Conference to Restore Humanity! 2022: Keynote Q&A - Dr. Denisha Jones

Chris McNutt
July 30, 2022
A transcript of our Q&A with Dr. Denisha Jones at Conference to Restore Humanity! 2022.

This transcript is a discussion with Dr. Denisha Jones from July 27th, 2022, and a follow up to a flipped keynote session available on YouTube.

0:00:00.0 Chris McNutt: Hello everyone, welcome to our Q&A session with Dr. Denisha Jones. I'm sure you all are ready to go and fired up, you watched the keynote yesterday, and it was awesome. Thank you, Denisha, for joining us. We've already seen a lot of reactions to your thoughts in our Discord, and I'm excited to see where the conversation takes us today. Before we get started, here's the format for today's session, it'll be the same as if you joined us yesterday. First off, we already did the introduction, so we're just gonna jump right in the questions here in a second, and we picture this as an open and formal conversation to learn from one another. Feel free to write your answer in the chat, if you do that, I'll just read it out loud, or raise your hand using the reaction button at the bottom of Zoom, in that case, I'll call on you to ask your question. Please make sure that you lower your hand after you speak, so that way I know if there's a follow-up question or I'm just gonna call on you again. As well as, make sure to mute yourself if you're not the person speaking.

0:00:54.7 CM: We'll do our best to ensure that all the questions are answered. If one of your questions is very similar to someone else's, we might go on to another one, but we'll see how things go. To give you all some time to consider what questions you have for Denisha, I wanted to share this word "cloud." There's the prompt for Nick, there it is. From some things that folks thought about Dr. Jones's speech. So you can see here we have words like, inspiring is the biggest one, freedom, emancipatory, teaching the truth, like the hyphenation in the single words. Affirming, rebellious. All the things we wanna see, from a thing that's trying to restore humanity together. Before we get started with this Q&A, Denisha, is there anything that you wanted to share?

0:01:48.3 Dr. Denisha Jones: No, just thank you all for inviting me, for listening. I was really, great... Yesterday watching Dr. Giroux, and like I said, being in line with him has just been really, really exciting.

0:02:01.1 CM: Awesome, cool. So, I'm gonna give you all a second to consider what your first question might be. There's also a few questions I need to pull up from the Discord chat that were asked previously. To kick things off, I'll actually ask one of those, and I hate to start on a negative topic, but it was something that was consistently brought up. Which is, how do we go about navigating this space of liberatory play, advocating for Black Lives Matter, talking about truly needed social justice in society, when the mainstream narrative in the academies "charter schools" that advocate for behaviors practice? It's trying to dominate that narrative, it's trying to say that we need things like SLANT and these things that prepare workers. It seems so antithetical to the things that you're talking about in the keynote.

0:03:07.3 DJ: Yeah, I saw that in there and I... Yeah, Teach Like a Champion and all that stuff gives me the heebie-jeebies. One of the things I've struggled with is because a lot of people look at me and they say, "Well, you're the perfect example of how that shitty education system worked really well." I did well in school, I have advanced degrees, I am living in semi upper-middle class life. If the upper means rattled with debt, then that's it. And so I have to remind people, "But that's the whole thing, it's only designed for a few of us to do well." The current system, these academies, these things aren't for everyone to thrive. I grew up in a house, there were five of us, and I'm the only one who did well in that system. My other sister, she's got a degree, but she's struggling, they're all struggling. They didn't do as well as I did. And that's the point, it's not for all of us. If the system was for all of us to succeed in, then we would have all succeeded, we would have all been living this good life, but it's not, and it never has been.

0:04:05.1 DJ: And we have to remind people that all of those things they're putting out there, they're not for everyone, they're for a few who can survive that nonsense to rise to the top and then there to be shepherd around as, "Look, the system is so great." And the rest of them, instead of saying, "Well, why doesn't the system work for everyone?" It's, "What can we do to get them to play by the rules and to get into that system?" Instead of recognizing, a system that only allows the top 10% to do well is not a good system. And that's what those things are. So that's the argument I try and make. I try and say I'm the exception, not the rule. The rule is, most people will not survive these systems 'cause they were not designed for us to do well in, only a few will, and that has to be the problem. And I think getting people who've done well in these systems to see that is really key, because many of us end up being gatekeepers because we feel like, "Well, it worked for me, it should work for you guys." Instead of the opposite and saying, "Yeah, it worked for me, but why didn't it work for everybody else?" And that needs to be the problem.

