Some learnings from Carter G. Woodson and The Mis-Education of the Negro

The minister had given no attention to the religious background of the Negroes to whom he was trying to preach. He knew nothing of their spiritual endowment and their religious experience as influenced by their traditions and environment in which the religion of the Negro has developed and expressed itself. He did not seem to know anything about their present condition. These honest people, therefore, knew nothing additional when he had finished his discourse. As communicant pointed out, their wants had not been supplied, and they wondered where they might go hear a word which had some bearing upon the life which they had to live.

Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro

Some colleagues and I have been reading The Mis-education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson for a few weeks. Published in 1933, the book is a timeless indictment on anti-Blackness in our country and, more specifically, in our schools.

A major theme of the book is Woodson’s calling out of “highly educated” Black folks for doing things that work against the collective liberation of the race, included himself. As a white person discussing the book in the company of at least one Black educator, there are times that I’ve been made uncomfortable with our talks. It kind of feels like I’m part of a conversation between Woodson and other Black folks, a conversation I have no business being a part of. In this way, reading it on my own has been enlightening, but has made me question the cross-racial setting in which we’re studying it.

To deal with this personal dilemma, it’s been helpful for me to look inward and find ways to place myself in the crosshairs of Woodson’s criticism. For example, after coming across the passage I cited above, in which Woodson critiques Black ministers and how they show up for those they serve, I couldn’t help but draw connections to white teachers who serve Black and Brown students, especially in large numbers. In other words, teachers like myself.

The context of Woodson’s challenge, at least how I interpreted it, is how schools of religion have indoctrinated Black ministers with the values of white supremacy. This conditioning shows up in their interactions with their congregation. In his words, these schools “followed the traditional course for ministers, devoting most of the time to dead languages and dead issues.” He goes on to highlight an example of such a minister and says, “He went off to school, and when he came back the people could not understand what he was talking about. Then he began to find fault with the people because they would not come to church.”

This raises a stockpile of questions for me. Most directly, as a white teacher who teaches an overwhelming majority of Black and Brown students, how has my lived experiences, education, and continued professional development prevented me from interacting with my students in meaningful ways? Also, how has the euro-centric model of teaching and learning conditioned me to not center Black and Brown joy? How has it erased Black history from my instructional framework? How have I been trained in and perpetuate a system of deficit thinking that preys on Black and Brown students? How has it permitted me to downplay and then ultimately ignore the intellectual and emotional endowment of my students? How has it blinded me from comprehending gender and sexism? How has it separated me from my aging white body and mind and keeps pushing me, with every passing year, further and further away from the young people of color I serve? How does where I choose to live and do my business affect how I understand my students and the communities they inhabit? How has all this removed me from, as Woodson calls is it, my students’ “present condition”? How has it removed me from their realities?

In the end, I bring these questions with me into spaces that I occupy with students — and it shows. It shows in what I do or say, but also in what I don’t do or say. With these questions in mind, I’m not all that different from the Black ministers that Carter G. Woodson is calling out. Many of my students are disengaged, alienated from the content and class, or simply don’t come to class at all and, when this happens, I question their commitment to getting an education. It should come as no surprise, then, why many of my students leave me seeking a word which has some bearing on the life which they have to live. They’re not getting it from me or my pedagogy. My life and training as a teacher thus far has inescapably divorced us from reaching that point.



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My two cents (Week of June 7, 2021)

For each school day of the 2020-21 school year, I will be writing two sentences to capture some of the impressions, feelings, experiences, or thoughts I had that day. This is the 34th post in the series.

Monday (June 7)
The Olympic Games continue with another game of Kahoot. The 11th grade teachers met as grade team after school in one last-ditch effort to plan for students who are in desperate need of our support.

Tuesday (June 8)
Had a lovely, cookie-filled meeting after school with some colleagues as we closed out our time connecting compassion with teaching and learning. I’ve never been part of professional learning quite like this before and I’m thankful for it.

Wednesday (June 9)
To close out the Olympic Games, we played Math Pictionary; to ensure every team earned a nice collection of medals, I amusingly joined a couple of teams throughout the day to support them. I also began collecting mailing addresses from students so I can send them a copy of our book, Mathematical Voices, Volume 2.

Thursday (June 10)
The last day of classes and an emotional day for me. For me, saying goodbye to my students — my comrades, my companions, my battlemates — is an act I take seriously that honors the space they’ve taken up in my life for the last 10 months; this year I found it liberating, but sad.

Friday (June 11)
Today was the annual cutting of my beard. I fully expected to do it alone on Zoom, but, in a twist, two students walked in the classroom just as I was getting started and ended up doing it all.

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My two cents (Week of May 31, 2021)

For each school day of the 2020-21 school year, I will be writing two sentences to capture some of the impressions, feelings, experiences, or thoughts I had that day. This is the 33rd post in the series.

Monday (May 31)
No Classes — Memorial Day

Tuesday (June 1)
The first day of the Math Olympics, an event that we’ll use to close the year which was co-designed by me and my cogen. To add an official feel to it, we held the opening ceremonies; we played the Olympic music, lit the Olympic torch, had a parade of participants, read-aloud some math writing from the year.

Wednesday (June 2)
Day 2 of the Olympic Games kicked off with a festive game of Kahoot to review some of what we learned this year. During the medal ceremony, in which I played “We Are the Champions” by Queen and slowly dragged gold, silver, and bronze medals over top of the group members’ names on screen, one student remarked in the chat, “I’m emotional for no reason.”

Thursday (June 3)
Co-facilitated a racial and social justice professional development where our staff used restorative circles (2-4-8) to add structure to some internal reckoning we’ve been doing at our school. Strong opinions abound; fireworks lit up the sky!

Friday (June 4)
A bitter-sweet day because I met with my cogen for the last time this year; I called it a “Reunion Cogen” because I invited all 19 students who were part of it back for one final conversation to debrief the experience. We spoke and I also gave them an anonymous survey; all the students spoke highly of their time in the cogen and valued it as a means of getting to know each other, building trust, and bettering to the classroom community for everyone.

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Monday

No classes — Memorial Day

The first day of the Math Olympics. The opening ceremonies we held; we lit the Olympic torch, had a parade of participants, and shared some math writing from the year.

Day 2 of the Olympic Games kicked off with a festive game of Kahoot. The medal ceremony was emotional for no reason at all.

My two cents (Week of May 24, 2021)

For each school day of the 2020-21 school year, I will be writing two sentences to capture some of the impressions, feelings, experiences, or thoughts I had that day. This is the 32nd post in the series.

Monday (May 24)
I threw around the idea of accepting (and even encouraging) both English and Spanish responses next year in class. I asked my students how they would feel about it and they were encouraging.

Tuesday (May 25)
Debuted the Math Olympics — the fun and games we will end the year with. Received affirmation and inspiration from one of the Spanish teachers on my “Spanish in math class” idea for next year.

Wednesday (May 26)
Balanced seven books on my head in eighth period. It could have been eight, and the goal was ten, but a book about the Maya just wouldn’t stay put.

Thursday (May 27)
Disappointed at the end of the day when I removed a few students who were non-responsive to my attempts to engage them. I was frustrated based on the lack of engagement from the previous class and didn’t lead with compassion.

Friday (May 28)
My cogen finalized our plans for the Math Olympics, which starts next week. My school’s modified “reimagine” plan for for the fall was unveiled and it was overwhelming.

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