Armstrong: Black Lives Matter week should be a regular thing

The Caucus of Working Educators, an activist group within the PFT, is holding a weeklong Black Lives Matter week of action, encouraging teachers to prepare Black Lives Matter-themed events and generally mobilizing educators to embrace the movement. In preparation for next weeks action the Caucus of Working Educators is held a happy hour at South Kitchen and Jazz Club , Wednesday night,where interested teachers could pick up T-shirts, talk curriculum, plan events and mingle. Here, organizer Tamara Anderson leans over a wall to talk about next weeks events with teachers Catherine Khella, left, Kathleen Melville, center. Madison Fialkowski right as fellow teacher Shaw MacQueen, upper left, listens.

I'm not a mom.

But if I were a mother of a Philadelphia public school student, I would want my child exposed to the subject matter that some teachers have adopted this week as part of their Black Lives Matter observance.

I'd have no hesitation about it.

Not one bit. 

Information is power.  Racial justice is going to continue to be a hot-button  issue, especially in the Age of President Trump, who by the way has had the official White House website updated to say that  "the dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong." I looked but didn't see anything about protecting innocent civilians from being racially profiled by law enforcement.

I applaud the Caucus of Working Educators for taking the bold step of organizing a weeklong observance of the Black Lives Matter movement that began Monday and concludes Saturday with a 4 p.m. panel at Temple University asking the question "How does the work continue beyond Black Lives Matter Week?" The group, a subset of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, was inspired by 2,000 teachers in Seattle in October who wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts to show support for students of color.

"As we started to really think about it, it was like, 'OK, what does that mean for Philadelphia?' " said Tamara Anderson, a caucus member and the mother of a Philadelphia public school student.  "How can we make this a purposeful and deliberate conversation about race and about brown and black families, especially in a school district that has a majority black students?"

It's unclear how many teachers have integrated the suggested BLM course material into their lesson plans.  The curriculum is completely voluntary.  It ranges from elementary-age-appropriate books such as Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, written by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney, to a reading about white privilege.

Here's an example of how one teacher incorporated the BLM subject matter into his advisory period: High school humanities teacher Charlie McGeehan on Monday showed a poignant YouTube video of first-generation Asian Americans explaining their support of the Black Lives Matter movement to their parents and other relatives. Letters for Black Lives is only about five minutes long, but it is a powerful intergenerational cry against anti-blackness and police violence directed at African Americans.  In it, Asian Americans point out parallels between the struggles of immigrants and those of blacks while also urging their relatives to support the BLM movement. 

"I showed that video to my students and we just had a quick conversation about the diverse array of people who are talking about this," explained McGeehan, who teaches at the U School in North Philly.  "Students were interested and engaged. And it was just a little thought-provoking piece that expanded the way that they see what Black Lives Matter stands for."

Then, it was back to the students' regularly scheduled classes.

I know people get all nuts when you mention Black Lives Matter. They picture rowdy protests and demonstrators yelling, "F--- the police."  People think that the movement is antipolice and that protesters themselves are the troublemakers.  Also, nonblacks sometimes feel dismissed by the BLM label and think it somehow diminishes the value of white lives, which is not the moniker's intention. 

The Black Lives movement got its start back in 2012 after the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teen shot to death by a neighborhood resident who was later acquitted.  The hashtag #blacklivesmatter began trending on social media and stuck.

Since then, the group's focus has shifted to police killings of unarmed black males but also broadened to include such far-flung topics as affirming the rights of transgender people and protecting women from misogyny.

But you bring up  #blacklivesmatter to certain folks and it's as if their brains shut down. The conversation is over. They know all they need to know about the movement and will try to argue you down about it.

"I know," said McGeehan, who teaches English and history. "For people to say that my teaching about and opening up a conversation on Black Lives Matter in my classroom is forcing views on students is completely off base. ... For me, if anything, it's like me listening to and empathizing with my students, which is something I should be doing as an educator."

He added, "I'm a firm believer that we have to push for racial justice in this country ... and I think it's a very important topic for us to raise in the classroom."

BLM Week should become a regular thing. I think it's a really good idea -- even if I'm not a mother.