Jessica Rucker: Educator Reflection

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.

Jessica Rucker, American studies doctoral student, former high school teacher in Washington, D.C. and Prentiss Charney Fellow. Listen to an excerpt of her interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

What has it meant to you to be in the D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice [working group]?

I really appreciate being a member of the D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice people’s history curriculum working group. It’s really afforded me an opportunity to have a laboratory of sorts for my pedagogy.

For example, one of the highlights of the group is that our members are middle and high school teachers from the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area. We are all committed to teaching from a people’s history perspective. What this tends to mean, among the members of our group, is that we’re committed to teaching a grassroots, everyday, ordinary people’s history of the United States. We tend to teach beyond textbook narratives, beyond heroes and holidays so to speak. We teach about the individuals, the groups, and the institutions that have woven together the tapestry that is known as the United States. We take this approach without teaching at the expense of the people who are core to its foundation.

Something else I love about our group, too, is that we don’t honor Columbus Day; that would center a lost, white guy who plundered scores of Indigenous folks and stole their land. Instead, we center Indigenous people, Black people, and other people of color, and our various contributions to this nation.

How would you describe the impact of being part of that group on you personally?

I love being a part of a learning community of scholar-activists who are consistently reflecting on their personal identity and their pedagogical practice in the classroom spaces that they occupy. Sometimes maintaining a particular orientation, which some people might describe as a social justice orientation, can feel a little isolating. Right now in our nation there are, as I understand it, six states that are making it illegal to teach U.S. history — just the actual facts. And so to know that there are people like me, specifically in the Washington, D.C. area, who despite laws that seek to repress the truth, pledge to and actually choose to teach the truth is a gift and a mandate. In addition to pledging to teach the truth in our own classroom contexts, we also hold space for each other and hold each other accountable for teaching the truth.

Being in community during a political era that is rife with turmoil is incredible. Being a member of a collective and intentional community of social justice educators is a gift! For example, if I poke somebody with one finger, maybe the poke might get their attention. If I slap somebody, that’ll cause some pain. But when my fingers come together in a concerted effort to form a fist and punch somebody, that punch makes an impact. I apologize for the violent analogy, but that’s what I think about. All these different fingers, people’s history teachers, coming together to raise a collective fist against the individuals and institutions within our own nation that don’t want us to teach the truth. So, intentional community, in terms of our study group, has been very meaningful and impactful.

What do you think of the GOP laws that are being introduced to ban the teaching of history truthfully? What’s your response to that?

I’m absolutely devastated that some of our nation’s decision-makers are in a state of retrograde. It’s absolutely disappointing that there are some lawmakers who want to write and enforce laws that ask us to lie to students. That’s devastating. Despite those lawmakers, I’m among many, many teachers across this nation — north, south, east, west, central United States — who’ve pledged to teach the truth.

Growing up, my grandmother taught me that the truth would set me free. So, as of today, despite the law — which at one point told me that I needed to sit in the back or that I was a fraction of a person, I am going to teach the truth. And irrespective of those very conservative, misguided policymakers, I know what the policy in my classroom is and will be.

What does teaching for Black lives mean to you? What does it look like for you as an educator?

Teaching for Black lives is a really powerful statement. Teaching for Black lives means teaching that there’s no one, single story that defines this nation. Teaching for Black lives means centering Black trans women, Black non-binary people, and Black people with disabilities. Teaching for Black lives means that there are Black Muslim people and that I must take a stance against Islamophobia. Teaching for Black lives also means that all Black lives matter, that no Black life is disposable, and so teaching for Black lives also means teaching about incarcerated people and teaching against the systems that make confinement seem natural. Teaching for Black lives means centering the lives and the stories of the students that I work with. Teaching for Black Lives is a campaign to humanize one of the only two racial groups that has experienced genocide on this soil. Teaching for Black lives means teaching the truth. Teaching for Black lives means just so, so, so much. But in essence, Teaching for Black lives means teaching in a way that Black humanity is both supported and sustained through my curriculum. I like to think of my pedagogy as protest and my curriculum as an act of courage.