0:05:05.3 CM: For sure, for sure. As we wait for some folks to raise their hand, I'll add the point too, that I don't know if it's linked in the Discord, if someone said this or not, or if I'm just imagining this, and it was on one of the tracks. But someone brought up the rates at which folks move out of low-income working class communities to middle class and upper class communities like per capita in the United States, and it's a very low number, statistically. So it all adds up. Nick, I know you had a question, to practice behaviors, practice in [0:05:45.3] ____here but I can do that, I guess, you're part of the art...

[overlapping conversation]

0:05:48.9 Nick Covington: I appreciate that. Now, I guess, I am obsessed with this idea too, that, a theme of this week has just been the tension and this notion that so-called progressive practices are somehow fluffy or they're loosey-goosey, kind of New Agey feel-good things that don't really have a basis in what we would consider. And again, forgive me for bringing up this word "rigorous" practice, so play is not a rigorous practice. Or the things that you would talk about with the Anji True Play, especially, would not be viewed by, I don't know, education researchers or practitioners as rigorous practice. And, I don't know, how do we change the framing of those kinds of things? 'Cause when I read that description of the Anji True Play and saw what was being deprived of kids in the name of those behaviorists practices, like you mentioned, things like joy and community-building and... Play is rigorous practice for kids, how can we get that message across that, that it truly is, that's what kids need in this environment?

0:07:01.4 DJ: Yeah, no, it's definitely an issue. I've always been a play advocate, I taught courses on play, I understand play from a child development perspective, but I will say, being there, being at Anji, seeing it firsthand really shifted me from a play advocate to a play warrior, to like, "This is the way, this is revolutionary, this is going to change the world," because you had to see it, you just had to see these children just fully immersed in this level of play. And their teachers. Their teachers weren't like... I've been interviewing teachers for this research I'm doing on the impact of COVID and mental health, and they're just so burnt-out, worn-out, and they're just... They're tired of it all, and these teachers are so engaged with the kids because their work is built on seeing these children in this way. And so, that shift is really needed. I know we all can't go, "Well, hopefully they'll be back open soon and we can all go do their study tours there and see it firsthand," but I think we have to see it. And then we have to step back from a lot of it. When I joined the fellowship program, we started watching videos of Anji Play, and the practices they told us is first you have to acknowledge when something makes you uncomfortable. We called it pushing up on your edges.

0:08:07.5 DJ: Because play does make us uncomfortable. Seeing children in their true free state makes us uncomfortable for lots of different reasons. Either you long for that, what you used to have, or you never had it, and so it feels uncomfortable. But even children watching other children do things that they are not allowed to do makes them uncomfortable. We have to first acknowledge that, that we are coming into it, almost an uncharted territory where we've never seen this in action before and it's new and it might make you feel uncomfortable, but that's with you and not that. So we have to explore that, "Why am I feeling uncomfortable? What about this is pushing up on my edge?" And that was really helpful to then go in there and observe. And they also have the philosophy, some of the sites here in the United States, in Madison, Wisconsin, the library out there have some Anji Play sites and they have information for adults, and it says, "To keep your eyes open, your heart open, your mouth closed and your hands down." You cannot be talking and trying to interrupt what's happening and really be paying attention, you have to watch and you have to keep your heart open, and that's really important because it really sets you up that this is not for you to comment on and to the children, "What are you doing? Why are you doing this?" or try and jump in their way.

0:09:20.7 DJ: So that's a whole new frame of being too, it just shifts your way of thinking. And now I can see that more and more like, I'll be somewhere and, "My nephew wanna climb up a tree, he can't do that." I'm like, "Why not?" [chuckle] Like, "He can climb up a tree." Like, "What if he falls?" "Okay, he falls." I watched a kid in China, fall down, hurt his arm, got some ice and went back and played. You fall down, you hurt yourself. He's not gonna know until he climbs up that tree how far is too far, and he's not likely to hurt himself. And people do... I get, risk is real and people do hurt themselves, but children are very good, they have to become very good, they used to be very good at assessing the risk. And now we create this risk-free environment and children don't know how to assess risk, they don't know how to look at a situation and say, "I don't know if this is a good place to be in," because we've taken that away from them and that's so dangerous. But the more and more we put ourselves in that situation and we think about it, the more it changes everything. Now, kids wanna do something risky. I was doing some research in Pittsburgh, and he wanted to do and I... The other teacher was like, "This is making me uncomfortable." The rest of us were like, "Hold on, let me grab our camera before you do it and we miss the video and the shot."

