How the Word Is Passed Online Class

Author and educator Clint Smith joined the Zinn Education Project on May 10, 2021 for a conversation about his new book, How the Word Is Passed, an examination of how monuments and landmarks represent — and misrepresent — the central role of slavery in U.S. history and its legacy today. Smith is a poet, staff writer at The Atlantic, and teaches writing and literature in the D.C. Central Detention Facility. Cierra Kaler-Jones interviewed Smith and led a conversation about slavery, memory, and how white supremacy distorts our environment.

This online history class is part of the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle campaign. The Zinn Education Project is developing lessons to bring How the Word Is Passed, an essential book, to the classroom.

Here are a few reactions from the participants:

We are teaching historical truth, not “incorporating Black history.”

It was very powerful and helpful to be reminded that we are teaching a more truthful version of history by talking about race, racism, and slavery.

The Freedom Bank story — amazing and so revealing of the way Black people (and other POC) are taken advantage, related to way we can easily feel we are the reason for our victimization… which then lessens our resistance to that victimization. Yes!

There is more to history that effected Black generational wealth besides redlining. Our state standards need to be updated to include requirements for teaching the history of racism in U.S.

There were a plethora of free Black communities in New Jersey since the time of the American Revolution. I teach and live in New Jersey and did not know this.

Find highlights of the session, a video recording of the class (except breakout room segment), recommended resources, and more participant feedback.

Highlights

Here are some main points of the session from the tweet thread by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, high school teacher and Zinn Education Project team member.

Video

Video of the full event, except the breakout sessions.

Additional Resources

Here are many of the resources recommended by the presenters and also by participants.

Lessons and Curricula

Tanehisi Coates CSPAN

How the Word Is Passed: Discussion Questions, Writing Prompts, and Teaching Ideas by Bill Bigelow

“Riots,” Racism, and the Police: Students Explore a Century of Police Conduct and Racial Violence by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

How Red Lines Built White Wealth: A Lesson on Housing Segregation in the 20th Century by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

Poetry of Defiance: How the Enslaved Resisted by Adam Sanchez

Repair: Students Design a Reparations Bill by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

Teaching for Black Lives edited by Dyan Watson, Jesse Hagopian, and Wayne Au

Related Books

Book cover of Clint Smith's book of poetry, Counting Descent

The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Mehrsa Baradaran

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

Counting Descent by Clint Smith

How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina Love

Related Articles

The Great Land Robbery” by Vann R. Newkirk II

Stories of Slavery, From Those Who Survived It” by Clint Smith

Talk to Teachers by James Baldwin

Telling the Truth About Slavery Is Not ‘Indoctrination’” by Clint Smith

Why Confederate Lies Live On” by Clint Smith

Films

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: Crash Course Black American History #1

Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters

Dr. Angela Davis on the importance of ethnic studies

Podcasts

Scene On Radio, especially seasons The Land That Never Has Been Yetand “Seeing White

On The Media: “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done

The Experiment: “The Lost Cause

Pod Save the People, which Clint Smith co-hosted for several years up until Summer 2020

This Day In History

13th Amendment Engraving | Zinn Education Project

June 19, 1865: “Juneteenth” Emancipation Day

Dec. 6, 1865: 13th Amendment Ratified

June 27, 2015: Bree Newsome Removes Confederate Flag

Participant Reflections

Here are some of the responses by participants from the session evaluation.

What was the most important thing (story, idea) you learned today?

Students can deal with multiple complicated ideas at one time.

What Clint Smith said about history not being “political and ideological,” but rather “holistic and honest.”

“Give students the full complexity of a person to wrestle with” and also the importance of teaching about Reconstruction (I NEED TO LEARN MORE ABOUT IT MYSELF!!!) and also all the extra resources shared in the chat.

To teach the history of “fill in the blank” (Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, housing policies that elevate white people’s wealth, etc.) is not an ideological endeavor. It’s a way to repair.