What’s the impact that students experience when you’re teaching for Black lives?

When I teach for Black lives, some students remark that they’ve had a variety of different experiences. One experience that really stands out to me is about an African American young man who was a freshman during the 2020 uprisings. After George Floyd was murdered, he decided to take his policy to the streets. He voted with his body. He’s not legally old enough to vote yet, but he decided to use his body to cast his ballot.

Let me rewind for a moment. During my class I often screened episodes of Eyes on the Prize because I really love how Eyes on the Prize brings its viewers real people who fought against real laws, who addressed real issues, who made real changes. Plus, Eyes on the Prize is narrated from the perspective of the folks who were actually present during the events being documented. One episode that the student found really provocative was the episode that traces Emmett Till through the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For the first time, in my class, the freshman student I referenced earlier got the opportunity to hear from Jo Ann Robinson, one of the women who was the lead organizer for what became the longest sustained direct action in U.S. history to date, as I understand it. He was inspired by how folks were in the streets through what he saw in Eyes on the Prize.

Then there were other kinds of segments where he saw the police enact violence and that this was all recorded. And he was like, “Wait, these aren’t reenactments?” And I’m like, “No, these are all real. None of this is staged.” During the wake of the George Floyd uprisings, I decided to call him and a few other students in my classes who had expressed interest in participating in some of the direct actions. When we spoke, he told me, “Yo, Ms. Rucker, it really looked like one of those films you used to show us!” He was talking about Eyes on the Prize.

He went on to explain, “The police are the first ones taking pictures with us to upload them on social media. Then they’re there tear gassing us.” What I appreciate about his observation is that he was able to connect that he’s a real person living during a real time, using his body as his protest, as his vote, to elevate his voice. That’s how he’s participating in democracy. And he connected that to an era not too long ago where people his age did the very same things. Because he’d watched, analyzed, discussed, and written about various content from Eyes, he was not fooled by the police’s phony pandering.

I’ve also had students tell me that my African American history and culture course is one of the first classes that they’ve ever taken that centers the African American experience and that the course is one of the first times that they’ve learned Black history from a Black teacher. Additionally, students often expressed that they really appreciate seeing themselves represented in the curriculum beyond being enslaved. So, one of the things that my students have helped me see is that the impact of me teaching for Black lives is not only academic, but it is also social and emotional and deeply political.

What are three words that describe what teaching for Black lives and your participation in the revolution in this way mean to you?

The three worlds that describe what teaching for Black lives and my participation in this instructional revolution are power, justice, and equity!

I’m curious about stories or anecdotes or things that have happened with students, with people, a meaningful moment that you probably experienced during this. Are there any stories that come to mind?

I think the most significant story I want to tell is about how I came to create this class called the “Movement for Black Lives 2020,” which is a class that I only taught this school year in response to the 2020 uprisings. Essentially, the Zinn Education Project’s people’s historian online sessions became the notes that helped me create the class. I cannot say enough about how these people’s historian online courses have helped me expand articulation. I’ve been exposed to texts and authors and content in ways that I just didn’t even expect.

I remember the week of May 25 because it was our last instructional week before summer break. It was also the week that George Floyd was murdered and I learned of his murder from a weekly staff email. I was devastated. I remember, after that, just skimming the internet for details of his murder for as long as I could stand. In the process, I was even more heartbroken because I uncovered the names of even more unarmed Black people murdered under what I would call the clutch of anti-Black racism. Ahmaud Arbery’s name was among them. Breonna Taylor’s name. Tony McDade. And my thoughts transitioned to the students. I didn’t know what to say. I really wasn’t ready to speak with them, but I knew that I needed to connect.

