Learning + Teaching + Race
February 25, 2019
Associate Professor Dyan Watson works to ensure Black lives matter in the classroom.
Dyan Watson, associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of secondary social studies at the graduate school, is one of three editors of an influential new book, Teaching for Black Lives (Rethinking Schools, 2018).
This book is a collection of writings meant to aid educators and humanize Blacks in curriculum, teaching, and policy, while also connecting lessons to young people’s lives. In 2018, it was named to Teaching for Change’s list of top books about social justice.
“I have two Black sons. For me, this collection is about their survival, and the survival of children like them throughout the United States,” says Watson. “Teaching for Black Lives is a handbook for all educators, students, and families who truly care about Blackness and the intersections of learning, teaching, and race.” The book is organized into five sections: 1) Making Black Lives Matter in Our Schools; 2) Enslavement, Civil Rights, and Black Liberation; 3) Gentrification, Displacement, and Anti-Blackness; 4) Discipline, the Schools-to-Prison Pipeline, and Mass Incarceration; and 5) Teaching Blackness, Loving Blackness, and Exploring Identity.
This book arose from the Black Lives Matter at School movement, which, in February 2018, rallied thousands of teachers around lessons and conversations on Black history and identity, restorative justice, and institutional racism.
The Chronicle reached out to Watson to learn more about the book and her research.
What is your research focus?
I study how teachers talk about race. The fancy explanation is that I explore how teachers semantically encode race as well as how race and teaching intersect. The idea is we have so many different words—“urban,” “marginalized,” “Title I”—that hide how we really feel about different groups of people. If I say “urban” families, it’s not very clear what I’m talking about. Some people think “urban” is a neutral word. But in my research, I’ve found that it’s not neutral. It’s very much a word that’s pointing to a certain type of family, a certain type of kid, a certain type of school. In my work, I’ve found this type of coding allows teachers to say things that they just would not say if they were using words like “White,” “Black,” “Asian,” and so on. I think the words we use illuminate our thinking about race. How do you approach the topic of race with your graduate students in teaching?
This year, I used Teaching for Black Lives as one of the texts in my social studies methods course. In years past, I had relied on my lesson demonstrations to illustrate my thinking about race and my belief that teachers need to keep it at the forefront of their minds. Using both has been really helpful. I always try to model teaching that encourages my students to think about social location: gender, sexual orientation, race, class … I believe that how we teach and how we learn is highly influenced by who we are. If you try to ignore that, you just won’t teach well.
The reality is, if you teach in Oregon, you could very well teach in a highly segregated, White community. We have a lot of graduate students who come here wanting to teach with kids of color, and the reality is that they might not, or they’ll only have a few. Some of them are really disappointed by that. My thing is all kids need to understand what social justice is … all kids need to understand the roles that race plays in our society. We can’t leave it up to only people of color to change the world. That’s not fair. And it’s impractical.
What needs to change from a curriculum standpoint in our schools?
I focus on secondary, not so much elementary, but I think teachers should do more interdisciplinary projects. We often pair math and science together and social studies and language arts, but I think it would be much more impactful to pair social studies with health and science, for example. Think of the crisis around lead in Detroit’s water—that’s social studies, that’s health, that’s science. And it’s a real problem that has to do with race and class.
Obviously, as a former history teacher, I’m not advocating that we throw away history. But I’d like to see us start with now and then go backward in time. How did we get to where we are? Why and how is wealth disproportionately held by White people? How did we get there? And then go back and examine different moments in history when we, as a nation, made choices to make it harder for people of color to be wealthy, to have a bigger piece of the pie. I think if we really want to change the outcomes of Brown and Black kids, then we need to study how we got here.
What obstacles do teachers face?
One of the biggest problems is that teacher educators themselves are not prepared for the conversations and activities that need to take place. That makes sense … I’m not putting us down. If you grow up in the United States and go to school in the United States, you are actually trained to run away from conversations about race. At what point, then, would you learn to move race from the back of your mind to the forefront of your practice and of everything? You don’t. So even if you say, “Yeah, this is important, and I’m going to do it,” it’s very hard.
Most teacher educators who have been preparing preservice teachers for a long while have not had a recent course on teaching and race. It just becomes really difficult for most White teacher educators, especially, to implement what we’re asking teacher candidates to do. I’m not saying we shouldn’t work hard to make it happen. But I think if you multiply that problem by all the teacher educators who are in the United States, it becomes a really big problem.
We need to provide opportunities—funding, travel, all those things that would enable teacher educators to actually learn how to do this and how to do it better. And it’s not just race. It’s all the different ways that we are located socially. Then, as a nation, we need to change our views about teaching—we need to increase the pay and prestige of the profession as well as carefully consider the qualifications for becoming a teacher.
What about the book’s timing?
With the popularity and effectiveness of the Black Lives Matter movement, it just seemed like this is the right time—America is listening and hungry for resources. We want to put it in the hands of parents, educators, and everyone who is interested in making a difference.
How is Teaching for Black Lives structured to help teachers?
We know teachers are busy. They often don’t have time to read a whole book front to back. We wanted them to be able to use the book. We decided to chunk the content in ways that help teachers find what they need to supplement their classroom teaching. Also, the book includes links to other resources, like online lesson plans. Teachers can download those for free, print them, and use them in their classrooms the next day.
There’s a line in the book that reads, “Black students’ minds and bodies are under attack. We’re fighting back.” How does activism fit in?
As folks have said in the past, teaching is a political act. Every time you are in front of young people, you are saying something about race, gender, class—whether the words come out of your mouth or not. I believe teaching and activism are closely aligned. They are siblings. And, as in all families, siblings do fight, but hopefully they are on the same page more often than not. We want teachers to be activists: to radically change their classrooms, radically change their schools, and radically change their communities. And they don’t have to do it by themselves. Students, I believe, actually have created the most change throughout time. Think about the civil rights movement … one of the huge turning points was when students said, “We’ll go to jail, we’ll march, we’ll sit at the counters.”
Hopefully, this book will be used to inspire and encourage students to do what they already want to do. It’s a natural thing to want to make change. A lot of students just need that impetus, they need that push, they need that outline of how to go about it. We hope the book will remind students that the people who have made the biggest change in the United States, or any country really, are often young people. We’re saying to them, “So why not you?”
What’s your big-picture goal?
I really want folks to come to see that teaching for Black lives makes everyone’s lives better. I know there are people out there who are afraid that if we focus on Black lives, then their White sons and daughters, for example, will suffer. And that is just not true. If we uplift one group, everybody gets uplifted. I hope folks will see how our lives are intricately interwoven. We rely on each other to make a better world. And it can’t be done—it won’t be done—until every single life in the United States and around the world is valued.
—Interview by Shelly Meyer
This content originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of The Chronicle.
A Black Mom’s Perspective
Read Dyan Watson’s “A Letter From a Black Mom to Her Son,” which was picked up by the Washington Post.
Musician, Football Player Lend Their Support
Over the past few years, thousands of Seattle educators have participated in the Black Lives Matter at School initiative, demonstrating their commitment to discussions of race and equity in the classroom.
To encourage that work, Grammy award– winning rapper Macklemore and Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett (formerly with the Seattle Seahawks) joined forces in fall 2018 to purchase and distribute copies of Teaching for Black Lives to every middle and high school social studies and language arts teacher in the Seattle Public Schools. The two are friends with ties to Seattle.
“Throughout our country’s history, musicians and athletes have been involved in civil rights and education movements,” says Watson. “We deeply appreciate Macklemore and Bennett’s amazing gift and hope they will inspire others to act this generously as well.”