Seth Billingsley: Educator Reflections

Since 2020, the Teaching for Black Lives Campaign has offered multiple opportunities — online classes, study groups, workshops, and the annual Teach Truth Day of Action — for educators to join a national network of teachers, school librarians, counselors, administrators, and school staff who are defying efforts to ban what students can learn in school by vowing to teach for Black lives.

In 2021, participants in the campaign were interviewed to reflect on their experience.

Seth Billingsley, also known as Mr. Billingsley or Mr. B, teaches 8th- and 9th-grade U.S. History at Baltimore Design School in Baltimore, Maryland. Listen to an excerpt of his interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

You attended the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online classes. How did it feel to attend and what’s the personal impact on you?

Seth Billingsley Attending the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle classes were just really helpful to have the resources shared, the actual historians, their knowledge, and then just really, most importantly, being connected to a community of teachers across the country who are engaged in the same pedagogy.

How about the impact on your classroom and your students? If you can tell a story of an individual instance of a student or a couple of students, however you want to respond to it, just the impact on your classroom and students.

Attending the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle classes gave me just so much new knowledge. But then also, the Zinn Education Project resources — lesson plans, including things around, especially for me, Reconstruction, role-play type activities where it’s very student-centered, students talking to each other, finding out the different groups in society where we’re working together for change, and where they agreed and where they disagreed — I found to be very helpful, very student-centered materials.

Could you describe a little bit about your classroom, the school, the neighborhood that you’re working within and why this specific curriculum might impact the students that you’re working with?

I think that the Zinn Education Project resources and the curriculum materials they provide really speak to my students’ interests and motivations. It tells a bigger picture of history than a whitewashed narrative that we so often get, especially in corporate textbooks. Students are able to see multiple perspectives and hear stories that they wouldn’t hear otherwise. And I teach in an urban district, an urban school, a majority-Black student population. So having resources and student-centered activities that I can put in front of them that speak to those experiences and perspectives really do a lot more to engage them than any kind of traditional teaching methods or the traditional narratives of history.

There’s a mixer that the Zinn Education Project has on the Reconstruction period. Students take on the roles of formerly enslaved people who are working to secure the Black male vote, women’s suffragists who had previously been in favor of African American men voting and just enlarging the suffrage in general, especially to women, but how for those groups their interests ended up diverging after the Civil War. It really paints a strong picture of how change actually happens. It’s groups of people working for these things, exploring maybe they split or diverge, and keeping those movements for change cohesive.

I know students told me that the Reconstruction period, after that mixer, was the best time to learn about change. Learning about all these different perspectives that they hadn’t taught us or heard about before was one. I also have used materials related to the American Anti-Slavery Society. So students take on the role of abolitionists and they have a class meeting, essentially a Socratic seminar, where they’re debating what abolitionists were debating in the mid-1800s, leading up to the Civil War. How militant should they be? Should they support John Brown? Should they aid him with weapons? What tactics should they pursue? And so students are taking on the role of abolitionists and then debating and deliberating those actions as a role play of the American Anti-Slavery Society. I know students told me they just found that to be really powerful and perspective taking. So, taking on the role of someone else in history, to really think and empathize with their point of view.

What are your thoughts on the growing number of anti-history education bills and the threat to teaching this history?

I think that those bills are so misguided, and probably purposefully so, and misstate the purpose of critical race theory, which they purport to try to ban or curtail in the classroom. And I think it really harkens back to McCarthyism and limits on academic freedom. When you’re saying, “You can’t teach this. You can’t talk about these things,” it’s doing students a disservice not to talk about those things. How can we expect them to understand where we are now as a society if we’re not dealing with those things in the past that have shaped us?

Being here in Baltimore, thinking about redlining and the way the city is structured today, we have a phenomenon: the scholars have called it the “Black Butterfly” and the “White L.” You can see it on a map: the way east and west Baltimore were segregated during redlining carries through to today. If I’m not teaching about those things — or if I was a teacher in those states and I’m not able to talk to my students about how race played a role in those decisions — that’s doing them a disservice. That’s not giving them the full story.

You’ve talked about the importance of teaching the Reconstruction era. Can you share your thoughts on why that matters for young people today?

I think Reconstruction is just often such an overlooked time period. It’s sort of glossed over as well. There was this moment for change and it failed, and there’s a focus on the different plans for Reconstruction, and then ultimately the white backlash and terrorism that happened in the South, and not enough on the fundamental changes to society that did happen, and the wins and the gains for a time that Black Americans made, in terms of political power and in some ways social status and freedoms, fundamental freedoms. I think it’s important to talk about that moment for change, and even if it was fleeting, to highlight how African-Americans seized on those opportunities to engage in politics and to get education in all sorts of ways.

I want to take a step back and ask you personally, when did you first encounter course materials or learnings around critical race theory, whether that was in college, high school, whenever?

That’s a great question. I don’t actually recall. I have a master’s degree in political science and I focused more on international studies, but I don’t recall learning about things like redlining or the fact that the GI Bill discriminated against African American soldiers, lots of different aspects that the critical race theory would encompass. I had to go on my own to find those things. And even as I was becoming a U.S. history teacher, having to re-learn really what U.S. history was for myself, because it wasn’t something I was exposed to during my formal education at all.

How does this curriculum impact you? How does it impact you to see your students go through role-playing?

I just love it. I love anything that gets students engaged and talking to each other. A teacher I had said the more I talk the less my students learn, and I think it’s so true. It’s true for me. I’m not the most entertaining person. There’s way more entertaining things, TikTok videos and things, they could be doing rather than having to listen to me, or me talk at them. So when I can put materials in their hands that say, “Okay, you take on this role and empathize with this person. . .” And not in a kitschy way, but in a real, like, “What were they going through? What were they thinking?” Try to put on their shoes and think like them. That is really powerful for students, I think, and perspective-taking. And it builds so many different skills in terms of empathy, but also academic knowledge and life skills.

How does it empower you to teach Black students a more truthful narrative of their history?

I think that me having access to resources outside of a textbook, or a scripted curriculum created by some other group, that they maybe take me more seriously. They see that, “Okay, Mr. B is here to teach us the truth. He’s not going to sugarcoat it,” or give them a whitewashed version of American history.

Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you want to touch on, Seth? Anything else you want to speak to that we haven’t?

I would just praise the Zinn Education Project and Teaching for Change for keeping up the good fight and giving teachers access to resources outside of their textbooks, just any kind of scripted curriculum or mandated set of things to talk about. Because giving students access to this broader story, this bigger picture of American history, and more perspectives, really shows them that it is people’s history. It is people that make change. It’s not just the history of us through the eyes of powerful white men, presidents and Congress members and acts of Congress. It’s people that make change. So those resources do such an amazing job of helping students grasp that.