So, at that time I just texted a small group of trusted students just to say, “Hey, how are you? What’s going on?” Through those text messages we exchanged words of loving condolence. We grieved. And I was really moved because then students started to share tips for remaining safe when engaging in local protests. For the students, it was no question about whether or not they were going to spend their time amplifying their voices around this issue that we’d been studying through our course and that they’d been living through for most of their lives, but instead, it was more about how.

That next Friday I attended the Zinn Education Project’s people’s historians online session with Dr. Keisha N. Blain, and she examined the historical roots of the 2020 uprisings. One of the things that I found most compelling is that she noted that the U.S. policing system emerged out of slavery and from slave patrols. Now this history had been rumored to me growing up, but I never heard somebody who actually committed their time to conducting research lay out the facts for me. And after her session, my next steps were clear: I moved from being speechless and like, “I don’t know what to do, I’m sad. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” to “Dope, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to teach a course about the long history of the Black Freedom Struggle.”

And I decided to start that course with the 2020 uprising and then move my way back in time with students. To start where students are and then move back in time so that students could see that what we deem as episodic in U.S. history has actually been thematic. These are recurring themes. The actors might be different, but the theater is the same. And so I designed this course, and this is the notebook that I used to take notes, and I proposed to the principal of my school maybe a week or two after that session. I think the proposal was like four or five pages contextualizing the need for our school, specifically me, to teach the course. I didn’t have to put up much of a fight. She agreed absolutely, saying “any resources you need, we’re going to stand with you.”

And the central argument of the course is that students should not have to risk getting organized on their own or relegate their safety and belonging needs to after school clubs or weekends. Students should be afforded the opportunity to get organized, be supported by loving and caring adult allies, and develop action projects in class used to address the systemic roots of oppression that have manifested themselves through the institution of policing. And, again, I’m grateful that my instructional leadership team felt the same way.

So, once the course was proposed and designed, I had the opportunity to partner with a friend who was a professor at a local university, and we virtually co-taught our classes Mondays and Thursdays at the same time. Her students had been trained in action research. So her college students then tied in what they knew and taught me and our high school students the tenets of action research. That culminated in an action research project where students made recommendations for how we can help sustain and support Black lives at E. L. Haynes Public Charter School. And among those recommendations, was a recommendation to hire more trusted adults. So our school made the commitment to hire a new social worker specifically to support students at our high school.

Another one of their demands, after students collected and analyzed survey data, was that students wanted teachers that shared their racial, ethnic, gender, sexuality, and dis/ability identities to have the opportunity to teach across disciplines. The specific recommendation was that students wanted more AP teachers that shared their various identities. And so the school is now exploring how to expand course offerings and hiring qualified and caring teachers who are members of the communities in which our students are members, not just among our AP teachers, but ensuring that our staff reflect the diversity of our students and their families. Because that was another area where students said, “We want this school to teach us Ethnic Studies. We want to study Black history. We don’t just want it to be the project in February, but we want the center of our curriculum to focus on our lives, to help us unpack this history, which is really current.”

Then the final recommendation that students offered was that our school should teach and practice restorative justice even more. Through interviewing decision-makers at our school, students uncovered that we pay about $300,000 for internal security as a charter school in D.C. The students asked that some of those funds be reallocated toward creating new positions like trauma informed care specialists. I found this compelling. Instead of security guards, students wanted more staff that were thinking about restorative practices and community building so that things don’t need to escalate to security or to police.

And then some students were involved with a local organization in D.C. called Black Swan Academy, which has been circulating a petition to ask teachers and school administrators and other people who work with D.C. youth to not call the police. So some students, in their follow-up correspondence to decision-makers, inquired, “Will you take these commitments to the next level? Will you pledge to not call the police on BIPOC youth?”

