Wendy Harris: 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.

Wendy Harris, teaches high school social studies at Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Minnesota. She also participated in a Teaching for Black Lives study group and supports the Zinn Education Project classes as a facilitator.

Listen to an excerpt of her interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

Can you describe your school setting and a little bit about why you’re eager to start a Teaching for Black Lives study group?

I’m in St. Paul, Minnesota. Last year when George Floyd was murdered, a lot of my students live in that neighborhood, or they saw it on TV, they have lived experience, and they really were involved emotionally in what was going on. I felt like me, as a hearing white teacher working with these kids who have a different life experience than my own, I really needed to delve deeper than I already had in what I’m teaching, how I’m approaching things, how I’m bringing these lived experiences, these daily occurrences, into my classroom in a way that’s effective and supporting of my students.

Looking back on the year of work, can you talk about how the study group affected you?

I already had bought a copy and read through the Teaching for Black Lives book, but when I saw the call for a grant to provide books for a study group, I knew this was something that would appeal to some of my colleagues. A lot of my colleagues really wanted to do something, not sure what, but something. They were in the same position as me and our students were going through since it’s right in our neighborhood. We can see and smell the smoke, and what could we do? So I put out a call and said, “Who wants to be part of this?” It was a self-selected group of people who were motivated to meet and discuss, and we’re actually continuing next year as well, continuing on to do a self-analysis, the learning, and also develop action plans to bring to our students, to our school, to see if we can make more systemic changes.

What has stood out for me in our conversations in my book study group is just how the little things that we do every day make a difference, and how they’re not actually so little. So anything that we do around our students, with our students, makes a big difference. And my study group actually was not all teachers; we had a psychologist, a school counselor, and different perspectives in the group. Looking at how we can address the situations our students find themselves in from a variety of perspectives was really meaningful.

Any particular articles from the book that stood out to you or feels particularly significant to you?

It’s cumulative rather than specific. One thing we did talk about in our group, because we had the school psychologist with us, was testing and the history of standardized testing, and the impact standardized testing has on us, and why we do it, what it causes within ourselves and our students and our school, and what message we are sending, and what we can do beyond that. That was really an interesting conversation. It wasn’t started from the book, but drew on the experience and knowledge of the people in the group to be able to talk about what is the standardized testing that we give our students and what is it actually looking at, and what benefit or harm can it be causing? So, that was interesting for me from a historical perspective, and the school psychologist from the psychological testing perspective, and just different perspectives brought to the table to talk about testing was an interesting thing that we might be working on as part of our action plan next year. We haven’t picked exactly what we’ll be doing, but that’s one thing that’s on the table.

So you attended a lot of the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online classes. Can you talk about the value of those for you, or any highlights that stand out?

For me, the classes for teachers about the Black Freedom Struggle, a lot of the information was not brand new, but I feel like it’s so easy for me as a white teacher in a white school system in a white educational environment in the United States to just fall back onto what I was raised on, what I knew before, what I experienced as a student. So for me, one of the intentional practices I do is to continually read and be reminded of things, be reminded of events in history, of perspectives, of names of people, so that when I do teach about things, anything in my class, it just broadens my background knowledge. So, a comment in class can spark something I can bring to the class for discussion, or just a side tangent when something comes up in class. So that’s what I got from the sessions: just remembering, reinforcing, and reminding myself to constantly bring these things to the forefront.

Can you talk about what it means to you as an educator to teach for Black lives?

As a white hearing teacher in a deaf school with a variety of students from a lot of different backgrounds — refugees, immigrants, families who’ve been in the United States for generations — teaching for Black lives for me is bringing all of those experiences into the classroom, recognizing and affirming those experiences, and also analyzing them — looking at the status quo, looking at who we are, where we come from, what we are experiencing within a broader context, and being explicit about that.

If you were to share with educators in another city who were thinking about creating a study group, what would you tell them the benefits are?

I think, as a teacher, we can get so drawn into the daily little bits and pieces of lesson plans and attendance and grades that having the study group and having the time set aside regularly to meet with people who have the same ambitions really gives us the ability to talk about and discuss and develop our knowledge and understanding about bigger issues — the things we really do care about but that can easily be just hidden in the daily minutiae of what we’re doing. So having that study group, having resources ready — not having to look for articles or look for things to discuss, but having a book ready and a wide range of chapters that can address different needs and places that a school can be in — really was helpful. A time and place to discuss things is very important.

