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Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian speaks to a group of Madison teachers at Edgewood College on Sunday. The event, "Fighting for Justice, Teaching for Black Lives" was organized ahead of next week's Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. 

Inspired by a national coalition of educators that has organized in past years for racial justice in education, Madison teachers have started to prepare their own program.

Teachers at an event at Edgewood College on Sunday heard from Jesse Hagopian, a high school teacher in Seattle who is the co-editor of the book "Teaching for Black Lives," and is also an editor for the periodical Rethinking Schools. He helped organize a boycott of the standardized MAP test in 2013.

Hagopian’s talk was followed by workshops where teachers exchanged ideas and lesson plans for the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, which is slated for the week of Feb. 4.

The Madison Metropolitan School District has taken steps in recent years to push for racial justice in its schools amid a stark and wide achievement gap between white students and students of color. The district uses the term “black excellence” throughout its strategic framework. Still, 2019 marks the first year Madison teachers will formally be able to participate in the week of action, which organizers said is a significant step toward moving racial equity work from simply a conversation to actual action.

The movement started three years ago in Seattle and has been celebrated in other cities around the nation since then.

“I think there have been a lot of good conversations leading up to this week of action,” said Michael Jones, a special education teacher at Black Hawk Middle School and co-chair of Madison Teachers Inc.’s equity and diversity committee. “I think where we’ve seen the tension is in the want to push for action beyond the conversations we’ve been having about race.”

MTI president Andy Waity said next week’s week of action is a culmination of several years of planned work by the union to address race and equity issues, which started with revamping its mission statement to include promoting racial justice and eliminating disparities.

In a packed auditorium at Edgewood on Sunday, Hagopian challenged teachers to publicly show support for minority students during the week of action and use the events to incorporate anti-racism into their classrooms.

“It’s amazing to see a movement that spread from my hometown come all the way to Madison,” Hagopian said, noting that his father attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and participated in protests to get the university to include more ethnic studies courses. “I come by this work honestly.”

Hagopian’s talk began with an overview of how the Black Lives Matter at School movement started in Seattle, noting a lack of accurate history on topics such as slavery, heightened amounts of standardized testing and the use of police officers in schools.

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“When we talk about Black Lives Matter at school, one of the arguments that comes up against us is that we are politicizing the youth, that we need to keep these politics out of the classroom and away from students,” Hagopian said. “I would turn that around and say that Donald Trump is politicizing youth … he’s politicizing our society when he says that Africa and Haiti are shithole countries. When you can say that from the highest office in the land, imagine what impact that has on our black and brown youth?”

Teachers at the event were able to sign a pledge to commit to organizing next week, whether through updated lesson plans, attending professional development opportunities related to the week of action or facilitating student leadership on organizing school events.

Organizers of the event and the week of action said they plan to not let the events and enthusiasm for addressing racial disparities in the classroom stop at just the week of action.

“Year after year we have the same sort of study that shows racial disparities … this week hopefully gives a voice to people who are frustrated with how things are going, and we want to say, ‘Let’s put the action into this week of action, plan lessons and do specific actions beyond surface level activism,'” Jones said.

Education Reporter

Negassi Tesfamichael is the local education reporter at The Cap Times. He joined the paper in 2018. He previously worked as an intern at WISC-TV/Channel3000.com and at POLITICO.