I closed my eyes, waiting anxiously for Mr. T to announce today’s American History lesson, hoping that we would be moving on to a new topic. I cringed as I heard the familiar phrase, “We’re going to continue our study on slavery in the South.”
Such an ugly word that made me feel so inadequate, so helpless—and so disengaged. As Mr. T began his lesson, I could feel the eyes in the room burning a hole in the side of my face as students turned to glance at me, the only Black student here.
I focused my attention on the clock and waited, once again, for the 45 minutes of torture to end.
As a grade school student, I always felt disconnected from what we were learning. None of the teachers I had from kindergarten through 12th grade looked like me and none of them ever attempted to connect me or my experiences to what we were learning.
I remember spending weeks learning about the accomplishments of leaders like Abraham Lincoln and General Sherman, and studying classics penned by Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I saw the excitement in my teachers’ faces as they taught about the American figures they so clearly admired.
I waited my entire grade school career to experience that same kind of excitement learning of the accomplishments of people who looked like me–but unfortunately, I never did.
The only exception was when we talked about slavery. Consequently, I graduated high school convinced that the only contribution that Black people made to this country was through servitude.
Like many other students of color, I left high school feeling ashamed of my culture and defeated by the history I had learned of my people.
During my early years of teaching, when my predominantly Black classes were still exclusively reading books by white authors, I would hear my students’ sighs and watch their heads go down each time they pulled out their readings. One day, a student asked, “Why don’t we ever read books by Black authors?”
As I processed her question, I realized that my students were eager to learn, but from texts written by authors who connected with them and their experiences.
Their disengagement came from the same place as mine in Mr. T’s classroom.
From that moment on, I decided to become the teacher I never had in grade school, one who helps to connect my students and their experiences to the content they are learning and encourages students of color to embrace their beautiful heritage.
I made a conscious shift in the books I exposed my students to, adding works to the classics by literary geniuses of color who gave voice to the powerless, like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, as well as diversifying the voices of authors in our classroom library.
To my delight, those shifts brought about enormous change in my classroom.
Our class discussions became richer and more authentic. Students were asking genuine questions about texts and even discussing books from class outside of the classroom. My classroom is now a space in which my students’ experiences and history are highlighted and honored, where my students are surrounded by texts from authors who look like them and bring voice to their experiences.
Together, we create a place where diversity is respected, and people of color feel affirmed.
My experience is supported by research: studies have shown that students of color benefit in multiple ways from culturally inclusive curricula, including improvements in achievement, attendance, engagement, and self-esteem.
We are at a critical moment in education, and need parents, students, and teachers across Pennsylvania to pressure their local school and district leaders to take steps to build culturally affirming environments.
Every child in Pennsylvania, regardless of race or background, deserves to see themselves represented and affirmed in their schools and classrooms. Our students are counting on us to give them the rich and diverse educational experiences that they truly need and deserve.
Brigitte Tshishimbi is a Senior Teach Plus Pennsylvania Policy Fellow. She is a department chair and teaches English at Freire Charter Middle School in Philadelphia.