0:10:28.8 DJ: So it just changes everything where you're not trying to stop them, you're trying to jump in there. I don't like the word "rigor" in early childhood, I think it's a horrible term to use, but I think people just have to recognize that this is the natural way... Children are full of energy and curiosity and wanna do things, they wanna know things, they have boundless persistence and things that they wanna do. And so why are we so afraid of that? Why are we still trying to take that out of them? And then they come to me in college and we don't know why they don't have energy and persistence and curiosity anymore. And it's like, because we spend 12 years taking that away from them, because we feel that they're not learning unless we are the person in charge. And I think that's the hardest thing. And what I'm looking at now in my research is, how do we prepare teachers for this? 'Cause it's not the way I've been preparing teachers for 19 years.

0:11:18.2 DJ: Some of it is, but also, there has to be a big shift in how you see your role as the educator if you're going to engage in this work, because it's not about you just coming in and telling kids what to do and writing lesson plans and having pre-determined goals. All that have to shift, if you're really going to allow children to learn in their most natural way, you have to really think through. And there is the role... I'm not saying it's totally anarchy, it could be. There could be a time when there are no teachers and teachers aren't doing anything, but there's also a role for teachers to play in this, but it's not the traditional role. And I think, that's the next area for me, is "What does that look like? And how do we get teachers to see that shift in everything, the relationship they have with what the children are doing, the relationship they have with themselves?" One of the best things about Anji Play, when they start a demonstration site, is they bring in all the materials, and it's just for the adults. So it's for the teachers, for the parents.

0:12:08.6 DJ: You have to get back into it, you have to play, you have to remember what that play feels like, that joy, you have to laugh, you have to be scared, you have to fall down, you have to do all of these things to get it. And so that's the first step, is getting the adults back into that play space so they can see everything they're doing. We had a session one time where they just gave us blue tape and told us to play for 30 minutes with blue tape. I forgot how many silly things you could do and fun things, and... We were doing experiments, we were laughing, we were having... But there was so much happening with just that one material and just that time and space to do it. And you had to remember. And we're adults, we wouldn't even do what kids would do. Kids would have done a whole bunch of other things that we couldn't even imagine. So, you just have to have those experience and really push people to recognize those edges and then how do you push them past it? Because that's how we get to a space where you're like, "Okay, this is good for children, children are naturally doing this."

0:13:02.4 NC: Chris, I'm wondering, can I ask a follow-up real quick?

0:13:07.9 CM: Sure.

0:13:08.3 NC: And then there's questions that have come in the chat, that would be great. But Denisha, you mentioned that moment, where you went from becoming a play advocate to becoming the play warrior. And I wanna know so much about that moment that radicalized you, in that. Was it that experience at the Anji in China? Was it some place here at home? Talk about that. 'Cause I feel like I wanna make that move too. Help me understand that for yourself.

0:13:37.7 DJ: Yeah. It was a few different things. It started in Anji. There was one experience where... So remind you, we're there, the conference probably had hundreds of people. I think there were 100... There were 200, what they call international. We were not from mainland China. There were other... From all... And then maybe 100 people from China there. And so we got to tour the sites. And it was even on a Saturday, but if you ask the parents in Anji to bring their kids to play so people can watch, they're like, "Of course." So we're there and they're huge, some of these pre-schools have like 500 kids, they're massive. And the kids are just playing. And I remember watching this boy, he's got ladders coming up and down a hill, and he's got a sled. And there was a break in the ladder, so he's trying to fix it so he can come down. And in my mind, I'm standing, and saw he's gonna slide and hit the wall because he's gonna come really fast. And so I try and stand in his way, and he just looks at me and he goes like this. No other adults around, I'm like, "This kid's gonna hit the wall. Alright, let me back up and be ready to jump in with some first-aid."

0:14:37.5 DJ: And he comes cruising down the hill and right before the wall, he turns the sled and he does it... And he gets up and he does it again. And I'm just like, "Wow, he didn't need anyone in that moment telling him what to do, he didn't need anyone watching him, he knew what he was doing, he knew how to not hit the wall, he knew how to fix the gap in the ladder so that he could continue on his path," and that was part of it. He had that freedom to do that, and he didn't need anything from me or anyone else. So that really helped. I did another visit to a play space in Tijuana for refugees. And they've created this place for these kids that come in. They're all there with their families. They can come in and play. And it was great, except the adults were so torn that they weren't preparing them well for the realities of when they finally cross the border and they end up in school. And that to me realized the problem, this is a great space, these kids need a place where they can just get away from their horrible living conditions, a future they don't know that's happening and go play. But the adults were worried that that wasn't gonna help them in the long run and they should be doing more school-like things.

