Jeremy Furlow-Aponte: Educator Reflections

Since 2020, the Zinn Education Project has hosted hundreds of Teaching for Black Lives Study Groups. Each study group receives copies of Teaching for Black Lives and a Rethinking Schools subscription for each participant, a year-long menu of workshops and seminars to choose from, and access to a network of social justice teachers across the United States. 

In 2021, participants in the Teaching for Black Lives campaign — study groups, online classes, and/or Teach Truth Day of Action — were interviewed to reflect on their experience.

Jeremy Furlow-Aponte, 5th-6th grade Ethnic Studies teacher in Boston and lead facilitator of the Boston Black Studies Collective group.

Listen to an excerpt of his interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

What was your role with the Teaching for Black Lives study group?

With the Teaching for Black Lives study group, I’m essentially the contact person and the lead facilitator to help support our relationship between the Black Lives Matter Study Group coordinators at Rethinking Schools and our group, the Boston Black Studies Collective.

How did you imagine that the study group might support the work that your group was already doing to advance Ethnic Studies in the district?

I think one of the things that we identified, even in this larger Ethnic Studies context, is that Black Studies is something that has been a long-term demand of the Black community in Boston since at least 1968. But it’s often something that’s been minimized and reduced, and even with the Ethnic Studies work as well, Black Studies is something that’s marginalized, even though it’s so primary to the history of Ethnic Studies. But in terms of working with Rethinking Schools, part of what we really needed support with, I think, was thinking of ways to get teachers involved with writing actual units and creating curriculum. Because that’s been a long-term need, and it’s one of those areas where teachers need support, because oftentimes we have to depend upon these pre-made curriculums, or we have to wait essentially for the district to give us the materials we need. So the biggest point of support was really facilitating curriculum writing workshops — that was the big thing that really helped us actually produce units that can be shared and can be taught in K–12 classrooms.

The third question builds off of that one. We understand that your group had a curriculum writing workshop and created a Black Studies vision and Black Studies curriculum units. Can you tell us about that experience and the outcome?

Ultimately, I think one of the biggest challenges, especially during the pandemic, was actually just getting teachers, community members, and students all together in the same place at one time to create these units. But, what was most helpful with the partnership with Rethinking Schools is that I was able to figure out some of the best ways to get people engaged in this process and build on some of the experiences that some of the veteran educators have already had at Rethinking Schools. So, our actual curriculum units were sustained and supported through this experience that I had with Rethinking Schools, where we planned with best practices for a workshop within our timeframe, and then even use some of those model units that were shared with us to help us guide this process and support people in terms of the planning for each of the units. Ultimately, we had people group up around specific topics that they were most interested in, and people worked together collaboratively to produce these multi-day units. Then, just recently, we were able to share them with our larger community.

When developing the curriculum, can you tell us about that experience? 

Essentially, the Boston Black Studies Collective was formed just by reaching out to people in the larger Ethnic Studies network in the city of Boston. Really, the purpose was to focus on the creation of curriculum units. We didn’t want to limit ourselves to just Boston public school employees, so we also encouraged students, community members, activists, anybody who was interested in doing this work. We held political education sessions. That was one of the main things that really helped us to get to a place where it was possible to write curriculum. That’s really, too, where our partnership with Rethinking Schools took off, because the biggest need that we had was to try to figure out ways to support teachers and working together to create original curriculum units that are based on some of these more radical topics.

So we had units created around COINTELPRO, Black political prisoners, the Black experience organizing between Reconstruction and World War II (focusing on the UNIA [the Universal Negro Improvement Association] and the Communist Party), Black permaculture, the Black arts movement — all those things were units that people were interested in developing, and our partnership with Rethinking Schools really allowed us to kind of think of the best ways to do this, and also how to support teachers through this process. So we were actually able to kind of do some work as students, doing a unit with a facilitator from Rethinking Schools about reparations, and we had a process of discussing some of the things that we liked about the unit, things that we would improve upon, and that also allowed us to reflect on our own practices.

Again, with Rethinking Schools, the big thing that we were able to accomplish was the creation of these units. And part of our relationship was really planning out curriculum-writing workshops. Which for us is something that I would say is relatively unheard of in our district; that’s not something that really teachers do. Ultimately, teachers depend upon pre-made curricula or whatever you can kind of scrounge from the internet. So this process has allowed us to continue to create additional workshops and then use this model that Rethinking Schools has provided to kind of build and grow our Boston Black Studies Collective and the larger work of providing our students with more radical materials in terms of our classroom practice — things that are not based upon pre-made curricula or the political interests of some persons in our district.