This is absolutely radical to me — 15, 16, and 17 year olds were in class asking administrators to not call this outside institution that has its roots in slavery to handle conflicts. The students in our class wanted to find a different way. A number of staff did take students up on that offer and signed that petition. The reason why that’s so important, at least to me, is because 92% of the students who were arrested or had police called and were removed from school by police in Washington, D.C. in 2018 or 2019 were Black. So just before schools were sent to virtual learning, 92% of those young folks were Black students in Washington, D.C. Through teaching the course and conducting research in preparation for the course, I learned that in my home city of Washington, D.C., the metropolitan police department has the largest contract with the D.C. public school system, which also impacts charter schools.

Again, I was super inspired by the online course with Dr. Blaine. It just evolved into an entire course, which then evolved into an action research project, which is now being used to literally change some things at our school.

Then the last thing I’ll say is, as I briefly mentioned earlier, as part of that action research project, students surveyed their classmates. It was a 21-question survey around the four demands connected to the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools, which also helped influence the action research project our students engaged in. The data was so compelling and so comprehensive because our partners at American University also helped us find ways to present the data in a compelling way — through infographics, through interactive charts and graphs, and through a datawalk showcase. The principal also committed to using that data as the center of our professional learning for this upcoming school year, to really focus on wellness as an equity strategy to support and sustain Black lives through our institution.

So again, the people’s historians online classes, our working group here in the D.C. area has been incredible. I think my level of content knowledge as an organizer and classroom teacher has skyrocketed. I was taught early on in life, that if I want to run fast I can run alone, but if I want to run far, I have to run together. And so with the strength of my curriculum comrades, as I like to call our group, I’ve been able to design courses that are literally changing the trajectory of how we teach at my school and I know I am a member of a group of teachers who are willing to and are running the distance. I hope the work we have been able to do with our Teaching for Black Lives study group and the support I received in designing my “Movement for Black Lives 2020” course, will inspire other teachers and school leaders to say, “Wow, they are doing it at E. L. Haynes. What can we do here at our school?” And this possibility is absolutely meaningful to me.

Are there other online historian sessions that stand out to you, besides the one that you mentioned? What was the overall experience for the other historian sessions?

There was a session with Dr. Martha S. Jones in which she explored Black women in U.S. history. There was so much that she talked about, but one of the greatest gifts of that particular session was what she shared about Maria Stewart. Specifically, when she described Maria Stewart as not only being the first woman, but the first Black woman, to speak publicly I was taken aback. That fact was like a point of entry for me. I was like, wait, wait, wait: There was a point in U.S. history where it was not a social custom for women to speak publicly?

So even that soundbite became a narrative shift for me, and it helped me better think about how and what I explained to students in terms of offering context. Another one of the impacts that the people’s historians online classes and our working group have had on me is the power of context and contextualization, being able for myself to understand that some of the niceties I enjoy today did not always exist; instead, they were demanded and fought for. So context matters, framing matters. I know, as somebody who wears glasses, that as my frames change and my lenses change, my vision changes. And the people’s historian online sessions, in a lot of ways, have been like wearing a new pair of glasses. 

With the people’s historian online sessions I see elements of history that I just didn’t see before. And sometimes that’s because they’ve been intentionally disappeared from history. Like what these anti-CRT bills are attempting to do; they’re attempting to disappear history right before our eyes. So, in that way, the people’s historians online sessions counter-balanced that. The working group that I am a part of counter-balances that. And being able to take that counter-narrative into the classroom and let that be the primary narrative for students is absolutely salient. I can see a lot better.

In terms of your students, what do they see? What do they think about this? How do they take it? How broad does that impact go in the community?

