Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. It's good to have you with us today. As the week comes to an end, so too does our Back to School Series School Principles. In our backpack of school issues, we've found teacher shortages, the end of federal lunch waivers, and the debate over school start times, but before we wrap up this class, I've got a final discussion question. What is the purpose of education?
Randy: Hi, my name is Randy. I'm calling from Richmond, Virginia. I think the purpose of education is really to foster the natural and innate curiosity in each child and to inspire learning, to teach them how to seek out information and grow intellectually, to encourage thinking and not just following along.
Joey: My name is Joey. I think the purpose of education is to build a competent population with hopes of developing minds who could help improve upon ideally the positive aspects of society and the coexistence of one another in nature.
Female Speaker: Education is supposed to prepare students for their place in the world, and that doesn't just mean the skills for a job, it means that they should learn cognitive thinking, they should learn how to be analytical, to look at facts and to draw their own conclusions, to learn about things beyond their own lifestyle, backgrounds, ethnicity.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, notice how none of you replied reading, writing, and arithmetic. Instead, you spoke to a kind of education that's wider and deeper than just The three Rs.
Dr. Bettina Love: At this school, we put students' culture first, the ways in which they want to learn, their identity, and then the principles of this school are love.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is Dr. Bettina Love, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a former elementary school teacher. I've known Dr. Love for years, but it was when I was doing my homework for last week's Deep Dive episode on police abolition, that I made the connection between Dr. Love and her work on abolitionist education.
Dr. Bettina Love: When you don't see yourself, when you don't see your culture, when you only learn about oppression but never how your people resisted, when schools are set up as prisons, you are murdering our babies' spirits.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The more I went on down that deep-dive research rabbit hole, the more it clicked. What if abolition was part of addressing the systemic academic neglect of students of color and low-income children? The so-called achievement gap, that means Black and Hispanic students have lower test scores, are less likely to graduate and are less likely to complete college than their white counterparts. What if our schools didn't just train our children but instead could help to liberate them.
Gholdy Muhammad: We have a lot of structures and education that are not excellent, that were never designed for the histories, the literacies and liberation of particularly Black and brown youth. My name is Gholdy Muhammad. I am an Associate Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What I learned from Gholdy is there are many different ways to teach in an abolitionist framework, but the goal is always the same.
Gholdy Muhammad: Dismantling a bit of a destruction or moving away from our current system in education, and abolitionist teaching really speaks to those teaching and learning practices, those ideologies that move toward ideas and practices of equity and anti-racism, anti-oppression of love for humanity, especially those that have been historically neglected.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Abolitionist teaching doesn't mean-- Just to clarify first of all, it doesn't mean abolishing schools or abolishing our existing public school buildings. It doesn't mean ending teacher-student relationships. I just want to be sure I'm clear about that.
Gholdy Muhammad: It is retaining and holding on all to all of the wonderful things that we have been doing, but it is about changing, revising, and in some ways abolishing certain parts of the system. When I talk to parents and I tell them about this work, I say, "You know what? We are still teaching and learning and assessing much of the same way in this country as we have done in the 1600s," so we want to retain, of course, all the beautiful things that have got us this far in education, but we need to do more and do different and teach in very different ways towards stronger, more advanced goals.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How will I know if my child is learning what they need to know in order to be successful?
Gholdy Muhammad: Well, they should be learning five core things. These are the five core things that abolitionist ancestors learned back in the early 19th century onward, they have found to be successful historically and through research. These five things are, number one, identity. How is the classroom helping your child know more about themselves, who they are, who they are not, and who they are destined to become? The second thing I tell parents that they should look for in their child's school is skill development. Now, these are the traditional proficiencies we want our children to be able to do as a result of math, science, English/Language Arts. All the core contents.
This is things like learning how to read, do math, and learning the State Standards. The third thing parents should look for is intellectualism, what are your children becoming smarter about? So many schools are so focused on skill development that they do not teach skills in the context of the real world. The fourth thing parents should look for is what I name as criticality. Criticality is helping your child to name, understand, and disrupt oppression, putting your learning in the context of the state of the world, social problems, to problem-solve, to understand issues of power, justice, and equity.
