Navigating CRT in the classroom

I have spent the past couple of months listening to and reading the various perspectives on Critical Race Theory, its definition, and the battle of its inclusion in public school classrooms all over the US. While the arguments for and against have become about as political a tool as you can get when it comes to the government and educational policy, what is clear is that now more than ever, teachers need one another – and students need us.

Personally, I think the first problem is the fact that CRT has a title at all. Much like dreaded discussion of Common Core, CRT has become contentious only because it has a scary title. Just as Common Core was no more than a common set of standards, yet became bastardized when strategies became commingled with and mistaken for standards (here’s looking at you, “new” math), CRT is falling victim to its use as a political tool, a scare tactic, and frightening terminology.

I read a little background, and a great introduction to the concept is written by Frantz Fanon here. What is important to note, however, is that often, teachers have already been including aspects of what is touted as Critical Race Theory in our classrooms. Books read and discussions had which centralize marginalized people of color and make it clear that they are in positions of oppression due to the systemic power and privileges held by their white counterparts are already creating an inclusive classroom space.

How might this look in my classroom?

First of all, I acknowledge that curriculum and discussions look different around the nation. What “works” in one area may not work in another. But to be clear, we cannot afford to not get this right. For my classroom, CRT is teaching a holistic view of history. CRT is not allowing only one set of voices speak for all others. CRT is denying the privilege of generational power to continue to exist in a vacuum without question.

Here are just two simple starting points for thinking about CRT in the classroom (and a third “honorable mention”)

1. Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed

I cannot recommend Clint Smith’s book, How the Word is Passed enough. Not only is it informative, but Smith leads by example in his exploration and commentary on the complexities of power structures in America’s past. Importantly, he connects precisely how the past continues to impact present day America. We must acknowledge that in present America, touted as the land of freedom and opportunity, devoid of what we see as slavery (I would argue there are many ways to keep humans captive, beyond ownership papers and chains), devoid of concentration camps, and devoid of dictatorial regimes, it can be difficult for many to understand the continued dynamics of oppression and privilege. I’ve gotten a whole lot of things wrong in my life, but I’ve tried to get ’em right the next time. When we know better, we do better, right? As I have reflected, listened, and researched more about race relations, privilege, and micro aggressions over the past few years, I have come to understand that acknowledging privilege can be difficult. It can be hard to even see and understand, and it can cause an unexpected defensiveness. However, contrary to what those seeking to divide would say, acknowledging privilege does not mean shaming. Understanding the plight of others and realizing that I have been fortunate enough not to experience those things does not make me a horrible person. It makes me informed, and makes the ideal of a truly equal America that much closer to becoming reality. Those who never understand that a problem exists cannot become allies in creating a solution, right?

I say this to be clear that, despite the cries to the contrary, teachers are not, or should not, be looking to create an environment of blame and shame in the classroom. Which is exactly why Clint Smith’s book is such a vital tool. For example, one chapter in particular hones in on Thomas Jefferson. Smith visits Jefferson’s Monticello, and I was so moved by his discussion of the work being done there that my husband and I trekked to Virginia ourselves just this past week. Neither Smith, nor the guides at Monticello deny the incredible contributions made by Thomas Jefferson to this great nation. However, in addition to his already grandiose memory, there are complexities to his legacy which simply cannot be ignored. The slavery at Monticello tour is incredible, but Smith’s book serves as a great resource if you cannot get there yourself.

It would be worth not only reading How the Word is Passed yourself, but pulling excerpts for students as well. Then, have students alone or in groups, research other people or events which have many narratives, rather than only one commonly taught one. For example, did you know that in Vietnam, the “Vietnam War” is called the “American War” (or the “War Against the Americans to Save the Nation”)? Discussing the importance of Christopher Columbus and other explorers, yet the widespread loss of First Nation life is another example. Did you know Iroquois law largely shaped our own democracy? In a course centered in language and rhetoric, certainly understanding how narratives “are passed” and thus power is held is likewise central.

2. Expand your characters and discussions

My second piece of advice in wading in the waters of CRT would be to be intentional in your text choices and discussions. If we are honest with ourselves in that curriculum has been problematic in its perpetuation of racial disparity, we must then take time to be intentional in how we choose the stories that will be told in our classrooms. This is not to advocate “cancelling” all of the old dead white authors we may love. But it means asking ourselves why we teach that text. Is there a certain theme we love? Is it the plot that gets us? Does the author have an organizational pattern or style which we want the students to see and experience? Then ask, for example – are there other texts which address that theme as well, yet give volume to a previously marginalized voice? This means questioning your texts written by men women, American authors, European authors, and authors of color. Lay out your year (choose your larger anchor texts – you can pull ancillary materials as the year progresses and you reassess student needs) and be intentional with that layout. For example, when planning a course recently, I needed and wanted another female POC. It would have been easy to go for Morrison or Hurston but my students had already had a number of American authors, addressing the themes of Civil War and post Civil War America. So, instead, I included Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. Likewise, consider narrative pairing. I know many still teach To Kill a Mockingbird for example. While many find the novel problematic, those who teach it will find great success in pairing it with Just Mercy in order to provide students with perspectives outside of the continued white majority.

I team up with the AP Government teachers at my school and as they teach America’s founding documents, I show Hamilton and likewise read the documents rhetorically in class. However, consider using the resources on Facing History for support in providing students a more multifaceted and holistic depiction of history.

Far from a perfect unit, here are some examples of how I paired Hamilton lyrics with other texts, images, and activities.

For many, if we teach the way we were taught or the way we have taught, we may be doing a disservice to all of our students, of all backgrounds. Now is the perfect time to examine not only the syllabus, but what we do with it in order to exact the vital critical thinking needed right now.

3. A rose by any other name

So, my honorable mention “tip” for how to get started with CRT in the classroom… This one may be controversial, as I know so many of us are proponents of the great John Lewis’s mantra to make “good trouble” – but my tip? Don’t call it Critical Race Theory, or CRT, or anything. Don’t give it a name, or a title, or the naysayers ammunition. Just teach the facts. Is it not fact that Thomas Jefferson is responsible for many enlightenment ideals embedded in the founding documents of America? And is is also not truth that he at the same time owned slaves while immortalizing the language of all men being created equal? (Guess what…Edgar Allan Poe was also terrified that his writing would be overshadowed by the publications of the writings of abolitionists and his fears were actually often of black and white coexisting equally).

Many will oppose what they don’t understand. They will come for the educated; they will come for the brave. The truth – the whole truth – is more important than ever. I was reminded this week by a member of the AP Language Teacher Facebook community of Ray Bradbury’s contention that “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

Here’s to a year of reading them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s