Yours was the only study group at a school for the deaf. Did your group have any insights you’d be willing to share about the relationship between racial justice and disability justice in schools?

My group is the only one that was at a deaf school, and we are so used to looking at the world from a hearing/deaf perspective that sometimes we had to back off. We’re talking about race here, because race does affect everything, including deaf people’s experience in a hearing society. We just so comfortably fall back to discussing hearing/deaf issues that really putting race in the forefront, I think, was a meaningful sort of frame shift for us.

We do think about oppression. We do think about access. We do think about a lot of these historical cumulative impacts on our students, but usually from the single lens of hearing/deaf. And I think bringing in the racial anti-Black, the Black power, that perspective into our conversations or into a setting where we usually have conversations about hearing/deaf really helps us start to acknowledge exactly who is in our classroom.

Intersectionality is such a huge thing, and our students are not just deaf, not just hard of hearing, not just deaf-blind, but they bring in whole complicated identities, and talking about Black lives in the classroom really can help us identify these intersections and help our students understand who they are in this world and their place and how they can interact with each other and society. I think it was really beneficial for us as staff, and as we start really deepening that conversation with our students I think it will be beneficial to them as well.

Anything else you’d like to say about the Teaching for Black Lives campaign and study groups that we haven’t asked a direct question about?

I think that our school, like many schools, has a lot of initiatives going on. We have a lot of things that the administration wants us to work on, that they’re feeling pressure from the state, from other places, to work on, even though people have the heart and the desire to work towards social justice, to work towards making our classrooms more inclusive of what the history actually is and how that impacts us today.

Last spring, right after the murder of George Floyd, we had a groundswell of motivation amongst the staff at my school to talk about issues, to figure out how we can make things better for our students. And then we had the summer and then school started. I think this grant and this book study group gave a small group of us the grounding to make sure we continue the work that we are motivated to work on. The administration supports us in mind and heart, but they didn’t have the time and space to make that a priority for the whole staff. So, I think this grant really helped us, as a small group within the school, start the work ourselves.

Can you list the three words that describe your motivation for teaching about Black lives?

Priorities. Focus. Delving deeply.

Do you have any anecdotes to share about the effect on your students, of you engaging in this, any feedback that you’ve received, whether they know that you’re doing the study group or not?

One activity I did this year was talking about protest art and having the students think about how they could protest about where we’re studying imperialism and colonization and drawing that into the current day and ways to do protest art. I had photographs of various protest art from last spring around Minneapolis and St. Paul, and then there was a two-page artwork from the study book that I showed my students and told them that this is a book that I’m studying with other staff. I think that the students looked at me, processing that, but no one made a comment. But they were really involved in the artwork that was in that picture, and I think that helped. Having the artwork in a book also brought me to the place where I want to bring examples of protest art to my classroom. So, indirectly, they were really engaged in the art that they saw photos of, and that was from my experience in the study group.

I wonder how it feels in the classroom or in the setting of a study group to be doing this in the moment that the United States is in right now. Is there a certain tension in the room, or the opposite because you are doing that and going through it? I just feel like doing this at this time is so specific and particular that I wonder if you want to talk about that.

I’ve been bringing race into the classroom for over ten years now, for most of my teaching career, at least. I sometimes feel like I don’t really know what the students’ reactions are or where they’re coming from. A lot of my students have families who don’t know sign language, so they can’t talk to their families about issues of importance to them. They don’t hear their family’s reactions to events that are happening in the community. So I try to bring as much as I can into the classroom. I know students have responded, they had seen something similar in the past. But this year, working with social justice and race issues in the classroom — when everything was so immediate to everyone in the class, not just the students of color, not just the students who live in particular neighborhoods, everybody knew what was going on, everybody realized there were things happening, even if they never had been able to talk to their families about it — really brought clarity to the conversation this year, as well as emotions from all sides. I think that that was a big benefit of having this focus this year, but also having the United States and the world focusing on this this year. So my students saw that we were having conversations in the classroom but also made direct connections to the news that we were seeing, to the updates that we kept seeing about the trial, to other things that were going on in their community. I think it made it more present and more real for my students.