I am thinking about this question through the lens of the “Movement for Black Lives 2020” course I co-taught. At the beginning of the school year, my high school students had different perspectives about the role of the police: different from each, different from me, and different in terms of shifts in thinking once they completed their action research projects. They had valid questions about what it means to defund the police. They would ask, “What does it mean to abolish the police?” I remember one student, an African American young man who came into the class opposed to the class specifically because of the name of the class and the content of the syllabus. Maybe he was not opposed to the class, but he was opposed to what he thought the class meant for him and his family. When we started talking about the content and the goals and the vision of the class and I explained that the class was designed to help all of us (including me) rethink the role of police, the role of authority, and whether or not institutions should define what safety and protection mean for us, he immediately expressed some reticence. As we got to know each other a bit more, what I came to remember was that his dad is a police officer. And so what he heard was “Your dad’s not going to have a job. Your dad’s a bad person.” Both of which would be scary things for me to hear about someone I love and respect. As the school year progressed — and we started to read about the history of the police evolving from slave patrols; when we started engaging statistics about incarceration rates, particularly among African American people; when we started to look at the social implications of incarceration for African American people on African American youth, and on academic achievement for African American youth who have one or two parents incarcerated — his perspective started to shift.

He still wanted his dad to be employed, but I don’t think he ever, like me, was taught the racist roots of the U.S. policing system. He started to unpack Breonna Taylor’s murder by a police officer very differently. He started to reflect on George Floyd’s murder very differently. He started to question the phrase “to serve and protect.” I remember the class period where he was like, “Wow, Ms. Rucker, to serve and protect who?”

After engaging various primary sources and even watching an episode of John Oliver, funny and witty but very thoughtfully researched, on the history of the police, I think that was the class period where he started to say, “I don’t know about this anymore. I don’t know if police are meant to serve and protect the African American community. And that’s uncomfortable, Ms. Rucker, that’s hard. I don’t know if I’m going to get to a place where I think we should defund the police or abolish the police, but I am at a place where I think we need to rethink some things. And I am at a place where I better understand this idea that Black lives matter.” From there, I started to introduce some of the sources and learning pairing Dr. Blain suggested and many students, like me, expressed shock, disappointment, and confusion about the role of the police and policing in the United States.

Also, I’ve had some non-African American students very courageously raise concern about the term “Black Lives Matter.” Particularly, some of my Latino/a/x students asked, “Well Ms. Rucker, where do we fit into this?” What I’ve loved about the course is that it was a space for all of us to ask questions, critical questions.

Again, after engaging articles and primary sources and different videos — and students even getting honest with each other about their experiences with the police, from jump-outs (plain clothes officers) to I.C.E. (the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers) — my non-Black students had the opportunity to draw connections between jump-outs and I.C.E. and saw how prevalent racial profiling is within the system of policing. We briefly talked about the notion of Black immigrants and the double threat of police profiling for Black immigrants as well as non-immigrant Black people.

After studying what the term Black Lives Matter has come to mean, we talked about why there’s an entire campaign to teach people in our country that Black people who live in the United States, no matter where they were born, that their lives matter. It was crushing for some students to come to terms with the fact that there has to be a public campaign to help people understand that. My non-African American students started to see that this doesn’t mean that their lives don’t matter or that African American people are the only Black people. We learned that because of anti-Black racism, and because of how it is systemically and institutionally reinforced, Black people are disproportionately murdered by the police and policing/police-like structures. Relatedly, through our research and study, we learned that Black students in D.C. are disproportionately expelled and suspended because of their race and because of racist ideas that get practiced on a daily basis.

For students to come to that level of understanding in a semester — since the course was only a semester long because of COVID and the changes we had to make to adapt to virtual learning — was powerful for me. Some of my students were so open and honest and so willing to have their thinking massaged or even pushed, and they were so willing to be vulnerable and share personal stories. They grew in areas that me and some of my colleagues are still stuck. And that’s okay, too. So, I guess my students see each other, they see their communities, they see me, and they see how systems like policing uphold anti-Blackness. I think many students, like me and the other adult co-teachers, are still thinking about our thinking and learning about how our thoughts, beliefs, and values impact our school and home communities. I also think they see possibilities for change, too. Even if it feels like a drop in the bucket, I know that every single drop will fill that bucket as long as the drops keep dripping. I think this is the spirit of what students wrote about in their closing reflections for the course.