Teaching for Black Lives Study Groups 2021-2022

Being a part of this group was the best part of my school year. I was constantly inspired by the people I met around the country and the work that they are doing to bring the real history into their classrooms despite insurmountable challenges. I cannot recommend this group more! — Katherine Fritz

2021-2022 was the hardest school year in recent memory. The list of burdens educators had to confront, carry, and work to overcome is long and heartbreaking. A pandemic which killed more than a million people in the U.S. — including family members, students, and colleagues — and is ongoing; critically understaffed schools, requiring the juggling of an impossible number of responsibilities, all while forgoing planning time and lunch and bathroom breaks; the accumulated social stressors of the last two years manifesting in children’s needs for more support of all kinds; ongoing rightwing attacks on teaching an honest account of white supremacy in the past and present, and on LGBTQ+ youth. And all of this was in addition to the perennial struggles to adequately fund schools and keep children safe from gun violence, poverty, and environmental catastrophe.  

And yet. This school year we also witnessed a remarkable demonstration of educators’ commitment to build more just schools. The Zinn Education Project, coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, hosted 100 Teaching for Black Lives study groups across 30 states. More than a thousand educators came together to learn, support one another, and take action. Listening to the profound impact of the study groups on those who participated is inspiring and instructive. 

These groups challenge the mainstream media’s recent narrative that after the historic uprisings of 2020, everyday people’s commitment to combat racism and white supremacy is waning. Not only have these educators sustained the antiracist work taken up by so many in 2020, they have deepened and expanded it. As we wrap up this year of study groups, we are sharing some of their reflections to remind us why supporting this work is so important. 

Sustained Teachers While Many Others Left Profession 

Speaking both about her local study group and the larger Teaching for Black Lives Study Group network, Karen Lee told us,

It is a powerful community to be a part of!  When thinking about where I find encouragement in an already tough job, it is with this group!

Nena Torrez said the group had “reenergized” her:

Sometimes it feels like it is time to hang it up and do something else. Then you remember if not me then who?  We must serve as the light to pass the light to others so that our progress forward is reinforced by other generations of educators.

Many educators told us that the study groups refilled their cups. Christine Fierro wrote,

Especially during this most challenging year when it was hard to even find the energy to meet, it was SO important to engage with this community, with educators committed to growing.

Sarah O’Reilly agreed:

It was one of the few things I took on this year that added to my resilience, to my sense of community, to my energy to keep going and do the work. The support that came as we worked together was and is invaluable.

Jill Groff said the group helped her keep her eyes on the prize: 

When the apathy seemed pervasive and morale was low, being in this group lit a fire of hope to keep me going and remember my why. I so appreciate the fellowship and support of people who genuinely love kids, ALL kids, and go above and beyond every day to fight for them, to make lessons to inform and empower, and just to be in a space with so many wonderful educators with shared values and goals.

The community of the study groups created space for collaboration and, ultimately, hope. Kate Milano wrote,

Having a reliable and deeply thoughtful group of allies in my community was so powerful and supportive during this difficult year. I drew strength every day at school knowing that my study group colleagues were there and would be supportive of my practices.”

Kai Strange added,

My thinking is more hopeful as a result of participating in the group. I feel as though my network of support has grown exponentially.

Filled Critical Gaps in Teachers Own Schooling and Education

Elizabeth Verdeck said the study groups were,

A fantastic and supportive way to learn about a group whose history is regularly suppressed or glossed over. I learned a lot as a person with holes in my education and I was able to have great conversations about how to apply what we learned in our classrooms.

Kelli Platsmier similarly wrote,

T4BL was a great opportunity to learn more about the stories that were not openly shared while I was in school. As a teacher, I will share what I have learned with my students.

Colleen Miller was like many in the North, who are taught that racism happens somewhere else. She wrote,

I didn’t realize how much happened in the Seattle School District, near where I live and teach. It really hit home and made everything so much clearer that this isn’t something that just happens in rural areas, the South, or urban areas on the other side of the country.

Sally Stanhope said the study group helped her see not just what she did not learn from her schooling, but what she did learn — what values and practices had been normalized. She wrote,

I’m very aware of how I grew up in a punitive mindset and how my school treats teachers, parents, and students with a punitive framework. This is dehumanizing. [Now] I’m trying to take Linea King’s approach to Restorative Justice — baby steps.

Learning a more accurate and full account of U.S. history was important to many participants. Leeanne Rodriguez noted the positive impact of Teaching for Black Lives’s historical framing had on her ability to process other dimensions of the study group’s work:

The historical context. . . was so helpful in helping me approach situations with a deeper understanding and [be] less defensive.

Ultimately, what teachers learned transformed them and their practice. As Katherine Fritz succinctly explained:

My ideas about the narrative of our country have changed and I am motivated to educate myself about what I didn’t learn in history class so I can better teach my students.

Undertaking an honest analysis of racism and institutionalized injustice in one’s school, curricula, and classroom practice can be challenging in the best of circumstances. And this year educators confronted the additional pressures of a national rightwing political movement hellbent on silencing educators and outlawing teaching for social justice. 

Refuge and Solidarity in Face of Right Wing Attacks

Heather Bower noted the power in numbers:

The group context gave us courage to stand in spite of the climate.

Jordan Fullam said the right’s attacks were a frequent topic of conversation, but that it only deepened his group’s resolve:

We discussed the current political climate a lot, and reaffirmed that we have the courage and commitment to continue the fight.