Then the last thing that I am encouraging parents and teachers to look for is joy. You know Melissa, everyone talked about learning loss during the pandemic and coming back to schools, but we did not talk about joy loss. We didn't talk about the importance of having the pursuit of joy in education, which means how are your children learning about beauty, aesthetics, art, solutions to the world's problem, healing, wellness.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I worry that even if I'm looking for them as a teacher or looking for them as a parent, that I'll have such a narrow concept of what creativity might look like or of what joy might look like, that I might actually miss it in my kid or in my student. How can we make sure that even if we're looking for those five, we can see it across racial and cultural and class differences?
Gholdy Muhammad: Any narrow view of thinking about any aspect of abolitionist teaching can be detrimental. A lot of people think very narrowly about identity. They think identity of a child is just their race, class, or gender. They think very narrowly about skills. They think I have to just teach these skills, and sometimes we miss out on other rigorous important skills that children need in life. They think very, very narrowly about joy. They think joy is just for early childhood or elementary.
Joy is just having fun, people say to me. Joy is healing, joy is beauty, and what I do for both teachers and parents is help them to develop pedagogy and curriculum. Curriculum is everything. It is like the heart and soul of a school. If a curriculum is incomplete, if a curriculum is deficit, it sort of creates no opportunities to develop these five things within a child.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Give me an example of a curriculum that's doing that kind of work.
Gholdy Muhammad: I play this game with teachers, and I'll say name any topic or idea or object, and I'll create a unit plan. I'll speak out a unit plan out loud with these five pursuits. One teacher said, "What about teaching slope and proportional relationship in 6th Grade mathematics?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ooh, that's a good one.
Gholdy Muhammad: [laughs] I know, they went for it. We turned it into something. We said, "Well, you can teach it in the context of roller coasters and slopes and engineering and how they are formed." For identity, children will be able to identify their risk identity, "Do you have an affiliation or an interest in roller coasters and amusement parks?" In intellect, we taught them about the history of amusement parks, and the world's first roller coaster, which was a mathematical slope. For criticality, we learned about how even amusement and joy was segregated and not really allowed for communities of color.
Then, for joy, why do they call them amusement? How is this joy giving to families? Another teacher said, "Well, I have a cardboard box, Gholdy." Now, this comes from a teacher at YELLOWHAB school in Virginia. This is Pharrell Williams' new school. We work a lot together. This teacher said, "If I want to bring a cardboard box, how would I connect this?" We said, "For mathematics skills, we would teach dimensions and volume and area. Students will learn for identity. What are the things that help to restore who you are? What do you keep inside your box? What are things people know about you and are more so on the outside?"
For intellectualism, we taught them about cultural keepsakes, like, the hope chest. For criticality, we taught children how have humans moved and settled and escaped across time, hoping to preserve their humanity, their culture. Then, for joy, students reflected on what do my families keep that are special and unique. If you think about this, historically-- Those are two math examples, but historically, we have only been teaching decontextualized skills. We have not really put it in the context of the child's identities or the world around them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How do you assess both students, teachers, and a curriculum that is focused in this framework?
Gholdy Muhammad: Most US cities that have the highest number of Black and brown children, cities like New York and Chicago, they use models of teacher evaluations that were not written by or for Black people or Black children, as an example. We have to first change teacher evaluation. Melissa, you'll be so surprised how much we have not done this across decades. I can change a teacher evaluation in one weekend, one day. We have that much genius among us in this country to rewrite this evaluation. Remember, when it comes to assessment and testing, to assess means to gather information.
Even if I'm trying to discern or figure out if students have understood this idea of amusement parks for joy and how it has brought joy to families, I can assess in a variety of ways, in discussion, in small groups, in worksheets, in quizzes, I can assess in project-based forms of learning. I can have them create a video. I can have them write a poem. I can have them deliver a speech. There's endless possibilities to different ways we can assess children's learning.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Quick break here but keep your thinking caps on. When we come back, we'll learn more about how to be an abolitionist educator. It's The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for sticking with us on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and it's the last day of our week-long series School Principles. We've been demystifying abolitionist teaching with Professor Gholdy Muhammad. Now, we're living in a political and social climate. It's fairly hostile to many of the ideas that animate abolitionist education. How do we actually incorporate these teachings within a society that right now is banning books and outlawing classroom discussions of race and history.