0:15:44.0 DJ: And so it's that fear that we have that comes from a good place that I also realize we have to address. That fear is what keeps us from doing right by these children. Yeah, some of the kids wanted to do academic work because some kids like that kind of stuff, but not all of the kids. And if you force that on them out of the fear, then you are taking away what they really needed, was play, to help build their resiliency for what they were dealing with. So that also helped too. And just... Yeah, just listening to people talk about play and seeing it in action really just made me realize that this is a way to go. Those kids in China, they look like, they're just so... When they're done and they're sitting there and they're doing their reflections, I've never seen children that age sit still and listen... I visit circle-time a lot. I supervise student-teachers in my role at the university. So I go out and I have to... And literally, it's like two minutes in and it's, "Stop pocking me," "Move your chair," "Teacher, he's touching... " The constant energy trapped in their bodies and being forced to sit still disrupts what you try and do for 15 minutes.

0:16:48.0 DJ: They sat for 45 minutes, and just sat there and talked and listened, because they spent two and a half hours playing. They didn't have any trapped energy. They were fully engaged. And to see that, that ability, which I didn't think was possible for their age group, made me realize how much we don't know is possible because we don't let children show us what they can do. And I think that really sparked it as well too. So it was a combination of things. I've been studying play for the past year in different spaces, but Anji was the introduction, and then I started to see everything else I looked at in very different ways. And mainly seeing how adults interfere and limit what could be because they're not... They don't really understand that it's not just, "Oh, they need to let off steam." No, they actually need to... This is how they engage in the world. This is how they construct knowledge. This is how they make sense of their experiences. And it also was part of everything else, because my work around anti-racism. I realized that play is a privilege for White wealthy children in America. It's not something that Black and Brown children get to experience as well too. So I was seeing those connections as well.

0:17:53.3 CM: Yeah, yeah, all great points. And I think it's a great follow-up to Diana's question. And Linx, we'll get to yours here in a second, but I feel like this is a good follow-up. Diana writes, "I feel like some of the restrictions we place on children are due to how litigious, how our society is. In my previous school a parent sued the school for a lost backpack, and I can't imagine the drama if a child got hurt on the playground and a teacher was watching the behavior that led to the injury. How can we reconcile true play, risk playing, and how litigious our culture is?"

0:18:26.0 DJ: Yeah, that's a big issue here. I was once in a panel discussion with Judith Wagner, who studies Nordic cultures and the good childhood there, and she tells the story, and she has this video of like one day in, I think it was Norway. Two kids decide they wanna get some candy and they leave the school, and they are like half a mile up the road trying to get to the corner store before anybody realizes they're gone. And somebody... A parent is driving by and sees them and they get the kids back. And the next day they were like, "Maybe we should have candy here, so the kids don't have to leave." And that was like, "Awww." And we were all like, "Yeah, so in the United States, your school would have been shut down, two of you probably would have been arrested." It would have been awful if something... If the kids actually made it off the property and left, and even if nothing happened to them, but the fact that they got out. And so we are a very litigious culture and it's sad. But I think we... At the end of day, kids get hurt all the time in traditional pre-schools and schools.

0:19:20.7 DJ: Let's not forget in our current playgrounds with that crappy playground material that we have and those monkey bars... My sister, she didn't break her neck, obviously, but she was in a neck brace. She fell off the monkey bars when she was little and had to wear a neck brace for a really long time. I worked in pre-schools all that time... Kids get hurt all the time, and they don't always get sued. So yes, there are those cases where parents will wanna sue. And I think you have to have strong policies in place and really talk to parents about why a little risk... A lot of risk and a little injury is worth it for children. But to know that injuries happen whether you're doing free play and true play or not, and these type of injuries are, if they do happen, they're not usually as bad. You do need to get insurance, but even the insurance companies... I remember when I was directing a pre-school in California at a community college, all I did was take the kids to the classroom of a college to hear a story being read by an adult, and the insurance people were like, "What if they would have fell off the chair?" I'm like, "She did fall off the chair and she got back up and she sat back down."

0:20:20.2 DJ: But they try and keep you from doing that stuff, all of the worry. So even when you have insurance, it's tough. But I think it's just educating people. Alison Gopnik, I always say her last name wrong, I think that's her last name, she's written a lot of articles about brain development and risk and the importance of risk, and I think we just have to educate our parents. Again, what we did, the parents who raised us in my generation where they didn't know where we were from sun up to sun down most of the... Every day of the summer and weekends, they didn't know what we were doing. So now to have this happen in school, they need education. But parents today, who have never seen their kid play fully free play immersed, they don't know what it is. And if we just sit down and, I think, talk with them about it and realize we all share the same goal, we want their children to thrive, we want everyone to thrive. They'll come around and they'll understand and they'll realize that.

