How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
When you’re the only educator of color, you can’t just be a teacher, you also have to be an example.
In many cases, I tend to be one of only a few African American teachers. And when you’re the only educator of color, you can’t just be a teacher, you also have to be an example. I work really hard to uplift people of color. I want my students to remember that Black teacher they had. I want to celebrate them.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
Racial literacy in language arts is one of the easiest places where we can do racial literacy. There was a shift when people realized we didn’t have to just teach the “classics.” There are so many worlds to celebrate out there. The classics are the worlds of White people, White males. But, when we introduce racial literacy into literature classes, change up the books, we're finally able to share our stories. And when we share our stories, we get young people to understand one another, grow in empathy, compassion, and understanding. It’s essential.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
By the end, students were asking, “How can I help someone stand up for their right to wear their hair naturally?”
There has always been a lot of debate about Black hair. It was just one of those things that's been bothering me. I wear my hair naturally most of the time. There’s so much judgment on what qualifies as professional hair, people trying to tell you how you need to look. I have a number of students who are trying to be comfortable enough to wear their natural hair. I wanted to support them through my “Am I my hair?” lesson. Oddly enough, I was starting Night by Elie Wiesel at the time, and we were talking about stereotypes. My natural hair is something I get stereotyped a lot for. So, I was like, let me take my personal experience, something that many of my Black students relate to, and develop it into a lesson plan where I can connect stereotypes and explain this national debate about natural hair.
In this lesson, we read Eryn’s story from Tell Me Who You Are, and we looked at the picture of her hair, talked about how gorgeous she is, and questioned what the big deal was. It was a comfortable way to open up the discussion. You know, it's not just the White community that has problems with natural hair, the Black community does, too. I ended up also tying in the common debate about Jewish hair. There were just all of these amazing, intersectional discussions. By the end, students were asking, “How can I help someone stand up for their right to wear their hair naturally?”
One of my students was White. She didn’t know about natural hair, about the struggles. After this unit on hair, she was like, that’s it, I need to be an ally and say that Black hair is beautiful no matter what. I remember this clearly: she was so adamant and so upset that her Black peers go through this. It ended up going into her research projects. She ended up talking to the entire community about White privilege, citing natural hair as an example. For her to stand there and talk to teachers and different White people in the community was brave. My Black students loved her. They were praising her for it. And the spark came from doing this lesson.
For “Passing the Baton: Focusing on Activists Who Have Made Change in Race in The United States,” we had just finished reading Katori Hall’s fantastic play, The Mountaintop. There are only two characters in the play. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Camae. There are no extra characters. They have this wonderful moment in Dr. King’s hotel room on the night before his assassination. We used that moment to talk about other activists, about teamwork, things you aren’t taught in school. There's a great quote by Camae about having to pass the baton, knowing Dr. King’s time was up, and understanding that he wasn't going to complete the race, but that other people would. I loved that section of the play, because it's important for young people to know that the quest for racial justice didn't end with Dr. King dying. He passed away, but the struggle continues. Also, Katori Hall is a Black female writer, so I wanted to bring her into the classroom specifically.
From Tell Me Who You Are, we used Susan’s story first in this lesson. She talked about losing her daughter because of someone’s anger and rage, and it was heartbreaking. It showed that our understanding of American history doesn’t deserve the praise it gets; we’re not done fighting yet. With Butler’s story, which we used too from TMWYA, most of my students were like, “Whoa, we never heard about his mom, Aurelia Browder, before.” Even though she’s kind of a big deal. My kids wanted to pass on her story, though, and give her the credit she deserves. They were motivated to pass on her baton, you know?
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
If you’re not talking about race … you're not doing your job to the fullest extent.
Most educators are afraid because they’re like, well, I’m not an expert. Or, I'm afraid of what my administration is going to say—that's the biggest one, I’d say. People do what's safe so that they don't have to deal with trouble. But I think we have to step back and think about, no matter what you teach, our job is to help young people be better individuals who can change the world. That's our job. So, if you're not doing racial justice, if you’re not talking about race, if you’re not making everyone uncomfortable, then you're not doing your job to the fullest extent. Simple as that.
JESSYCA MATHEWS'S Lesson plans:
TYPE: Unit (series of lessons) TITLE: “Am I My Hair?” The Debate and Examination of African-American Hair
Content Area: Language Arts GRADE LEVEL(S): 11th to 12th Grade
DESCRIPTION: Hair has been a debated topic among many communities over time, and it continues to be a strongly debated topic for African Americans. From what hair qualifies as “good hair,” to what styles are acceptable in different environments, to bullying throughout history that is still leading to court cases, hair is a current social justice topic worth researching and discussing within our community.
Click below to download a PDF of Jessica Mathews's unit.
TYPE: Lesson (full class)
TITLE: Passing the Baton: Racial Justice Activists in the United States CONTENT AREA: English GRADE LEVEL(S): 11th to 12th Grade
DESCRIPTION: Often when learning of activists that have made change, we hear the same names referenced. Activism greats such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks deserve their places in our historical context, but lesser known activists deserve to be heard, too. They can also be examples for young people to follow.
At the completion of reading The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, students realize that Dr. King’s part of the race toward equality has come to an end, but others need to carry the baton. Students will take time to hear the stories of lesser known activists that have made a difference in the racial dynamics of our society, and they’ll share their stories with others as we prepare to “pass the baton” for change.
Click below to download a PDF of Jessyca Mathews's full lesson plan.