Gregory Landrigan: 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.

Gregory Landrigan, or Mr. Landrigan, teaches middle school global studies and ESL at a Catholic bilingual school in Arlington, Virginia.

Listen to an excerpt of his interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

Last year you were a core member of the D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice People’s History Curriculum Working Group, which was one of the Teaching for Black Lives study groups last year. If you had to describe the impact being in that study group has had in your classroom in just a few words, what would you say?

I think being part of that working group was incredibly important for me because it gave me a space where I could bring different ideas, but also hear other teachers’ ideas. I think one of the ways in which that space was absolutely critical was the importance of collaboration and having colleagues who are like-minded in the teaching profession, so that we had that opportunity to cross pollinate and also have some affirmation that the work that we were engaged in, in our own classrooms and in our own school settings, was resonating in other spaces in and around the city.

Do you have a story from your classroom that exemplifies that impact?

One of the things that I did last year — actually it was in the spring of 2020 after George Floyd’s murder, and as the need for a serious movement to protect Black lives became very apparent — I wrote a grant so that we could get a class set of Stamped, which was written by Jason Reynolds and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. I had those books in hand at the beginning of the year and I knew I was going to use them. But one of the things that the working group really helped me with was to start to conceptualize the ways in which other teachers around the city had used the book. It wasn’t that I had cut-and-paste lesson plans that I received, but more just the opportunity to have other teachers as a sounding board, to have access to, well, “This worked with my students” or “These are some of the conversations that I saw coming out.”

One of the things that I really believe in, one of the reasons why I think class sets and having classes read the same texts are important, is because it gives common language for students to be able to then engage in meaningful conversations. That was something that became important as I noticed that my students are now engaging in these conversations. I was able to speak to other teachers who had engaged their students in the same types of conversations and utilizing this same text. By talking with them about the ways in which they had initiated these conversations with their students and the ways in which they had used that exact same text with their students — to be able to have this common language to talk about racism, to talk about anti-racism, to talk about what needs to be done in society to make this a stronger society, and to move in a direction in which we can subvert the racist power structures — it really empowered me as a teacher to feel comfortable bringing my book to my students and devising sort of a schema for how to engage my students to have the types of conversations that I wanted them to have coming out of reading this book.

Can we talk a little bit about the impact that that has had on you, and the impact it’s had on your classroom, especially the fact that it was a year shaped by the uprising after the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic? Can you tell us a story from your classroom that exemplifies the impact?

So, I think one of the things that we as educators are asking students to do when we engage them to speak about racism and we engage them to speak about racist power structures, and then we also give them the space to contemplate and engage in discussions of anti-racism, is that we are asking them to recognize their participation in these racist power structures. And sometimes for a student that would be from the perspective of being oppressed, and sometimes from a student it would be from the perspective of being someone who has benefited or been privileged from the power structures as they are. As a white man, I need to be very cognizant of the ways in which I perhaps have benefited from racist power structures, and that needs to be foundational to the contemplations I have as I build lessons. It also needs to be something that I can model for my students, in terms of being transparent about that for my students in the classroom.

Those are difficult positions to acknowledge, and those are difficult spaces to enter into as a teacher, in terms of the classroom. And just as a human being, they are difficult spaces to enter into in terms of our thoughts. So for me, that has been something very important — to acknowledge those spaces of privilege that I have perhaps benefited from, that my family perhaps has benefited from, and be honest about that for the sake of my students in order to enable those conversations inside of our classrooms.

Can we get your thoughts on the growing number of anti-history education bills?

The thing about power and people who possess power is that it’s not ever given up easily. I think one of the things that we’re currently seeing with this movement to negate teachers’ abilities to teach honestly about history, to teach openly about racial power structures, to address racism and engage students to contemplate anti-racism in classrooms, is that it speaks to how powerful education is. The reason why there are these movements to restrict what teachers are able to teach is because of the fact that there’s an understanding of how powerful education is, how powerful a classroom is. And there’s a desire to disable a change of those power structures. So this legislation is really about preserving power and restricting, disempowering the strength of a classroom and the strength of education.

Have you participated in the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, and if you have, can you tell us a little bit about your experience?

