Three months or so months into the school year and this week-long school break couldn’t come at a better time. Teachers are burnt, students are at their wit’s end, and as all of us try to adjust to learning in a pandemic, I will plead with every educator to take some time to decolonize your classroom, whether it is over Zoom or in person. This has been a constant theme I have been speaking with educators about for months; in the wake of COVID-19 and the uprisings of 2020 teaching should look drastically different from what it has been historically if we are to best serve students. To decolonize the classroom we have to put our students’ humanity first, and that means completely re-evaluating what you are doing when we come back from this fall break.
When we come back from break many schools will be in the first phase of school site/district/state-mandated testing. While it might seem necessary to “get the kids prepared” please don’t neglect that these babies are literally SURVIVING A PANDEMIC. I am sorry, but why are we continuing to act as if our students are not impacted by COVID-19 and all the problems that stem from the pandemic? Students have lost family members and friends, parents lost jobs, lost homes, are full of anxiety and fear of catching the virus and we haven’t even spoken about the mental health, potential abuse, and all the problems that come to terms with what their life looks like now. Our babies need space to come together and connect with their people, a place for them to talk about all that they are experiencing because guess what life is the greatest teacher and our students are in the middle of one hell of a lesson. They are learning not only how the world works but what is valued and what makes them “valued.” If the goal of education is to empower students to become critical free-thinking problem-solving respectful kind-hearted human beings then how can we not provide that space for them in school?
Our students are, let me say this again, surviving a pandemic; so why are we as teachers assigning students multiple assignments? These kids are now being put behind a screen for HOURS upon HOURS and given multiple assignments in each class and some of them aren’t even able to hear every word because someone’s wifi isn’t working that day. Giving students assignment after assignment and demanding they complete all of their work isn’t setting kids up for success, it is teaching them that their only value comes from what they are able to produce on-demand. This is the very capitalist behavior on the part of schools, demanding students produce while the world they have known is flipped on its head. Stop valuing test scores and letter grades more than the well-being of our students.
“We all have different abilities, thought processes, experiences and genes
So why is a class full of individuals tested by the same means?
So that means Cherrelle thinks she’s dumb, because she couldn’t do a couple sums
And if this issue is not addressed properly, it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Then every school has the audacity to have policy on equality.
Huh, the irony!
How do you check on student well-being if you aren’t holding space in your classroom to speak with your students about what they are going through? How are they handling this pandemic, these uprisings, the recent election? The kids know what’s going on, and if they don’t, isn’t it OUR job to help them understand the world they live in? Do you know what types of things are helping them get through this time? Is it Among Us? The newest song or movie/show on Netflix? A lot of students have taken on additional responsibility now that they are at the house more, shouldn’t we consider how they are learning to be “adults” and value that knowledge as well? I know a lot of us are tired of teaching to blank black screens but I bet you my tenure that as we connect with our students more cameras will come on which will help all of us in the classroom community.
“Redefine how you view education,
Understand it’s true meaning,
Education is not just about regurgitating facts from a book,
Or someone else’s opinion on a subject to pass an exam.”
Let’s allow our students to demonstrate their knowledge by being a fully functioning human being. Let’s have discussions and conversations about the world and how it is changing every day. I was recently blessed with the opportunity to interview Mr. Bill Jennings (formerly Billy X) of the Black Panther Party and he described how during his senior year in 1968 class was canceled so that students could talk about all the current events. Why shouldn’t we be doing the same? Part of decolonizing education means changing the way we think we should interact and engage our students. Let’s have conversations about the government through examining the different elections throughout the globe, having a real conversation about what #ENDSARS means when they see it pop up on their timeline. Why can’t we examine science through learning about the climate crisis that the world faces? How can we utilize the graphs and data that shows how COVID is changing the world? But before we can get into these deep theoretical questions and learn, our students must be able to hold these conversations in class and begin feeling comfortable and confident to start taking their knowledge and applying it.
Well, how do we empower students to feel comfortable and confident enough to start taking those risks? Well, what is the one thing teachers have held over students since the first teacher got upset with a student? Grades. We have to make grades obsolete. Grades don’t help students, grades only tell a student what the teacher values from their work. Now don’t get me wrong, students need and deserve feedback to facilitate their learning. However, that is not what grades do. Grades cause anxiety and fear, just read what Teen Vogue has to say regarding English teacher Gina Benz, “Benz decided to make her classroom “gradeless” two years ago. Instead of “slapping a letter or number at the top of an assessment,” She now focuses on providing her students with high-quality feedback instead. Her students test ideas, make discoveries and embrace failure in an environment where learning is “transformational, not transactional.” … Benz says her students’ AP test scores haven’t dropped because of the change, and that parents have embraced it. Students tell her they have more “joy for learning” and better emotional health.”3 This is how the real world works, we test ideas and try things, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t but isn’t that what we should be doing to “prepare our students for success.”
To decolonize our classrooms coming back from this break we must re-evaluate what every aspect of our class looks like. Prioritizing checking in with our students, talking with them, engaging with them and what they are experiencing through all this while pushing away traditional grading will allow us to take steps towards decolonizing our classroom. These steps might seem extreme, but frankly hasn’t 2020 been extreme? Hasn’t the history of education been extreme? The education gap, the school to prison pipeline; these issues seem extreme to me. These issues with schools and education have stolen hundreds of thousands of lives due to a failure to provide the education our young people need which leads them to social, economic, and often literal death. “Youths are passed through schools that don’t teach. Then forced to search for jobs that don’t exist and finally left stranded to stare at the glamorous lives advertised around them.”4 As we all have had a chance to rest and reset during this break I beg all of the educators to please DECOLONIZE THE CLASSROOM.
Breaks, S. (2013, April). — I Will Not Let An Exam Result Decide My Fate.
Breaks, S. (2013, July). — Why I Hate School But Love Education.
Schermele, Z. (2020, January). Why Some Teachers Are Getting Rid of Grades.