Talking it through

Four Memphis teachers share advice for talking with kids about race and equity

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

New tensions across the nation over race and equity provided a platform Thursday for educators in Memphis to share advice about integrating those conversations into the classroom.

At a back-to-school training for charter teachers with Aspire Public Schools, four teachers talked about the challenges and opportunities during a gathering at Aspire’s Hanley elementary school campus. The campus is in Orange Mound, a historic black community that became one of the South’s first neighborhoods where African-Americans could own homes and businesses.

In Memphis, where about 70 percent of residents identify as people of color and 27 percent live in poverty, conversations about race and equity are essential to educating students, said Aspire Superintendent Allison Leslie, who oversees four Memphis schools.

“I think it’s critical because we’re serving underserved students,” she said. “There’s a lot of implicit bias in all of us, and it’s important for us to recognize that and constantly question our practices, decisions that we make, to make sure that we’re not perpetuating systems of oppression.”

Here are highlights from the panel discussion, held within weeks after a large Memphis protest over the recent shootings of black suspects by white police officers in other cities.

Morgan Jueschke, 1st grade, Coleman Elementary School

“I reflected on how you teach 6- and 7-year-olds what’s happening without ruining that innocence or ruining things for them or creating something negative. It begins with a culturally conscious classroom. It begins with reflecting on my privileges and my biases and how they impact interactions with students either intentionally or unintentionally to reflect on that. And giving students a place where they feel safe and where they feel heard, and if they come to school with questions, seeing that they feel comfortable asking or talking about and listening to them. … I obviously want an environment where they know that they matter, that they’re beautiful. There’s narratives that are written for them that they have the power to change for themselves.”

Kate Waldron, 2nd Grade, Hanley Elementary School #2

“I think one of my fears is that being white, you know they’re hearing a lot of things about white people, and their parents may have told them things. … I know that some of my kids, if they don’t know me, they may have some kind of reservations just because of my color. I’m not going to pretend that that’s not something that’s on my mind, but my goal is to create a safe environment and an environment where my kids feel like they can talk about anything.

I know it’s going to take time. … We have to step out of our comfort zone to let our kids step out of theirs, and I think that’s so true. Sometimes talking about racism and color is uncomfortable, but we have to make sure that the kids feel safe when they come to school to talk about those things.”

Ayo Akinmoladun, 4th grade, Hanley Elementary School #1

“There were a couple of things that I did last year in my classroom. There was this one lesson where I took a school from (the affluent Memphis suburb of) Germantown and I compared it to (Hanley), and we just kind of broke it down on this chart, and I said, ‘What, in terms of household, how do you think households are constructed?’ My kids were saying that most families in Orange Mound have one parent and households in Germantown have two.

Aspire's Hanley Elementary is located in Orange Mound, a historic black community in Memphis.
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Aspire’s Hanley Elementary is located in Orange Mound, a historic black community in Memphis.

I said, ‘What about income? What do you guys think? Do Orange Mound parents make more or do families in Germantown make more?’ Germantown. And so we just continued to break it down, break it down, break it down. And then I asked them, ‘What does this chart tell you?’ And my students came to the conclusion that students in Germantown were more likely to go to college than students in Orange Mound. So we had a discussion about that.

We brought in a student from Melrose High School who got a 36 on the ACT and was going to Stanford. You know, getting these kids to see successful people in their community, going places. It’s as simple as bringing in police officers and having kids ask questions. The uncomfortable needs to become comfortable. And once we get to that spot, I believe they’re going to share with you what scares them the most.”

Tamera Malone, 6th grade teacher, Hanley Middle School

“So this summer with everything that happened, yes I marched, yes I went to rallies, yes I went to community meetings, yes I stood up and I fought for people who are disadvantaged on a daily basis. I think as educators we have to educate ourselves, we have to be informed, we have to go out and we have to fight for the kids that we serve, because if not, they’re going to continue to be disadvantaged and oppressed every single day. And I don’t just mean people of color, I mean everybody. We all have a social responsibility to stand up against human injustices. Because if we don’t, we’re not going to change the outcome for kids.”

family affair

How are Success Academy families responding to the network’s leadership drama?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Wynter Johnson and Serenity Ally, two third-grade students at Success Academy Harlem 2

The past two weeks have been more than a little rocky for Success Academy.

Board chairman Daniel Loeb is in hot water over a racial comment he made on Facebook, a controversy amplified by last weekend’s events in Charlottesville. At a protest Monday, other political leaders rallied around his target, state Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. The state’s top two education officials called out Loeb this week, as did former schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

And Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who had previously said she was amenable to working with President Donald Trump, apologized in the wake of his actions this week for not being “more outspoken” about her disagreements with him.

So, how are the families of Success Academy reacting to all the news? The question is particularly poignant since about 93 percent of Success Academy students are children of color.

In Harlem on Thursday afternoon, students’ parents and family members said their reaction boiled down to one thing: Does this affect my child?

Jasmine Holst, for instance, who has a daughter in third grade at the Success Academy Hell’s Kitchen, said she doesn’t always agree with Moskowitz, but that does not change the way she feels about her daughter’s school.

“I’m not going to let her personal opinions affect my daughter’s education at the end of the day,” Holst said.

Others were quick to point out their own positive experiences with Success Academy staff. I haven’t “seen any racism from the teachers” at Success Academy Harlem 1, said Coco Rhymes, who has a daughter in third grade there.

Though she said Loeb should apologize for his comments, she also said she would not consider sending her child back to a traditional public school.

“She’s been to public schools and woo, that was really bad,” Rhymes said.

Many of the parents and family members Chalkbeat interviewed had not heard about the comment made by Loeb — who said that Stewart-Cousins, an African American, had done “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood.”

“Fortunately, this hasn’t spewed into the school setting,” said Jasmine Alhyani, who has a daughter at Success Academy Harlem 1 and another at Success Academy Harlem West. “I hope it stays at the top.”

When she did hear, Alhyani said Loeb should send a personal apology to parents and students at the school. (Loeb has since deleted the post and publicly apologized.)

Others thought an apology wasn’t quite enough. While at the playground, watching her third-grade cousins who attend Success Academy Harlem 2, Danielle Lucas said Loeb should be forced to leave the board.

“We don’t want our kids to grow up thinking we’re in the old days,” Lucas said. “I think he should be on suspension until they find a better qualified person to run it. Action needs to be taken.”

Parents also bristled — to varying degrees — over Moskowitz’s previous relationship with the Trump administration. Tina Thompson, who has a daughter at Success Academy Harlem 1, said she was at her daughter’s school the day Ivanka Trump came for a tour.

Thompson said unless Ivanka Trump plans to assist the school, she should not have visited.

“It is inappropriate, unless she helps,” Thompson said.

She hadn’t read Moskowitz’s letter about Trump in its entirety, but agreed with the sentiment. “She should have been distancing herself since the beginning,” she said.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.