At Sacred Heart, I have worked as a religion teacher for the 7th graders. One of the spaces in which I was able to engage my students to think about and to address racism was in religion class, because among the standards for religion class are for students to learn a deep understanding of Catholic social doctrine. Anti-racism and subverting racist power structures is an element of what Catholics are called to do, and it beautifully fits into the standards for 7th grade religion class. What we did in my religion class during each of the last several years is really to spend the totality of the week of action, the Black Lives Matter Week of Action at Schools, looking specifically at the demands and then trying to understand the Black Lives Matter movement as a movement. We looked very closely at the demands that were made as part of the Black Lives Matter Week of Action at Schools, and I saw my students start to unpack their own learning and their own experiences in schools. Among the pieces of one of the demands is that there be more African American educators. And I saw my students go, “Wait a second, how many Black teachers have we had during our time here?” And then they were counting and they’re kind of recognizing, “Oh, some, but maybe not enough.” It became a big element of how they had this sort of metacognitive moment thinking about their own schooling, and it really emerged out of this exploration of the demands.

Six years ago I was teaching 5th grade around the time that the Black Lives Matter movement was really picking up steam and the movement was focused on what had happened in Ferguson. And a lot of my students, a lot of my 5th graders at the time, the majority of whom are Hispanic, felt that there was a problem with saying that Black lives matter. I don’t know if it’s because they personally felt excluded from it or if there was something else that was at play, but when that happened, when students were having issues with the ability to say Black Lives Matter, my colleagues and I realized we really needed to teach that. So over the last six years, that has been an element, that has been a common thread that has gone through a lot of the classrooms at my school and has been a large portion of the conversations that we’ve had as teaching teams. To that end, we’ve really explored every year, and the Black Lives Matter Week of Action at School has been something that we have engaged in annually. We also have consistently brought into our classrooms and integrated into our learning structures different conversations about the fact that Black lives matter. What I’ve seen over the last six years is that my students have moved in a direction of recognizing that if they can’t say that Black lives matter, then they can’t say that any lives matter. So, by recognizing the Black Lives Matter movement, my students have come to realize that they’re also saying that their own lives matter.

And I wrote a statement about this: In a school where Black Lives Matter, we talk about it. All of it. The heritage of oppression that sits under our history, often hidden, but frequently, not hidden well. Where Black Lives Matter, our studies become a space to arm ourselves with the knowledge needed to effect positive change towards justice, and students know their educators see the brilliant light of their future success. Where Black Lives Matter, students bring themselves in their stories, their families, and their culture into their learning, and hopefully leave empowered and ready. Where Black Lives Matter, all students are loved, and more than that, all students know they are loved, supported, and that their best interests are the purpose of every decision.

Is there anything else that we have not covered that you’d like to throw out there?

So, after George Floyd was murdered last spring, my principal became very interested in ensuring that we were practicing anti-racist pedagogy, and that became a focus as a school community. One of the things that has been empowering for me as a teacher is that it wasn’t just something that was happening in my classroom — that we were talking about race and racism — it was something that was literally happening in every classroom throughout the school. So the knowledge that we were all, as a school community, engaged in different ways in trying to activate anti-racist ideologies and trying to engage our students to speak about and think about and subvert racist power structures was just this beautifully empowering aspect to the last year for me.

What would you say particularly to white teachers who feel that this is not their work, or their lane, or their territory?

I got into teaching because when I was in the Peace Corps, somehow a copy of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed came into my hands. Upon reading that I realized that when I want to come back to the United States, teaching is what I’m going to pursue. To that end, I have consistently found that the thing that defines for me who I want to be as a teacher and the spaces in which I seek inspiration from my teaching is frequently in what I read. To that end, I would say in particular for somebody who’s grappling with “Well, where’s my role in trying to engage students to have these conversations?” I would suggest that you explore literature that engages in discussions around anti-racism.

I think that James Baldwin is a wonderful starting point. But recently, for me, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been one of the most inspiring writers. Last summer I finished reading We Were Eight Years in Power and I just felt after reading that, that those were the sorts of thoughts that I wanted my students to have in their lives. So I would suggest that anybody who’s feeling resistant or feeling like, “Well, this isn’t for me, I don’t feel that comfortable accessing this.” I would suggest looking at the books that you can pick up and the books that you can read and thinking: How can I broaden and deepen my own contemplations of what it means to be an anti-racist? What does it mean to be an ally? What does it mean to engage in trying to subvert racist power structures?

And then recognizing that we just want our students to have those same opportunities for thinking and acting that we would like to have for ourselves, that we would like to engage in ourselves. I think that it becomes messy in a classroom, and I think that it becomes uncomfortable in a classroom, and I think that that is a part of what we should be asking our students to engage in. Even if it’s not because we’re talking about racism, we want our students to engage in the messiness of trying to have deep thoughts and express those thoughts and to do so eloquently. And so we want our students to be able to engage in those contemplations, whether they’re thinking about women’s rights, whether they’re thinking about immigration, whether they’re thinking about any of a number of different issues that really should be at the forefront of what students are contemplating and talking about inside of classrooms.