Jill Groff echoed this sentiment:

Our group was fueled to do more, be more vocal and active to fight against the current political climate because we are all in for all kids every single day.

Brian King was not alone in affirming that some kinds of discomfort can be productive.

For that reason it is best to do that in a group. It’s hard to get uncomfortable by yourself.

Jennifer Olson explained that some conversations were “difficult” but that,

Our study group was a safe space for me. . . I knew I could be honest with my reflections about what I was reading, what was happening in our education community, and what I needed to work on. They were supportive and also pushed me to be a better teacher.

Sharon Heyer also appreciated the safe space for honest discussion:

This study group provided a safe space to confront the injustice in our school and allowed our staff to have open discussion about some tough issues.” 

Virginia Henry beautifully captured how study groups can offer both accountability and encouragement. She wrote,

We read together, discussed difficult topics, problem solved, shared insecurities, challenges, struggles, and hope. We held each other accountable and held each other up.

Start With a Book, End in Action

Educators shared with us the countless ways their learning manifested. Colleen Miller was one of many teachers who talked about how they had made changes to their curriculum:

I have really come to value hearing from multiple perspectives before forming an opinion. I have already made changes in what and how I teach so that several perspectives are taught instead of a white narrative only.

For Evie Weinstein-Park, these changes meant incorporating more history.

All of the workshops you’ve presented have deepened my understanding of the Black freedom struggle and how integral it is to American history.

Jordan Hill was inspired to build a new unit centering local Black history. He wrote,

I am most proud of beginning to develop a unit on the race warriors of my hometown in Lyons, NY dating all the way back to the Underground Railroad and the way Black individuals are treated today in our community. 

Amber Jackson’s group created a year-long resource guide:

My study group planned a syllabus for the Fall that we can all use across our various sites. We have age-appropriate lessons, activities, books, and more for each month of the school year.

Kelli Platsmier shared,

Reading this book and participating in the book study has helped give me the courage to teach the lessons in the book and have open discussions about race.

Action did not stop with curriculum. Angie White said,

I am more aware of my students’ needs. I am trying very hard to make my course as welcoming and relatable to all students in the class. I have learned more about what makes my students tick and how I can relate to them to build strong relationships.

Amanda Kloser’s group sat down with their administration:

We met with our assistant superintendent to demand more action from our equity committee.

Tricia Gould explained that her group designed a whole new method for responding to student behavior,

Re-examining how we approach behavior management in our programs and transforming them to assure they are rooted in restorative justice practices and working towards combating the school to prison pipeline.

Christina Bustos said her group also tackled school policies — and more:

We worked on student dress code, hiring practices, getting promises from the district to hire more BIPOC educators as well as Teach Truth events and BLM at school week.

The study groups were also a place to debrief and evaluate study group members’ daily efforts to teach more equitably. Kate Milano explained,

We would commit to trying new lessons, facilitating restorative circles, facilitating difficult discussions with colleagues or with our students and then come back and report to the group. It was motivating knowing that the group would be there to process the results together when we met.

Susan Sturm spoke for many when she said,

It’s easy to get stuck in the learning and reading phase without actually turning that new knowledge into action. This group held me accountable to actually doing something that would make a noticeable change.

Colleen Miller conveyed how profound the learning sparked by participating in a study group can be:

This study helped propel me forward to seek out other learning opportunities. I have done more work on this topic in the last 8 months than I have in the last 8 years!

The study groups are designed to span a single school year, but participants tell us they’ll take what they’ve learned with them into the years ahead. 

Impact Is Durable and Lasting 

At the end-of-year convening for study groups, we asked participants to reflect on what it means to teach for Black lives. Nick DePascal wrote: 

The word I picked for our reflection today was “intentional,” and that is what the reading and discussions with this group have reinforced for me. That is, intentionality in all facets of my teaching practice is necessary in order to be effective and fully engaged. That means in my choice of materials, my lesson planning, my units, my attitude and positive reinforcement in the class, my relationships with students, my flexibility in the classroom to respond to current events and happenings. I feel that, while I have much work to do, my intentionality in the classroom has increased and with the quality of my planning and teaching!

Gabrielle Barcomb said she gained vital skills that are always applicable:

I am able to engage in those ‘hard’ conversations that I wasn’t able to do before. Instead of shoving those conversations, I have learned how to listen to my students and their needs, and to always teach the truth.

Catherine Anderson explained that once you learn to see the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness, you can’t unsee it. She wrote:

I have a new lens to look not only at my interactions with students and colleagues and community but at our larger school system and district ALL THE TIME. I feel empowered with all of the resources we have to find another approach or way into whatever we are doing in class. Now my students know that if I am wearing my BLM shirt or Black History Matters shirt at school it is not a performative act — it means that they can hold me accountable to what I have done in and out of class to show that I am living up to that belief.

Learning is not the only thing that will endure from the study groups. So will relationships. Quynh Vu wrote about the power of finding professional comradery,

that there are other educators doing the same work with the same hopes, and that we can enact that curriculum in the classroom in our individual spaces, but do that collectively.

Jehanne Beaton said,

the bonds the group has made with each other is what I’m most proud of. They have decided to have a summer picnic together and will be opening the group up to new members, aspiring and practicing teachers of color, next year. I am thrilled that they see themselves as a growing network of teachers of color in the Twin Cities.

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