July’s rising temperatures signal summer’s here and school, for the most part, is closed. But blistering news of recent days keeps us all on notice that the quest for truth is a powerful act for all seasons; knowledge is quintessential to survival and we can never let up on learning it, sharing it and applying it.
This is the core of Nelson Mandela’s global mandate as we celebrate his 95th birthday, today, Mandela Day.
It is the message of next week’s memorial tribute to Dr. John Henrik Clarke at Boys & Girls H.S. in Bedford-Stuyvesant (Sunday, July 28).
And it is the lesson that we personally received Monday afternoon during a segment of the “Race and Education” session of this week’s Black History 360° Summer Education Institute at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Over the course of the week (July 15 through July 19), K-12 teachers, college faculty, community educators, college students and lifelong learners gathered at the Schomburg to gain insights from premiere historians and scholars into techniques for increasing historical literacy, accumulating valuable content knowledge and learning inquiry-based approaches to teaching about the history and cultures of African-Americans and African peoples throughout the Diaspora.
Now in its 4th year under the direction of Deirdre Lynn Hollman, the Schomburg Center’s Director of Education, the Institute initiative is part of an “ambitious strategy” to improve historical literacy among youth.
A highlight of the Monday, July 15th day-long session was the Conversation on “Historical Literacy and Critical Literacy” with Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center, and Dr. Ernest Morrell, director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
What follows are publishers’ notes from comments made by the scholars.
Speaking to the importance of historical literacy, we must not take for granted that what I would know as a 41-year-old adult a fifteen-year-old should know. It is easy to ridicule and shame young people because of their lack of cultural competency, but we should not take for granted that they should know these things, or they should have learned these things. That disposition does a lot of harm to the self-esteem of young people; history is not easy to understand. It is more than about research and scholarship, it includes pausing and reflecting. We (educators) should be engaged in framing our stories in order to reach young people.
Moments, such as the Zimmerman verdict, where there are no easy solutions and no easy answers, can impact lives. And it’s a lot easier for young people to know about the personalities that shape those moments. They may ask themselves: what are we going to do, what should we do, I need to do something. As much as I appreciate the physical doing of something: joining a rally, writing a Congressman, we never want to substitute the doing for the thinking that must happen. Social revolutions happen because of ideas and moments and those moments are far fewer than we think they are, so the ideas cannot be sacrificed for the rush to do something. If our young people know Civil Rights movements better, they would know that at any given moment, there were a dozens of choices that could have been made as to the direction of the Movement.
The Great Depression was revealing of certain things and studying what happened helped A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin long before we get to 1955. They discovered what had worked, the costs, the benefits. We owe it to them that they were the navigators of that particular Moment.
In this Moment (of The Verdict), the Millennial Generation won’t be the same. Not all of them will join a local chapter of a civil rights organization or drop what they are doing to go to grad school, or organize around prisoner rights. Some will, most won’t.
Our kids won’t learn enough by us waiting for the next set of news stories to change their lives; some will be okay and go on and get degrees, but our kids need more from us. We’ve been asking them to look into the mirror to see what their faults are, how much they are responsible, what they may have done to bring on the greatest prison system. We have been giving them lessons on personal responsibility that have passed as truth-telling. They need historical context. Trayvon Martin’s death teaches them, no matter what you do you are a suspect until proven otherwise.
There is so much work to be done; we adults must know our history better before we can teach it. And in teaching it we become revolutionaries.
(Dr. Muhammad is the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America)
Education/critical literacy in the 21st century has to be contextualized. Teaching and learning is not just about taking and passing a test, it’s about changing lives. It’s amazing how much more children really want to know; and knowing makes you stronger to advocate for the community. We need to start this work of teaching by getting young people fired up. Teachers need to feel that they should understand the people they care about.
It’s easy to write children off as illogical.
My responsibility as an educator is to get kids excited about learning, and you can add history after learning. If you raise engagement, you raise achievement.
We do not have an achievement crisis as much as we have an identity crisis.
Kids are filled with self-loathing, self-doubt. We tell them: You should study, do well in school.
Of course, young people know education is valuable. What they don’t know is: they are valued.
We have to help kids by not just saying education is important, but saying they are important. “We need your mind, we need your thoughts.” (She changes and her excitement about learning changes.)
One reason our kids don’t see themselves as valuable is, everything about them is kept out of the curriculum, it renders them value-less. So they do things that tell us they are crying.
We must also address what kind of education they will need, socially, culturally and technologically in the 22nd century. Two-year-olds will be getting out of school around 2030. They will retire around 2075. We have to give them an education that is technologically relevant and socially relevant. And learning also has to bring kids closer to the cultures that have loved and nurtured them.
We need educators, lawyers, doctors. The teacher has to teach them what they need to know, framed within a context that helps them cultivate their voices.
Being empowered is feeling you have a voice.
You’ve got to be smart to say it. You’ve got to know who you will say it to. You’ve got to have the skills to share it.
They must be helped to say what they want to say more powerfully, while developing the interests and skills that sustains learning in schools.
Kids like to be powerful, and they want to be cool. Being able to speak back to something is a form of power and a way of being cool; it’s doing something you care about, something that matters to you.
Educators must be able to connect skills to something other than a test score. Being smart enables a young person to be politically courageous, and that, too, is a form of coolness. It’s not because I told you so, it’s because you want to be prepared.
There are amazing sources in popular culture that will help teach the consciousness you want. In one successful program, young people are writing their own plays. The topic chosen a lot is violence. It matters to young people to feel unsafe.
In this program, kids are making sense of what’s happening in their neighborhood, so they are getting that historical literacy and manifesting it as playwriting.
In another program, a conversation about U.S. Trade allows them to talk about Colonialism, Slavery, and Commodities. They are engaged in debates, and so they take the subject all the way back to The Triangle Slave Trade. They are learning multiple historical contexts.
Connecting historical literacy with critical literacy is a powerful teaching technique. Having them do their own research and share that research is not something that you have to wait until you’re ready for a Ph.D. Students can start conducting their own research, develop skills, ask questions, collect information, become scholars and activists while they are very, very young stemming from one simple question: if you could change the world/the community, what would you change?
For more information, visit: www.ernestmorrell.com).
Black History 360 – Friday, July 19
Summer Institute Themes:
Afro-Latin@Studies,Harlem Studies, Hip-Hop Studies. Film: Legacy of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Conversation: Dr. Miriam Roman and Dr. Tanya Hernandez. Workshop & Walking Tour: El Barrio-East Harlem; Workshop & Walking Tour: Hip-Hop History. (Fee:.$125.
For information,visit schomburgcenter.org/blackhistory360 or call 212-491-2207.)
Saturday, July 20-Special Event:
Harlem Book Fair
The 15th Annual Harlem Book Fair takes place this Saturday, July 20, 12n-6pm at the Schomburg Center and along West 135th Street (between Fifth Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard) in Manhattan.
Over 250 booths will be set up along West 135th Street, offering books, story-telling, readings, and opportunities to meet and greet authors on four stages that will feature spoken word poets, celebrities, and music throughout the day.
Community Educator Comments
Brooklyn’s Kazembe Batts, an administrator in student development at LaGuardia Community College, found the Summer Institute invaluable. “Teachers cannot teach what they don’t know. I respect the genius of the Schomburg, Dr. Muhammad and Institute organizer Sister Deirdre Hollman for having this annual Summer Institute.
“Hundreds of educators and others in the field are now better able to equip children with the information they need to be better pre
pared for the world.”