Author: Matt Cowan | MTR Graduate Class of 2014
Education is the breath of the civil rights movement. It allows conversations to come alive, conversations that need to happen to provoke change. As an educator, I try to bring controversial topics to my students, so that they can wrestle with the status quo. As an educator, I want to plan standards-based lessons around topics that my students feel passionately about.
During the 2015-2016 school year, I planned a lesson around police-community relationships. First, we read the short story, “The Baddest Dog in Harlem” by Walter Dean Myers. I picked this story because Harlem has many similarities with the Orange Mound community, which is the neighborhood where I teach. The plot of the story follows that narrator, his friends, and a suspected shooter in Harlem. The story captures the intense relationship between the police and the Harlem community. By the end of the text, a young black boy and a dog are accidentally shot by the police officers.
Then we read an article that I found on www.newsela.com that I renamed “Unfair System?” This article discussed the injustices that were uncovered within the Ferguson Police Department.
Students read each text and performed standard based assignments to help facilitate understanding of the deeper themes. One of the assignment was a class discussion about how the people were treated, including possible solutions to the problem facing the community.
My students were able to think critically about the problem and they become solution oriented. I asked my students to see the problem, analyze and discuss the problem, then create a solution to the problem. Through standards-based lessons, my students are taught to fight. They are taught to fight the right way. They are taught to advocate for those around them but most importantly they are taught to advocate for themselves.
Some people believe that education is the great equalizer for African Americans but I am under a different belief. Education closes the gap by a small margin but white males, with a bachelor degree, are more likely to get a job compared to black males with the same level of education. Education helps but that equality that we long for is still a long way off.
Education is important to the civil rights movement because it gives a voice to the oppressed. It allows those who have been oppressed to speak up and tell their story. We have heard far too many times that history is written by the victor or the oppressor but when we educate the oppressed that changes things. When we educate the oppressed, we empower them to speak for themselves.
When the system refuses to provide quality education for the oppressed, the system is saying that they do not care about what the oppressed have to say. They are showing the oppressed that they do not want to see change, that they are fine with the status quo. If the system is fine with the status quo, they are telling the oppressed that their lives don’t matter. Far too long my students have been told that they don’t matter by the lack of education they have been given and from what they have seen in the media. But then there are organizations like Black Lives Matters that continue to fight for black people’s rights across the country, the Memphis Teacher Residency that sends teachers into the lowest performing schools to increase the quality of education, and Aspire Public Schools that continue to engage in the conversation of equity and disrupting the school to prison pipe line. These are just a few of the organizations that are working diligently to show the system that black lives matter, the oppressed lives matter.
As an educator, it is my job to provide my students with a quality education because that’s what they deserve.
It is my job to make sure that I fight against broken- window policies that tell my students that their lives don’t matter.
It is my job to help my students find their voices so that they can tell their story.
We can no longer allow the voice of the oppressed to go unheard. If we do, we are a part of the problem.
Further Reading on Injustice and Education
- Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: Another Conversation about Race by Beverly Tatum
- Race Matters-Cornell West
- Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit