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MCS Participates in Black Lives Matter Week of Action

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Black Lives Matter Logo

At Manhattan Country School lessons about black history and culture are integrated into the curriculum, there are many black teachers, and teachers and administrators don’t take a zero-tolerance approach when dealing with conflict or disciplinary issues. In many schools across the country, especially inner-city public schools with a predominantly black student population, this isn’t the case.

In an effort aligned with MCS’ public mission, Manhattan Country School joined schools in New York City and several major cities across the country for a Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools February 5 through February 11. You may be familiar with Black Lives Matter as a hashtag created in response to the troubling trend of black people dying at the hands of police. But that’s just one aspect of an extensive effort to, according to BlackLivesMatter.com, imagine and create “a world free of anti-blackness, where every black person has the social, economic and political power to thrive.” It’s a movement that MCS History Teacher and Activism Coordinator Nassim Zerriffi describes as the modern-day iteration of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Black Lives Matter is being actively misrepresented as a hate group...and I think a lot of people don’t understand what the movement is about and what it is for...,” said Nassim. “...It is very much a peaceful, nonviolent movement for justice.”

The goal of the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools is to improve the experience of students of color by demanding that schools do the following:

  • End zero tolerance
  • Hire more black teachers
  • Mandate black history and ethnic studies

“Our schools are very much a site where black children are harmed and where white supremacy is reaffirmed and taught through curriculum and the erasure of black people in history, through the policing and criminalization of students of color, through the unequal funding, through the pushing out of black teachers and all these various ways in which schools reproduce white supremacist structures and all the ways schools push students out and into the criminal justice system,” said Nassim.

“Schools need to be a location where teachers in addition to teaching are also protecting their students…. Black Lives Matter is a fundamental way we do our fundamental job of keeping kids safe and teaching them and giving them the skills they need to be productive and engaged members in society.”

“Over the years there have been times when in response to a change, particularly the emergence of a youth movement, it felt important and consistent with our mission to pause,” said MCS Director Michèle Solá, regarding MCS’ decision to participate in the Week of Action. “The Black Lives Matter week fell into that mold, much like the election of Nelson Mandela or the first celebration of Earth Day…. For MCS, pause didn’t imply a stop to educating. It meant delving deeper and being creative with curriculum and the week’s schedule.”

Teachers and students prepared for the Week of Action with a kick-off session Thursday, February 1 that focused on race and identity. With the fifth- and sixth-graders grouped together and the seventh- and eighth-graders working with one another, the students discussed what it means to have individual and group pride. Then the students were asked to break into groups based on the racial group they identify with—black, Asian/South Asian, Hispanic, white, mixed race or undefined. In these groups, the students were asked to respond to the following two questions: What is it like to be part of this group? and What do you want others to know about this group?

Black Lives Matter Project

“Even though we’re an integrated school and race is always present in our community we don’t always stop to just talk about race very often in the same way that we do talk about other topics,” said Upper School Director Maiya Jackson. “I think for [the students] to speak about race and to speak about it so personally, not just as a construct that exists in society that has affected history or the way we interact, but has to do with speaking about their own racial identities and how they connect to each other was really powerful for them.”

Black Lives Matter 13 Guiding Principles

 

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday

Empathy

Diversity

Queer Affirming

Black Families

Unapologetically Black

Loving Engagement

Globalism

Trans Affirming

Intergenerational

Black Women

Restorative Justice

 

Collective Value

Black Voices

 

The next week the students engaged with the 13 guiding principles of Black Lives Matter using curriculum developed by their teachers. They met as an entire Upper School, as single grades and as grades paired together. Sessions included discussions about prejudice and empathy, diversity and intersectionality within the black community, the black diaspora, ideas of masculinity, the LGBTQI+ community and the impact of zero tolerance policies on black school children. Members of Nimbus Dance Works, founded by MCS alumnus Samuel Pott ’90, visited to perform social-justice-inspired choreography, including Pearl Primus’ “Strange Fruit,” a piece about lynching based on Lewis Allan’s poem of the same name. Christina Swarns, attorney-in-charge at the Office of the Appellate Defender, spoke about the criminal justice system and her experiences as a lawyer, particularly arguing Buck v. Davis in front of the Supreme Court while litigation director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Christina Swarns

At the end of the week, the seventh- and eighth-graders gathered to reflect on their experience. The following are some of their takeaways:

  • “It’s important to look at everyone in a movement.” —Emma ’18
  • “I thought it was cool to learn about all the different parts of the Black Lives Matter campaign. When I first saw it on the news, it was like seeing the shell of a machine, but now I saw all the different parts. It was more than a fight against police brutality.”—Oscar ’19
  • “I thought it was cool that [dancers] could tell stories through dancing and that it wasn’t only for entertainment, but had a voice.” –Jory ’18
  • “I’m not sure I can trust the court system anymore.”–Asad ’18
  • “This week I had a lot of feelings. Learning about police and security and schools was surprising to me.” Sydney ’18
  • “You shouldn’t be ashamed of being black. You shouldn’t apologize and should be proud of who you are.”—Rachel ’19

“I’m continually blown away by the depth of thought and the level of engagement that [our students] have in topics that many adults are not equipped to or used to or ready to talk about,” said Maiya. “Parents should feel really proud about the kids they’re putting into the world. These are young people who are really understanding the nuances of quite complicated topics and are able to speak about them abstractly and also personally.... That’s really special.”

Participation in the Week of Action wasn’t limited to the Upper School. For example, in Laleña’s 5-6s class, they talked about the campaign’s demands by scaffolding from what children already knew about their own school. When Laleña asked her students why it was important for all children to have black teachers, they said, “Because maybe if someone’s never seen a black teacher, they won’t know that black people can be teachers.”

In addition to curriculum for students, the Black Lives Matter Week of Action included events hosted by schools and other organizations for students, teachers and the broader New York City community. On Tuesday, February 6, Manhattan Country School hosted “Perspectives: Dance and Social Justice,” which addressed the experiences of people of color in the world of dance and the role of dance in the fight for social justice. 

Black Lives Matter ShirtThe Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools was a truly grassroots effort, with teachers—including several from Manhattan Country School—coming together to develop a plan for the week and creating curriculum and resources to be shared with area schools. MCS’ own Stella ’18 created the design for the Week of Action t-shirt.

While the Week of Action is over, the focus on this issue will continue. Students will do additional reflection on their experience through writing assignments and the curriculum developed by MCS teachers will be added to a resource repository that will be available to schools across the country.

“The conversations started the week we paused for the Black Lives Matter Week of Action shouldn’t end,” said Michèle. “And, may there be other moments when youth clamor for change when we pause to study deeply the principles behind their cause.”