0:21:09.3 DJ: But yeah, no parent wants to find out their child has to go to the hospital and now they have to take time off work and medical bills and all that. So I think we do have to have these conversations with people. But know that, again, most kids get hurt. Filling out reports in pre-school is a big thing, you have to fill out ouch report all day long. Kids get bitten, they get... They bleed, they need band-aids, they need all those things. And none of that... That still happens in Anji, right, they fall down, they need ice, they scrape themselves. All of those things still happen, and there's not... None of the research said that there's more injury with the riskier the play, it's actually less injury, I think, is what Alison Gopnik and other researchers had found that there's less traumatic injury with this type of play. Then the risk, with even sports, think about football and kids playing Pee Wee football and baseball and getting hurt those way too, and we do allow for those things as well.

0:22:01.5 CM: It's such a great point. And that research is so interesting, the idea, because you have that space to let go of your energy in a way that you want to, I suppose, you're less likely to get into trouble or do things that could potentially hurt someone. So it's fascinating.

0:22:17.8 DJ: Yeah, you just know... I watched two girls, they were on a structure and they were climbing it and it was unsteady, and the one girl knew it was, and so she kept trying to fix it and she couldn't fix it, and then finally she just called another girl and the girl came over and held the board for her until she was... She knew it wasn't safe, she wasn't gonna keep going, she tried to fix it. And so, kids... Yeah, she was totally competent in that situation to be... And when she needed help, she called for help, and it wasn't an adult, it was another child that she just got to come help her and that kid... And we watch kids do that for each other, hold something together so someone else can get across, 'cause they know that that's their role too, and it was just really cool to see how they came together to support each other.

0:23:00.9 CM: Yeah. I think that that leads well into a thread here that's emerging in the chat, which is, how do we advocate for true play in a space where there are so many mandates around, like packaged curriculum to counteract ideas like learning laws or the achievement gap, these pervasive myths of our culture that you need to take the idea of play and the research around play, and then gamify learning, or attach it to traditional academics because it needs to directly correlate to test scores in some way, shape or form?

0:23:37.8 DJ: Yeah, we hear about that all the time. Right now in the early childhood space is a debate whether guided play versus free play, and then they're trying to make things play base. It's almost like they're co-opting the language of play in some places. I argue with people that... The way I see it, when you let children... Right now we have a ton of children who know how to read, but don't like to read. That can't be the goal of academic learning. If you know how to read but don't enjoy it, we have failed you in so many ways. And the reason that happens is because we force reading down your throat before you're ready. I have friends... My friend Kisha Reid runs an amazing play program called Discovery in Poolesville, Maryland, and she said that the best thing... Just one of the things that happened, but eventually... And the kids just play all day. Eventually a kid will come to her and say, "I need to write something." They are ready to write something and they want paper and they want pen and a pencil, and they want help to write. That is a kid who's going to love to read and write one day, because they did it when they were ready.

0:24:39.1 DJ: She doesn't sit down and say, "Today we're gonna talk about the word 'the'" when they don't care about the word "the," it doesn't matter to them in what they're doing all day. So there is something to be said about waiting until children are ready to do that. In those Nordic countries I mentioned before, they don't start formal instruction and reading and writing till seven years old. There's a reason for that. Children, you get... I have parents reaching out to me, telling me they're getting in trouble... When I was in DC, they're getting in trouble at their school at their Pre-K4 because their son can't write small. And I'm like, "First of all, boys have gigantic handwriting when they're little." Anybody who work for pre-school knows this, but all kids do. And you know what helps you write better? Play. Playing with manipulating items actually improves their ability to develop handwriting later down the line. But they were so focused on him writing his letters now, which wasn't a useful skill for a four-year-old who wasn't ready. So I think we have to remind parents, all of this push for more and more now, it's not helping your child.