Can you tell us about the impact of that and what students brought to it and why that was important?

It was important for us to include students because we really needed their perspectives to be able to shape the units we were developing, and also really to learn about what’s going on in classrooms. So, one of the big things, I think, is that a lot of times we internalize the experiences that we have with our students and maybe assume that it’s a norm or something for most students. But one of the biggest things that our students have really been able to share with us is that they’re struggling through some of the same problems that led to the student walk-outs in ‘68 and again later in the ‘90s, in terms of not being provided with an education that respects their identities — specifically the Black identity and Black communities in Boston.

I think oftentimes we have these assumptions about what students are learning, but they’re able to directly share with us what they are not learning in school, and that does help to inform and shape whatever curriculum work we do. And really just for the simple fact that students are able to say if something’s good or something’s bad, without that barrier of professionalism. I think that blocks up a lot of meaningful work. But also, I think the students were a huge motivating factor for the adults participating in the group. For example, we had required political education, and the students were some of the most active participants in that political education process. Besides going to school, working a job, and just kind of getting through the day-to-day in a global pandemic, they would come through to our meetings having read the articles and ready to talk about them. It really kind of turned things around in terms of how adults were showing up to this space and engaging with the work. If the students can pull through and read this article, then you can too. You can find time to do it.

For us, it just makes the experience that much more deep, that much more authentic, and we can really find ways to be in solidarity together, to be in community together, without our school district and professional titles to interfere with the work that we’re doing. The students and their participation was incredible in terms of how it shifted things within our group, and also how it helped to shape some of the units we were developing, to really engage some of these important points that are missing from the majority of classrooms in the city of Boston.

Do you have a specific anecdote to share about the student participation — a powerful moment either from the classroom or from the curriculum building that you can share about student impact?

Ultimately, what we had done was that, in the beginning, we had political education, we had the curriculum-writing workshop, we had the curriculum-writing process, and then at the end we were going to have a culminating event to share the curriculum. In planning that event, really what was decided as a collective was that we would have multiple panels. So we’re going to have some veteran educators involved with the Black studies walkouts in the 1990s at English High School, some of the professors locally who liked our work and also professors from other cities across the country, and then we’re going to have a student panel, and then kind of at the very end share our curriculum.

I think for the people who witnessed what took place at the panel, the students really were the stars of that panel. They were the highlight. They were able to really dig deep and share about their experiences in schools in a really strong, powerful way to call out what’s been going on in terms of the school district really not doing a good job of supporting our Black students or providing safe and healthy spaces for them to even be in school. The energy that they provided in that space was something that’s hard to even estimate, but essentially, above everything else, the culminating experience we have with these students on this panel was really what I think made everything feel like we’ve come full circle with this. The students are leaders in this work, and our relationships with students are essential if we’re going to sustain things like Black Studies in the city of Boston or across the country.

I think a lot of decisions are made by adults for students, and what our students were really able to share with our audience was that there’s some really serious consequences for this rampant adultism and exclusion of Black students from the actual process of planning the things that they will be learning in their schools. I think they really were able, in a very forceful way, to state what the problem is and also provide suggestions for how we can solve those problems within our district, and then also across the districts of the United States.

It sounds super powerful for students to be participating in this. How do you think it makes students feel to be doing this work?

I think it makes students feel, not to be corny, but empowered to be a part of the process in doing this work. For us, one of the big things that we wanted to emphasize was that while we were in our Black Studies Collective space, we were not working for Boston Public Schools — that this was an independent group, that we were building community. Also, the relationships that we have in the classroom needed to end whenever we were all present together in this Black Studies Collective space. That’s one of the things that the students emphasized, that they appreciated that we were not treating them like children. We were not treating them like students oftentimes get treated in their classrooms. Even in terms of student participation, we do our best to have this accountability for the adults to make sure that they’re respecting our young people and their autonomy.

At the same time, too, we were actually able to secure a grant through our union to help support this work. One of the things that we did decide as well was that the students were going to be compensated equally to the adults who were participating in the process. I think that was another thing that’s understated, but it was important. It’s not like we’re giving the students a gift card and then giving the teachers a thousand dollars. I think that’s something that’s pretty common in the ways that students are included. That was one of the things that we want to emphasize, again, we don’t tokenize our relations with these young people and that they are equal to a veteran teacher, they are equal to an adult community member who went to after-school and programming or a nonprofit and all that. I think that lens is something that really allowed us to develop something new and original in terms of forming a group that writes curriculum, but then also kind of sets the model essentially for ways that other groups can form and other ways that young people can be included in this work.

