Twenty-three-year-old Leanna Diggs grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and attended James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring and Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., double-majoring in political science and law and policy, focusing her studies on systemic inequity. In May 2015, she joined Teach For America and was placed in Miami-Dade County Public Schools as a ninth-grade algebra teacher at Miami Edison Senior High School. With an interest in the law, she interned this summer with Judge Thomas Logue of the Third District Court of Appeal in Florida, and she hopes to begin law school in a year, after fulfilling her two-year requirement with Teach For America.
Diggs says that Logue encouraged her to write the following post about her belief that educators cannot pretend society is colorblind but, rather, should find valuable ways to address the racial tensions and fear among students that are heightened by mass media coverage. In this post she makes a call for teachers to discuss #BlackLivesMatter in class as part of a long-overdue and difficult conversation about social, political, and economic inequality based on race.
By Leanna Diggs
As I scroll through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as well as conventional new media outlets, I am forced to reconsider my role as an educator.
In July, a new hashtag surfaced, #AltonSterling, followed by a video of a police officer shooting a black man. A day later, another hashtag, #PhilandoCastile, appeared on my news feed also accompanied by a video. And most recently, in the streets of North Miami, Charles Kinsey with his hands raised in the air was shot by police while attempting to help a patient with autism. Three more black men shot for no apparent reason except the color of their skin. The same color as my skin and as the skin of my students.
As part of Teach For America corps, I teach ninth-grade Algebra at Miami Edison Senior High School. The students at Edison are 99 percent minority. Eighty-seven percent of those students receive free or reduced meals. Historically low performing, surrounded by gangs and violence, Miami Edison Senior is a product of hyper-segregation. Miami Edison Senior is an example of how urban ghettos continue to systemically limit spatial mobility of blacks, which obstructs social mobility.
As a millennial, I understand my student’s connection to their phones and social media. As a person of color, I understand the feelings of despair and fear as I scrolled through my Facebook news feed this summer. As a teacher, I have a duty.
School curriculums and texts operate from a place of colorblindness. But our students do not live in a colorblind society. We need to adjust our teaching to the reality of our students’ lives.
We can no longer teach a whitewashed history. We can no longer pretend we live in a post-racial society. Not in math class, not in any class.
Education that acknowledges our country’s problems with race relations must also account for the monstrous influence mass media has on our children. Mass media plays a significant role in portraying racial generalizations — defining, villainizing and simplifying what it means to be black or white. Students in hyper-segregated communities draw from these depictions, allowing those perceptions to form their reality.
Educators have the opportunity to create a space where students, briefly away from media influence, can discover their own identities. A space to question their privilege or self-worth. A space where a student should not have to feel or say, as one said to me last semester: “Miss, I got to move. I got to get out of here. Too many people are dying out here [in a Miami neighborhood called Little Haiti]. I got to get out of here if I’m going to make it.”
I devalue the lives of my students as their algebra teacher when I teach with a post-racial mindset. My students need to know that #BlackLivesMatter is not a movement to exclude the significance of other lives. It is not a movement against law enforcement. Black Lives Matter is a movement that recognizes that, time and time again, the value of black lives falls far below those of our fellow citizens. We need to show our black and brown babies that their lives matter too.
As the weeks pass and the countdown to the start of the school year begins, I know I must incorporate honest and open conversations about race into my classroom. My teenage students conceptualize death, loss and racially charged hatred better than the real number system because, although racism is not getting worse, it is being filmed. And thus, it permeates through the most influential facet of their lives — mass media.
How to do this in math class? For one thing, a good teacher uses any opportunity they can to build relationships of trust within the classroom. Conversations about race can be more in depth the more comfortable that students feel with you.
From a planning standpoint, I would like to introduce my students to various articles that discuss problems facing the United States, including the school-to-prison pipeline or graduation rates of blacks in hyper-segregated areas, and then have them discuss the statistics as well as the content. Often, I have seen that my students have a difficult time understanding math in the context of word problems, so in an effort to increase their exposure to vocabulary and ideas of systemic inequity, this would be one way to do it.
There are other times in the day — even in a math class — when a teacher can have important conversations with students about current events. It could happen at the end of a class period, or at the end of a week, or after a test when I don’t want to start a new lesson. These would be good times to build relationships with the students on a more personal level and have these conversations. I have learned over the past year that the best thing to do is to take advantage of organic moments.
As an educator, I believe that Black Lives Matter. I believe that Education About Race Relations Matter. I believe that Dismantling Systemic Inequities Matters. And I believe that education is the perfect vehicle to help society begin to move forward.