I really appreciated learning about the Freedmen’s Bank and the significance of using the active voice when discussing the legacy of Reconstruction.

There is more to history that effected Black generational wealth besides redlining. Our state standards need to be updated to include requirements for teaching the history of racism in U.S.

The most important thing I learned today is to always tell the true story to my students. I also learned that I need to take time to research beyond what is given to me.

It was very powerful and helpful to be reminded that we are teaching a more truthful version of history by talking about race, racism, and slavery.

Teaching the history of human enslavement as the road, not the bump in the road.

I think I’m just inspired to read more, to deep more deeply, to continue pushing myself as a learner to uncover the histories in my community and world.

That the children need to know that it’s the social system that is sick, not them!

The role of memory, and the tension between ideology and empirical evidence.

In the chat, someone mentioned there were a plethora of free Black communities in New Jersey since the time of the American Revolution. I teach and live in NJ and did not know this.

The discussion concerning how our physical landscape of memorials alters historical narratives.

The Freedom Bank story — amazing and so revealing of the way Black (and other POC) are taken advantage, related to way we can easily feel we are the reason for our victimization… which then lessens our resistance to that victimization. Yes!

Most of us educators are passing along a skewed history of the Black struggle, even to our Black children.

The loss of Black wealth from failure of Freedman’s Bank.

How to fill the gaps that we do not know we have. I have heard of the Freedman’s Bank, but did not know that it collapsed, losing half of the wealth of Blacks over night.

From Clint Smith, valuable stories that highlight the complexity not only of slavery, but also of the process folks are going through today as they are confronted with, and struggle with that truth about the United States of America. From my peers? Valuable resources I cannot wait to get my hands on and a recharge for my teaching batteries that have been drained this year like no other year before. From Cierra Kaler-Jones? Brilliant and insightful questions that make me even more eager to read Smith’s book.

The everyday nature of the resistance of the many enslaved Africans whom we never learn about, who are not celebrated in history books but who confirmed their humanity despite the oppression. I was particularly moved by the example of those even who worked more slowly and in this act alone, had an impact on the economy. Also the image of those who would find a way and a private place to express feelings of love to and for each other. These acts of resistance are often overlooked even as we confront oppressive forces today.

Smith’s entire perspective of slavery, jail, and gang affiliation was given. I appreciate the thoroughness of his explanation about why kids join gangs, and the feelings that Black people have in America about seeing streets and schools named after men that have torn up Black lives and communities.

What will you do with what you learned?

With students and colleagues, talk more about what history is and how teaching about racism is NOT taking away anything but telling the fuller story.

I’m drawn to the idea to have the fact sheets about what the monuments in the book represent, have students design a monument, and then have them actually learn about the monuments in the book and read excerpts from the chapter about how people respond to the monuments.

I am going to rewrite some of my teaching materials focusing on changing from passive to active voice.

Looking at redesigning curriculum to allow more time and space to accurately and adequately teach Reconstruction instead of leaving it to a rush at the end of the year.

I have a few new ideas about lessons/activities with students-possibly incorporating interviews into my course as well as thinking about how I might highlight racial history in Nebraska (where I live and work) as a “tour” — something that came up in my breakout room.

I am currently writing curriculum for US history for 8th graders from the lead up to the Revolution through the Civil War. I will be including NJ’s free Black communities and their history in the curriculum.

Encourage teachers to teach place-based history and to use oral histories with students. Encourage teachers to include stories of resistance in ways both big and small.

As a college student studying to become a high school history teacher, I will take what I learned and discover ways to incorporate this knowledge in my college education classes.

I am creating a lesson plan that entails local history. I will have students look up monuments, names of streets and buildings, and schools to research the people and events behind the names. I want to have them create a virtual tour of our city that can be shared with their classmates and families.

