Jesse Hagopian: 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.

Jesse Hagopian, teaches high school Ethnic Studies and Black Studies in Seattle, Washington. He is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine and a co-editor of the book Teaching for Black Lives.

Listen to an excerpt of his interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

Teaching for Black Lives grew out of decades of educators teaching for racial justice and from the Movement for Black Lives. So, how did Teaching for Black Lives grow and begin?

Rethinking Schools has long been a platform of anti-racist educators to help them share their teaching ideas and their anti-racist lesson plans to help affirm the lives of Black students and teach Black history. That is all too often whitewashed out of the corporate curriculum. And when the Black Lives Matter at School movement erupted as part of the broader Movement for Black Lives, we knew we had to find ways to support educators in engaging with this movement and that help them to help their students understand the context of this movement and how they could be involved in the latest uprising for racial justice.

We write in the introduction to the book Teaching for Black Lives that corporate curriculum all too often lies to our students and conceals the pain and the injustice, masks racism, and really demeans our Black students. And so Teaching for Black Lives is a completely different approach to the classroom. It’s about not relegating Black history only to certain historical time periods or or events or even to only certain classes like history. We want Black lives to be affirmed and centered in science and math and literature and the arts.

Teaching for Black lives means centering Blackness in the curriculum and teaching about the pre-colonial history of Africa and the resistance to enslavement. Because my history didn’t start with enslavement; it was interrupted by enslavement. And I think, crucially, teaching for Black lives means centering Black students in the classroom and asking them about their experiences and being willing to learn from them as well.

What does it mean to have your life affirmed, and then why is it important for Black students to have that life-affirming curriculum?

Teaching for Black Lives affirms our Black students because it helps them understand the context for so much of what they’re experiencing in their lives. Students around the country are coming into classrooms and they’re asking their teachers important and challenging questions.

They’re asking: Why are our schools so segregated today? They’re asking us: Why is it increasingly becoming hard to vote in this country? They’re asking us why so many Black and Indigenous and people of color are dying from COVID at disproportionate rates. They’re asking us why Black students are suspended at such disproportionate rates. And we have a responsibility to help students answer those questions in the classroom. And Teaching for Black Lives provides the context and the historical background to help students understand the reality of the world they live in so that they can be part of collective solutions.

How is this Teaching for Black Lives curriculum important for all students? Why is it also life affirming for non-Black students to have a curriculum that teaches them about Black history?

I believe that all students deserve to learn the truth about the incredible contributions and struggles of Black people in this country. All students benefit greatly from learning about how Black people and the Black Freedom Struggle has been vital to struggles for democracy in this country.

I think all students deserve to learn the context for why they’re experiencing such incredible levels of structural racism in our society today. Students want to understand why there are so many viral videos of police brutalizing Black people. Students are demanding to understand why their schools and their classrooms are so segregated. And all students deserve an understanding of that. And all students deserve to understand the immense contributions that Black people have given this country — the cultural contributions, the musical contributions, the contributions to the struggle for democracy. I mean, that’s a short list of it.

Why is it important to transform our schools into sites of resistance, justice, joy, and liberation?

In too many places around the country, our schools are sites of shame, control, and discipline. And we want to transform our schools to make them about sites of joy, justice, and liberation. Our students deserve to be affirmed in the classroom and our Black students deserve to see themselves in the curriculum. And that’s the struggle that we’re engaged in with Teaching for Black Lives.

Anything else at all that you want to say out loud that comes to mind?

I’ve seen the transformative nature of Teaching for Black Lives in my own classroom, and I’m excited to share these lessons with educators around the country so that they can see what happens when all students — when Asian students, when Arab students, when Native American students, when Latinx students, when all of our students — learn about the beauty and the brilliance of Black people and the Black Freedom Struggle.

I’ve seen the power of Teaching for Black Lives in my own classroom, and I’m so excited to get to share these lessons with educators all across the country so that they can experience what it’s like when all of their students get to learn the incredible story of the Black Freedom Struggle.