” said science teacher Amy Fitch. “This is a political film, but I think our students can handle it. Politics are part of life, and our students are affected by politics all the time.”

The film, “The House I Live In,” looks at the drug war from the perspective of inmates, law enforcement officers, journalists, professors, and members of local communities, with particular emphasis on the drug war’s disproportionate effect on black Americans. It won the Grand Jury documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival last month.

Several East Brooklyn Community High students saw the film last semester as part of their “Talking About Race” elective course and worked with their teacher, Deborah Schaeffer, to organize a screening for the whole school. It was the first time the three-year-old school had set aside an afternoon for all 200 students to see and discuss a film together.

“When I first saw the film, it showed me things I didn’t know,” said Mike Muir, one of Schaeffer’s students. “There are scenes that are going to get attention. Kids are going to take something away from it.”

Fifteen minutes after the school day ended last Monday, several students and teachers remained deep in conversation about what they had seen — and whether it was worth seeing in school.

One senior said she was not sure there was a point in showing the film. “It’s just the fact that — what is this going to change?” Ranitta said. “You keep showing what we’re doing wrong, showing us what black people did. It’s Black History Month. I want to hear the good that we did.”

But her view appeared to be in the minority. “There are real issues that need to be talked about,” Muir countered.

“You’re always talking about how [school] is not relevant to my life. This … relates to our lives,” said Jenna, also a senior.

“I want to hear something that connects to my life” when Black History Month rolls around, she added. “This does, even if you’ve never done drugs, even if you’ve never been locked up. This is why the police are in my hood, why my hood looks the way it does, why we don’t have healthy food.”

“Instead of sending us to jail, they should give us rehab so we can do something,” said another student, Isaiah, reflecting on a law enforcement official in the film who said that when funding gets tight, rehabilitation programs are always the first to go.

“We’re not saying drugs are right,” Jenna said. “But if you’re not helping us to rehabilitate ourselves, you’re not teaching us to live in society. … That’s not changing anything, that’s not forcing anything to change.

English teacher Tessa Corcoran-Sayers said the discussion in her group centered on a statistic cited in the film: Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to end up in jail themselves.

“Students who have family members in jail wanted to talk about what that meant and who was saying it,” Corcoran-Sayers said. They were wondering, she said, “If my dad’s incarcerated, what does that mean for me?”

The real measure of the activity’s success, Muir said, is whether the conversations “get out of this school.”

“Who’s going to go home and give it to someone else, tell their mom what they learned, go over and tell their friends what they learned?” he wondered aloud.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”