“From Roots to Reconstruction”

By Ron Hustvedt, Jr.

“As we go through this history we will see that this is not easy work, but we will also see how this work is not only possible, but necessary.” –Brandon White

For Day Two of the #NNSTOYEquity21 Equity Taskforce challenge teachers were invited to listen to Episode One of The Complexion Of Teaching And Learning titled “From Roots to Reconstruction.” The description of this podcast is, ““The Complexion of Teaching and Learning” is a podcast docu-series in which we explore the historical, political, and professional insights and experiences of educators of color. The series is hosted by Brandon White (Twitter: @ClassroomB), an ELA Specialist for UnboundEd and former middle school ELA teacher and Restorative Practices educator for the Rochester City School District. Episode 1 highlights the connections between Brandon’s experiences as an educator of color and the experience of Black Educators before, during, and right after slavery.”

As a history teacher, it was an interesting lesson of how the educational system has its roots in African values and teaching styles and adapted, stood up to destruction, and was realized during slavery, Civil War and then became an act of resistance during Reconstruction and throughout the 20th century. Mr. Brandon White draws parallels throughout the lessons to his practice as a teacher today.

One of the interviews in the podcast that resonated most to me was an interview with Dr. Heather Andrea Williams, who is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought, and Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book “Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom” (2005), and “Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery” (2012). She tells the story of how Frederick Douglass learned how to read as an enslaved man. The white woman who was the wife of the man who claimed to own Douglass taught him to read because it was common for white women in those positions to teach enslaved people to read so they could read the bible. When her husband learned of this she said to him, in front of Douglass, “If you teach him to read he will be unfit to be a slave.” It made Douglass want to read even more and see the power that reading and writing could give him and the danger to the existing power structure. Douglass self-liberated himself, went on to become a great writer, speaker and public servant who famously said, “To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes of human nature.”

Mr. Brandon White, host of the podcast, talked about how he would see this in his teaching practice as well when people would not challenge students of color to read complex texts. When teachers would hold low expectations of their students of color and not provide students with the enriching experiences that would help them thrive. His recounting of that resonated strongly with me because I have seen that as well and have long worked to make sure my classroom does not function that way. I’m certain I’ve made mistakes with this over the years, but getting to know my students is a top priority so I can get them digging into subjects/topics of interest to them. I do this because when a student has a high level of interest in the subject matter, they are willing to take on more complicated texts and build endurance with reading. It’s more than just putting a text related to something interesting in the hands of a student though. Supporting a student’s reading, answering the many questions, asking many questions, contextualizing with the student are all ways that a teacher can both hold high expectations, further build relationships, and support student success. After two more historical examples, Mr. Brandon White said, “When I learn about stories like this, I keep thinking about how education grounded in an ethical ‘why’ and an authentic ‘how’ is the most powerful education you can receive.” Reading that made me feel both validated in what I’ve been working to do but also challenged to do more, to do better, and keep at it. I know that if I do that, the teacher it makes me five years from now will make the teacher I am now look woefully inadequate. Just like how I feel about myself today compared to five years ago, and ten years ago, and 20 years ago.

It was also very interesting to hear the story, near the end of the podcast, about the push for Black educators with Freedman Bureau schools in the years after the Civil War. Having a group of Black teachers who could teach newly emancipated Black children was going to be essential and is what led to the formation of many Normal Schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Mr. Brandon’s White takeaway was that this system, “would have long lasting impacts on Blacks in education…this would prove to be an extremely valuable approach.” He then listed three truths he’s learned in his own practice to become a change agent in educational equity. You are going to need to listen to the podcast for those three truths but they will empower you and propel you forward, just like they did for me.

Thank you Mr. Brandon White and Dr. Heather Andrea Williams for the lessons, insights and challenges to my practice.

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