Gonna be teaching using some of Clint’s poetry and other writing next week! We’re finishing a unit on slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction with a project in which students design a monument honoring a person, event, etc of this time, so Clint’s work is so so helpful in framing for students the relevance of this project.

What did you think of the format?

Everything! I loved the time in breakout groups and the chance to come back and hear more from Clint!

Loved and needed breakout group — when you have such a coherent and clear and deep-thinking speaker, I am salivating over the poetic expression of these ideas (as ugly as the historical events are) — But Clint Smith is so authentic — THANK YOU!

Yeah! Deaf-friendly breakout room #1!

I loved the combination of Smith answering questions and then the break out rooms. The resources/ideas mentioned in the chat were phenomenal.

I really appreciate this format. I’m a historian which perhaps doesn’t always add “new” information, but it is helpful to focus on issues or be around those who study in areas that I also do. I typically don’t end up in the most engaging breakout rooms. But I have been able to listen to others’ first encounter with these topics, which is helpful.

I loved listening to Clint speak and Dr. Sierra Kaler-Jones asked such remarkable questions and hosted so well. It was such a treat to push my own thinking and vocabulary and deepened my understanding in so many ways. I wish we had more time to process, because I need to process such big ideas and changes.

I really enjoyed the breakout room sessions as a chance to debrief with others, and I appreciated that there was a facilitator to help guide conversation. This was honestly such a smooth and well put together seminar. Thank you for all the thought and energy you put into hosting it!

I could have listened to Clint Smith talk for hours, but I really enjoyed engaging with people from around the country to discuss and reflect. And then it was great to get back to more Clint!

The breakout group was really productive today. It felt like a space teachers were sharing pedagogically

Additional Comments

Thank you for all you do to make these sessions happen. They always are life-giving for me and help me to feel hope about our country and what it could be.

I would like a letter to write to my school board for the case of Africans in American history. If the letter — to the board — can make a case for the purpose of African history in America does not mean excluding others history. That the history of Africans are vital to the foundation of American history.

This was such a powerful presentation and more importantly, Dr. Clint Smith reinforced the importance of educators engaging in culturally responsive teaching and commit to being “myth busters” in regards to teaching U.S. history.

I so look forward to this learning community. I am no longer in a formal classroom teaching. And I teach lots outside. It’s so great so that I can hear what’s up in the world of formal published ideas by some of our great thinkers and teachers.

I loved ‘the landscape of inequality,” a great metaphor for understanding what happened. The flip side of the myth of meritocracy is the myth of blaming individuals for their own circumstances. I had never had heard of Whitney Plantation.

I loved being in a space full of educators, it’s so so powerful to see people who want to do the work you do.

Thank you for providing the ASL interpreters.

Thank you, thank you, thank you this series continues to inspire me, gives me events to look forward to and so much amazing follow up material. Not only is the content making me a better history teacher, but the invigoration of being able to talk with other passionate educators helps me keep bringing my A-game to class every day during this unprecedented year.

Miigwetch Zinn Education Project!

I so appreciate ZEP and other organizations, speakers, and authors who push me to new heights!

The format and content of each session I have attended leave me full of admiration for the work of Teaching for Change. This course confirms for me that there can be no serous anti-racist work without a people’s historical approach. Without history, the work is short-lived. With history we know we are in for the long haul! Keep up the good work, Teaching for change and Rethinking Schools!

Presenters

Clint Smith‘s essays, poems, and scholarly writing have been published in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Paris Review, the Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. His 2016 book Counting Descent, won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award, and was selected as the 2017 ‘One Book One New Orleans’ book selection. Smith is a teacher, and he previously taught English in Prince George’s County, Maryland and currently teaches writing and literature in the D.C. Central Detention Facility.

Cierra Kaler-Jones is a staff member at Education Anew and a Zinn Education Project team member. Her research focuses on how Black girls use arts-based practices (such as movement and music) as forms of expression, resistance, and identity development.

Share a story, question, or resource from your classroom.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *