I teach English, but our history teacher was out on a day our sixth graders were learning about the Roman Republic. My most precocious student, Stan*, was sprawled across his desk undoubtedly bored and ready to move on.
I often correlate current events and revolutions + renaissances of brown people with whatever we're learning. My students' attentions peak at the utterance of names they recognize or movements they can see themselves in.
When I do this, I'm tapping into Stan's core. There's nothing common about this child, like many of the children I serve. He is a rebel, ready to defend his point at a moment's notice. He is sharp-witted, fiery, and unabashedly black. If you ask him to check off his race, on an application, he'll reply, "There isn't a label here, that defines me."
*nods to Stan's parents*
I make a comparison of marginalized citizens in the plebeian rebellion of Ancient Rome and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s protests. I talk about the dream and explain that one can be found in every movement, throughout history.
Stan is suddenly wide awake. I see his eyes making connections and suddenly he's got his hand held high in the air. There's another student in the class that Stan is in constant competition with. His name is Marcus*. Marcus has the CNN and NYTimes app on his phone, his father pays for his subscription, and during parent-teacher conferences, his mother bragged that she voted for "a real businessman."
I finish my direct instruction, before we jump into independent practice, "Although the patrician rebellion resulted in a republic, only patricians had a political voice. This meant that the plebeians, who made up 95% of the population had no voice in the government. This is the reason why..."
Before I can finish my sentence, Stan is jumping in the air, "Yooooooo! Yoooooo! Yooooo, Ms. Buddington...you don't see that..."
Before Stan can finish his sentence, Marcus cuts him off too, "Ms. Buddington, Stan is about to make another analogy about history repeating itself."
Marcus rolls his eyes and I'm prepared for another Republican and Liberal showdown in my classroom. Um, did I mention these kids are eleven?
Stan tries to keep cool. He's had a few incidents in the last few months and I can tell that he's trying to stay out of trouble, "You know...I'm trying to make real-time connections, while you're trying to connect with this fade."
He failed. Lordt.
For those of you that don't know what a fade is, I'm going to suggest context clues to figure it out.
The whole class erupted in their infamous reaction, "OOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!"
I asked Stan to step outside and wait for me. Stan follows directions and starts walking out when Marcus speaks again, "See? Patricians were not just wealthy, they were probably the smartest. Smart enough not to make comments like that in class. That's why they made the laws. I understand that. My family would've been patri...."
Stan runs back in and jumps up and down yelling, "We live in the same building Marcus. Your momma's a pleb! We plebs!"
Needless to say, #weplebs has become legendary in our school. This wasn't the best example of cultural relevancy, but it sure shows that they got the message. Stan was written up and Marcus was given a warning, but both students are in my advisory. We had a lengthy and engaging discussion about Stan's connections to our current government officials. He feels that they are not a good representation of our diverse nation. He mentions the Articles of Confederation and the Constitutional Convention in conjunction with, "When will a room filled with rich with men stop speaking for all of us?"
I don't discuss my personal politics with students, but I certainly agree.
Marcus' argument was one of giving-Trump-a-chance and modern-rebellions-aren't-tactical.
Agree with Marcus? Not so much.
Despite how I felt, I gave both students a forum to discuss their thoughts in correlation with the ancient civilization we were studying. Other students chimed in, excited about their own connections. All lessons that I'm able to connect to a current or culturally relevant moment or text are the most retained. The test scores are exponentially greater.
Stan is an extension child. An extension activity is one that extends the learning of the lesson. This is especially helpful for students that are advanced, that blitz through the lesson component before you intend for it to be finished. I create lessons with Stan in mind. He is undoubtedly my muse. He always asks questions that further the activity and he is not afraid to debate the instructor and other students on topics he feels passionate about. He embraces more work.
If we're learning about marginalization in Ancient Rome, extensions are on Martin Luther King's fight for minority rights.If we're learning about Greek mythology, I might break out in a song using the "Broccoli" beat: In the miiiiddle of the story about Kronos// He ate Rhea's babies...almost all of those// If our topic for today's lesson is the United States Constitution and the Reconstruction amendments, we're discussing how the Black Panther Party utilized it in their ten-point program to reaffirm what they were promised. If it is National Poetry Month, Women's History Month, or National Hispanic Heritage Month, we are learning about brown leaders' contribution to our great nation and beyond.
A fellow educator, that teaches at a school of 98% children of color, hears me cite these examples during a training and rolls his eyes, "Our kids need to learn that, but they need to learn the other things too. Their learning should be diverse. They should be informed and empowered on several fronts."
I employ him to show me the diversity of his curriculum. He is a tenth-grade English teacher. He scans his syllabus and his fingers land on the slave narrative of Olaudah Equiano. He can't find anything else. He is teaching J.D. Salinger, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, C.S. Lewis, and other authors that resemble them.
He's embarrassed, "I'm advocating for Toni Morrison's "Bluest Eye" for next year and..."
I snicker and cut him off, "Sir, who leaves your class empowered? The blue-eyed children that mirror the protagonists or the brown children that rarely exist in them, except for in the space of servitude."
He sinks into his seat, defeated. We are asked to modify our curriculums, at the end of the training. Administrators tell educators to speak up, if they'd like to teach anything that isn't on their given framework. He says nothing.
But then you'd like to go in front of my children and speak?
Diversity means variety. It does not mean the assumption that one knows oneself and should be spoon-fed stories of otherness. It does not mean a sliver of your antiquity threaded into the spine of a textbook that rarely mentions your name. It does not translate to one-off oral histories of something you studied in college, rehashed in a nervous tone.
Cultural relevancy is the ability to run your fingers along the library plastic-covered featured books and trace illustrations of brown lips and smiles. It is the ability to have a say-so in the context you teach, instead of an email list sent to you at 2 pm, when you teach until 3 pm, that states that you have one hour to push in a few titles that reflect the children you love. It is not sitting at 3:30 pm, crying that you missed the email and that your administration thinks that Walter Dean Myers is the only black author that exists.
Cultural competency lives in your teaching philosophy. It's my Jewish high-school English teacher realizing that we struggled with grasping the central idea of a text. It's making us rap Ludacris lyrics while bobbing his yarmulke, and asking us for the main point. It's asking us to apply it to Alice Walker and Lorraine Hansberry. It's a realization, in the middle of the year, that we needed something different, something revolutionary.
Diversity is multiple mirrors. It's seeing people that looked like us on those READ posters: Denzel Washington, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, and more. It's adorning the school in paraphernalia that screams: you matter, you matter, you matter, in a time where everything aesthetic is telling our children that they don't.
It is recognizing that we learn differently. We respond to drumbeat and heartbeat, lyricism and laughter, feeling and knowing, seeing and scribing.
Stan and my students teach me this, every day. They lunge at work that opens a door into who they once were or who they could be. They are hungry, in a world that starves them of profound and brown imagery.
Stan spends less time sprawled across his desk these days. I always look to him to tell me about the lesson and its palpability. He uses his too-cool-for-middle-school voice because he doesn't want to "gas me up" (his words), "It was cool...keep it up." He leaves my room and heads to the locker for his jacket, when another student runs up to him, "We plebs, son!"
The student runs away, laughing.
Stan laughs too, "And proud, son! We rebel and we have as much say as the patricians. In fact, we become the patricians! We become the dream!"
*Students names were changed for privacy.
Erica Buddington is an author and arts educator based in Brooklyn, New York. Erica owns Langston League a company that designs equitable and culturally relevant curriculum and workshops, for children of color. You can find out more about her at www.ericabuddington.com. You can follow her musings and her work on Twitter and Instagram.