And how does it make you feel to be doing this work?

Not to be corny, but I also feel empowered in doing this work. I think what has really been emphasized, in terms of my relationship with our school district, is that oftentimes we feel like we don’t have control over how we relate to our students, our coworkers, and our community. We don’t have control over what we teach, what kind of curriculum materials we’re using. And this is really a way to assert ourselves and to be better able to develop new relationships with our students, with our communities, and even just to create spaces where we can talk about things that are even currently being attacked nationwide. Especially in terms of radical organizations, radical thought, things that we know are essential to developing critical consciousness, but are always questioned, always under attack, and always come with serious consequences in terms of engaging with them.

We know that this is work that makes us enemies of the state in some people’s minds. But for me, I think that’s part of why I do this work — because it is essential, and it is something that is potentially transformative and revolutionary.

I think it would be helpful to double back on one of the words you used. You said, “transformative.” Can you explain to us how this work is transformative? What do you mean by that?

This work is transformative because it allows us to really transform classroom spaces into what we call “fugitive spaces,” spaces where we can be in community — not just as employees of a public school district, but really as community members and to help facilitate this process of developing a critical consciousness. I think that’s really what it’s about. We know that part of public education is to uphold and sustain systems of power and oppression, so being able to facilitate a process where students are able to see that is what opens up the possibility for this sort of societal transformation. If you’re able to understand what the problems are, then it also provides you with the possibility to solve them. But we know that following these state-mandated curriculums isn’t something that is threatening to these systems of power. So, the goal is always to allow students to see the structure of our society and be able to think critically about how we can transform ourselves, our lives, our communities, to be places of justice instead of oppression.

Are there any anecdotes or anything that you can talk about how the work you’re doing goes beyond just the students and any people that came to you to say something, or how does that impact beyond the students themselves?

I think that one of the big disadvantages that we had all year was that we, for the most part, did not have in-person relationships like we used to. Our classrooms weren’t even spaces where a parent was even allowed to be until recently. This past year wasn’t, I think, the best time for this possibility of bringing in family in a meaningful way, or community in a meaningful way. What I would say though, is that I think one of the big things that our group was able to do is really connect with persons that have been involved with the movement for Black Studies in the city of Boston since the late ‘60s. I think that was the big thing.

So, one of the big relationships that we developed was actually with a retired teacher and parent, and she was able to tell us about this long history of struggle that many people were unaware of. She was also one of the persons that we invited to speak at our panel to let our community know that this work has been ongoing, that these demands are ongoing. Again, this is something that, over time, has purposely been dismantled in our city. Black Studies is something that had already been won in the 1970s, but those programs disappeared.

People’s interest with racial and social justice dies out sometimes, over time. There’s this kind of fad or trend, to be involved or active in these liberation struggles. And then, when the problems aren’t present, when we’re not seeing people being killed, or we’re not seeing these protests in the streets and the interest dies away, then the institutions cut these programs free or say that they can’t afford them, they can’t pay for them, they’re not necessary. I think that that’s one thing: We were really able to connect with this larger movement, and also we’ve been able to build upon that.

So, one of the things that we had that I think will really take us to this place you’re talking about in terms of community involvement is through our Black Cities event. Essentially, we were able to bring in different people from across the country and our city that are not teachers. They’re not students: They’re community members. They’re parents. And I think that’s really like a question for the future about seeing this materialize as a movement, or really as a continuation of this larger movement.

But, I really think the best I could say is that the possibility of this growing into something larger is happening now. Throughout this year we haven’t really had those kinds of organic opportunities to see things materialize because we have to depend upon technology to communicate and we really haven’t had that kind of close physical proximity that teachers are really used to, things that are normal.

Why are you doing this?

My “Why” is always ultimately about the responsibility that I have as somebody who is a part of a larger community. Again, I was essentially able to do what we hope that everybody’s able to do in terms of being able to critically read the world. So, if you’re able to read the world, you can plainly see that we don’t have a world where there’s justice for everybody. We live in a world where, essentially, you either work or you starve to death. That is the economic, political, ideological basis for the entire country. For me, it’s a simple issue of I don’t want to exist in a world where our options are to work or to starve to death and die. I don’t want to live in a world or pass on a world to future generations where we don’t have things like clean air and water.

