A Softer Approach: Teaching for Survival

by Dr. Trina Lynn Yearwood

I vividly remember the anticipation and excitement I felt each year as the summer wound down and the first day of school approached. I could not wait to see old friends, be introduced to my teacher, and meet my new classmates. I looked forward to learning and growing and simply having fun. As a classroom teacher, I enthusiastically decorated my room and created innovative get-to-know-you activities to ensure that my students felt welcomed as soon as they walked through the classroom door. Last month, I had the opportunity to watch Little Rock, a play written and directed by Indo-Afro-Caribbean American playwright Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj,and was reminded that, not too long ago, children who looked like me felt anxiety and fear as they prepared for their first day of class at schools where they were not welcomed.

Little Rock tells the story of the nine Black students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, in September 1957 Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, defied the court’s decision and mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school. From facing angry white mobs to needing police and military escorts, it took the Little Rock Nine three weeks to enter Central High School for their first full day of classes.

Little Rock educates the audience about a painful time in history and focuses on the students’ struggle to enter the school as well as their day to day experiences once there. The play also offers a glimpse into the lives of these nine brave students and provides greater insight about the impact of integration on them.In the midst of being beaten, called nigger, tormented, and humiliated, the Little Rock Nine demonstrated resilience. In a recent interview with Kam Williams, Maharaj explained that Little Rock “…bears witness to the best and worst parts of our country…and is also a cautionary reminder, as we look at the current state of politics, to not turn the clock back.”I appreciated learning about the students’ desire to learn, their dreams, and each of their fascinations with Shakespeare, telling corny jokes, or Pat Boone. Although there were moments in the play where I experienced heartache and pain as I watched the racism and hatred that these young people endured, it emphasized the important role the school environment plays in the survival of our children.

Although I am a proud descendant of resilient people, and resilience is necessary for success,Little Rock evoked some emotions that made me wish that people of African descent did not have to be resilient because of the color of our skin—no other group of people have continuously been oppressed and expected to bounce back stronger than ever. As I sat pensively in my seat, I envisioned a time when all of our children can just be children and not have to be tough and strong in order to survive in the classroom. I envisioned a time when the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately criminalizes our children compared to their white counterparts, will be dismantled. I envisioned a time when all children regardless of their zip code can walk into schools feeling completely safe and protected so that they can learn.

Marian Wright Edelman once said, “Education is a precondition for survival in America today.” As we prepare for a new school year, I encourage all educators to engage in critical self-reflection to ensure that their practice is conducive to creating environments in which all children feel welcomed, are safe to take risks and can learn. Be intentional when getting to know your students so that you can develop positive relationships with them. Be intentional when selecting your texts so that your students can see themselves reflected in the classroom. And be intentional when setting expectations for excellence. Incorporate pedagogical strategies that promote collaboration, encourages student voice and empowers students to analyze and discuss real-world experiences and issues of social injustice.Teaching is a job of survival, and our students need us now more than ever.

Dr. Trina Lynn Yearwood is the Founder of Teachers Ready to Educate, Advocate and Transform (TREAT), an organization committed to helping teachers integrate the diverse culture of students into the classroom and curriculum by providing a platform for them to discover and share innovative ways to utilize children’s culture to enhance teaching and learning. To learn more about the organization, follow @wearetreat on Instagram or email wearetreat.info@gmail.com.

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