Gholdy Muhammad: You know what they're really banning? Is the love for Blackness. They're really banning rigor. They're banning excellence. They think that they're banning critical race theory, but they're banning excellence, because the truth of the matter is we have not been educating any child in this country to the fullest. We have not been teaching white children identity, skills, intellectualism, criticality, and joy either. How do we do this work if the ways in which the system has been built on mediocre and basic levels of education? The system has been built on white supremacy.
If the system is the house, how do I go inside the house in a classroom and do social justice work? Is it possible? I don't know if you've ever been inside a house that feels like it was falling apart and you couldn't breathe well in it. It's like you could still be in that house doing what you need to do, but how beautiful it will be if that house was rebuilt and was healthy and helped with the wellness of our teachers and our students. I studied the policy, and I said, "Is it still permissible to teach identity, skills, intellect, criticality, and joy?" And it is.
You can still, even within your state, teach this model to our children so that they can get what they need, because we don't have time to wait for, rely on others to do what children need. We have to do the work today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you tell me a story, either a story of your own or maybe one that you've gotten from a teacher, a student, or a parent about a moment of feeling joy in the context of education?
Gholdy Muhammad: I was working with one teacher, and she said, "Gholdy, how can I teach joy in enslavement? Enslavement is a part of the curriculum, but how can I teach joy with this?" I said, "You don't start the story of Black people or Black Americans or African people with slavery." We focus on starting the unit plan with the genius and joy of African people, the accomplishments. The children learned about Timbuktu and their rich contributions to libraries and books. They learned about different African nations and their contributions to economics, to literacy, to language, and all these innovations that were created. That's how we started.
Children saw themselves in different ways. We then had teachers read Born on the Water, the picture book. This was an elementary class. They learned how Black people experienced joy, and they learned about anti-oppression and how Black people were stolen from their lands and stripped of their names and their language and the purpose and power of their names and language, but they were still learning vocabulary, decoding, all these early literacy skills that our students learn. Then they learned what makes them special, what makes them unique for their own identities?
All these things were taught. I got tell you, for those students who said, "I don't see the fullness of my life and my history is being taught or every time I'm being taught, I'm being taught as a slave," the children got to see the fullness in the wider parts of this history.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is the purpose of education?
Gholdy Muhammad: It is to advance the beautiful state of humanity. The purpose of education is joy, is self-fulfillment. If we think about joy as the ultimate goal, it's not to pass a test, it's not to graduate. The purpose of education is to ascend, to experience sublime emotions that animates your soul. That is joy. We want personal fulfillment, we want purpose for our children in their lives. That's the purpose of education, ultimately. Of course, if they're having that as the ultimate purpose, they can pass a test, get into college, start a career. That seems a little minimum in the ultimate goal of ascension and joy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Gholdy Muhammad is Associate Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and author of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Gholdy, thank you.
Gholdy Muhammad: Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, y'all. Before we finish off our School Principles series, let's hear from more of you. The last question I asked Gholdy is at the core of a lot of why this matters. We asked you too, "What do you believe is the purpose of education?"
Ken: My name is Ken Marish from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Education is a link to the past and a road map to the future so we can understand the world as it is, how we got here, and identify the myriad paths to a healthy, sustainable prosperous future. Education teaches mental organization and discipline so we can set goals and know how to achieve them.
Dawn: My name is Dawn. I'm calling from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Education is empowerment. It enables you to explore the world more objectively, to learn about what's out there, to discover your passion, to learn different ways of thinking outside of the small bubble of your everyday life. Education opens up the world, and that's why I became a teacher.
Female Speaker: My understanding is that an education is supposed to give you the tools to live a full life as part of the community, to give as much as you can to make things better for everyone, including yourself.
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