So, even the question of Black Studies is a question of really saving the world. I mean, that’s the simplest way that I can put it. I think that all responsible people have a role to play in saving the world, through Black Studies, and through other means as well, obviously. That’s what it’s about. We see what’s happening with the environment. We see what’s happening with the resurgence of the right wing and fascistic resistance. These are things that, as a person, I oppose. And education work is absolutely a part of that practical means of addressing some of these contradictions in our society, and really creating the possibility for a world where we do have justice, and where we do have the possibility of being liberated from these systems of oppression.

If you have to describe your experience in just three words, what are your three words?

Resistance, solidarity, and community.

What is unique about you as an elementary educator? What does this work mean? What does it mean to work with elementary students when there’s so many people who will say, “Oh, they’re too young to learn about racism. They’re too young to learn about the hate, the killing. We don’t want to scare them”?

I think a lot of people project onto elementary aged students. They assume that they are unaware of what’s happening around them. They assume that the students aren’t interested, they don’t want to be involved. I think one of the things that anybody who’s really done work with elementary students knows is that they are watching, they are aware, and they are searching for ways to be involved. So, I think that’s one of the big things, even over the past year, that we’ve seen is that students are ready to push in ways that a lot of adults aren’t necessarily ready for.

We have our Gen Z young people who are pushing for different relationships with some of these systems of power and oppression, especially in terms of gender, even in terms of being able to choose your own pronouns. To make decisions essentially about who you are in this world — these are things that are coming from the students. They’re not coming from adults. And it’s our responsibility to support them in terms of really even understanding the true history of this country. It’s also something that our young people are capable of understanding, that they are looking for. Oftentimes they are already aware that they aren’t getting the truth in their classrooms. That’s one thing that I’ve noticed in my work with young people as well, is that even outside of the school, they are learning, for example, about Christopher Columbus. Even now, it’s more often that students might have a more complicated understanding of some of these figures related to colonization. But even adults do.

But my experience has always been that our young people — people that are 8, 9, 10, 11 —  that these young people are interested, they are invested, and they are absolutely, entirely capable of learning difficult history, then also acting upon what they learned in terms of finding ways to change their community. They’re finding ways to change the ways they relate to each other and to society through understanding the truth about our history.

Those are all things that over the past year I’ve been able to see in my students. They understand that the Thanksgiving story is a myth, and that it’s a myth that covers up settler colonialism. These are things that young people can understand. They can understand the difference between right and wrong, and they can understand the difference between something that’s just or unjust. I think oftentimes adults might make a lot of assumptions about what young people are capable of, what they’re interested in. But the truth is that our young people do have this amazing capacity for revolutionary change — their minds are oriented towards justice in ways that a lot of adults are not.

I wonder if there’s any anecdote, or story, or moment that comes to mind with the student that came to say something, like to thank you. I feel like there’s plenty of stories that I would love to hear.

One of the things that I want to emphasize is that I feel like the best thing that I like to hear from students is that I would be considered an adult that they trust. So, I think that part of being honest and upfront in terms of how we teach is also that we’re able to develop different relationships with our students, authentic relationships. To me, it’s the way that I can be open and honest about something. Like historical information is also something that is a personal thing. It also is something that helps me to build authentic relationships with young people. That’s not necessarily just about pedagogy, but also about the ways that I think are important to be with students in these spaces where it’s not just about academic performance. I think that we’re trying to cultivate real relationships with students where we’re adults or elders that can be trusted. So students don’t feel afraid to talk about what’s going on in real life or what things are important to them. That’s one thing that I am probably most proud of; it doesn’t really have anything to do with academic achievement. It’s just that there’s students that I can think of by name that come directly to me when they have issues or they have problems. And these are things that we’re able to resolve together. And they have nothing really to do with academics and test scores.

It really is just about having authentic relationships. But then also seeing myself as somebody who’s a part of a community, not as an employee. I’m not just a person who is in a classroom for a certain amount of money, five days a week or something like that. I’m a person that is in the community space and is trying to develop authentic relationships with our young people so that we do have that possibility for this transformation of our society, we do have the possibility of revolutionary change. That’s something that isn’t just about simple pedagogy; it’s also about the relationships we build with each other.