Advocating for teaching critical consciousness
I will never forget the day I learned about Emmett Till. I was in my 5th grade class, watching the documentary series Eyes on the Prize, which discussed how 14 year old Till was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman in 1955. The video showed Till’s face — unrecognizable after his murder — as his mother Mamie Till intended when she held an open-casket funeral. Like Mamie, my teacher Mr. Druffel wanted us to see the violence of white supremacy. Such images were unsurprisingly difficult for me to process at 11 years old. To know that someone just three years older than me was brutally murdered and mutilated for a skin color we both shared was deeply disturbing.
I was nevertheless grateful for the exposure because the truth is, the United States is often a difficult and violent place for Black and other marginalized people to navigate. Knowing about Emmett Till from an early age allowed me to think more critically about how deeply racism is entrenched in this country. Furthermore, I yearned to understand how I could play a role in advocating for equity and justice.
Today, Mr. Druffel could be fired, fined, or publicly rebuked for teaching us to think deeply about race in order to help us fully understand our place in this country and in the world. Legislation to restrict and/or outright prohibit classroom discussions of race, racism, diversity, and equity is now impacting a third of students across the country — resulting in teachers intentionally avoiding lessons on race (Pollock et al., 2022).
Yet, teachers like Mr. Druffel have never been more necessary. We are living in a moment of deep crisis, from racist policing, to climatic destruction, to ableist public health policy. Despite legislative efforts, students are inevitably encountering these issues.
For the past two years, I have been working with Highlander Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to expanding instructional equity and improving student outcomes, to help ensure encounters of systemic issues takes place meaningfully in classrooms. Centering on their Culturally Responsive & Sustaining Pedagogy framework, much of my work has explored the development of critical consciousness, which educator and theorist Paulo Freire termed to describe the three part process students can use to challenge oppression: critical reflection, critical motivation, and critical action. When students critically reflect on matters of injustice and feel empowered, they can take informed action to challenge oppressive systems.
Through research, I learned that high levels of critical consciousness are tied to a number of positive academic outcomes for students, including higher student engagement, increased agency, and higher levels of college attendance among many more (see references section below). Using this research foundation, I have contributed resources to help teachers implement critical consciousness in the classroom. One of my favorite projects is a lesson I adapted from one of my college courses to a K-12 context. In the lesson, different student groups receive points based on an arbitrary value assigned to candy (or in the virtual version, cards) that they draw. The candy/cards are grouped so that one group receives the highest value and another gets the lowest, there is an immediate inequity in points. The goal for students is to increase the total point value held by their group, and students compete to win more candy or cards. In my class, I was in the group with the lowest point total, and we did everything we could to gain more points. However, the highest group would not relinquish their wealth. This game helped me think critically about race, class, and privilege; the adapted lesson can serve as a robust introduction to critical consciousness for both educators and students.
In addition to the game, I have worked with colleagues to curate a set of lesson applications about fairness, injustice, and equity aligned to different subject areas, standards, and grade levels. Essential questions prompt students to reflect on the ways inequity manifests in their own worlds and how best to challenge it.
Connecting the dots — between lessons that have made an impact on me, the rationale behind critical consciousness, and the evidence base linking this instruction to a host of positive outcomes — has resonated deeply with me and strengthened my commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression work.
The content Highlander Institute is creating is empowering teachers to deliver meaningful, challenging lessons while nurturing students as change agents capable of tackling injustices. All of our students deserve this kind of powerful instruction — learning that makes teachers like Mr. Druffel so important and memorable. Join us in helping to make this a reality.
In addition to being a Highlander Institute intern, Allison Singleton (she/her) is a current college senior studying Africana Studies and History, and serves as Diversity and Inclusion Outreach Coordinator for her university’s Writing Fellows Program. She has recently been accepted into Harvard Law School as part of the Junior Deferral Program and hopes to use the law to advocate for transformative justice in the criminal legal system one day.
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