0:25:35.4 DJ: Just recently at Defending the Early Years we had our summer institute, and we had Dale Farran from Vanderbilt on talking about her research. This is the first randomized controlled study they've done in pre-K for a long time. They're in Tennessee, and so they had Tennessee academic pre-school government pre-K programs, and they had parents getting into that, and then they had all the parents who could not get into it. So they actually were able to do a randomized controlled study of those who did not get into the publicly funded pre-K programs and those who did. So they tracked them. Any time you do this research, you see gains at the end of that pre-K year or the end of that K year. And they did, they saw academic gains at the end. By third grade, the gains are gone. By sixth grade, the kids in the pre-K program were doing worse in school, they had a lot more other problems, behavior issues, other engagement issues, than the kids who never got into those academic pre-Ks and ended up being at home or local-based community child care that wasn't academic focused. That is the... And it's not just...

0:26:35.7 DJ: This is one great study because it's randomized control, but there are so many studies that tell us that, the gains don't last. And so, yeah, you can make sure a kid from 4-5 knows all their letters and letter sounds, but again, by the time they get to seven, or eight, or nine, or 10, are they going to enjoy reading? Not be able to do it, are they going to want to do it and to engage? And I think when you tell parents that, forcing this... What's the rush? We want kids who want to go to school, who want to learn, who want to be engaged, and forcing on those academics doesn't help. And parents notice this, a lot of parents who come to play programs or homeschooling or self-directed learning or any of those types of programs, they get there because they see their happy, curious, engaged child, come home miserable, sad, not wanting to go to school, feeling stupid, dumb, all of these things, and they know something is wrong. So I think if we give those parents an option saying, "Look, you see this, don't... If your child is doing well in these programs, and they're happy, fine. But most kids are not, they're miserable, they don't like it, they don't wanna be there."

0:27:39.4 DJ: Those parents don't have another option. They don't know what else... They can't say home. The only option are these schools that are doing this academic work. And so I think having those conversations is really important because again, at the end of the line, parents want what's best for their children. The problem is the corporations... These systems are telling them, "This is what's best for your child." And no one is giving them an alternative and saying, "Actually, you know, children who do this turn out just as well." Peter Gray, who I think is president of the Self-directed Learning Institute, has done research on this, people who don't go to school, the unschooling movement, and how they end up being happy adults, they end up engaged in whatever work they're doing, they're like, they've become the best sound engineer or whatever they do, because they spend all their time learning and studying their craft and getting really involved in their work, and they have happy life.

0:28:27.7 DJ: I'm hoping in Anji, they will do some longitudinal research. The parents of the young kids in Anji now came through those centers as well, and you still live there. What are the outcomes of their lives? We have to show that... I don't know. Are the people who did the best on the SAT and the MCAT, and all those tests, are they the happiest right now? Are they doing the best in life? Are there other people who have other experiences who are doing just as well? I think if you have these conversations with parents little by little, get them to see that, we're not advocating that your child does nothing and they're left by the wayside, and who cares if they ever learn to read? No, we're just saying there's another approach to making sure that they get all those skills they're gonna need, but in a way that's gonna matter to them, that's gonna lead them to feel like, "This is good for me, this is what I wanna do."

0:29:19.4 CM: That's such a fantastic point. It reminds me of a conversation we had had with someone where they mentioned that the folks who study cognitive science that look at studies around increasing test scores, would never wanna send their own kids to schools that are like those labs that they study children in, because just... There's so many ramifications for teaching that way. It probably makes sense to shift over to another thread that was explored in your keynote that's very much connected. This is a question from Linx. Linx asked, they were listening to some of Aiko Bethea, I believe, their work in the last week, and she talked a lot about guilt and shame as two of the most common barriers to learning about racism. How do educators in the Black Lives Matter At School movement engage with those barriers in teaching the truth?

0:30:12.7 DJ: Yeah, that's a really good point. So when I do my work, and I'll just speak, we're all over the country doing Black Lives Matter At School and we all do it in different ways, but when I start... When I do an anti-racism session, I first ask people to reflect on their first memory of race. The first time, usually they're pretty young or whatever age, but they remember either they said something about a person's race or ethnicity, or they heard something or someone else said something and try and track down that memory. And typically... And what happened, what was the result? And typically, non-racialized people, White people tend to have an experience where they said something or something was said, and the immediate response was, "We don't talk about that, you're being rude, be quiet." So they learn at a young age that it's wrong to talk about race, it's wrong to notice race, it's wrong... And you have to unpack that, that this is your first memory, that you said something, you heard something.

0:31:02.9 DJ: And very rarely is it the opposite. Every now and then, someone will say... Somebody said something racist and their parent in front of them said, "Don't ever speak to my child like that." And you can see that person growing up in an anti-racist world, because that was their first introduction. But nine out of 10 times, it's the opposite, they either did not say anything, nothing was said to them. By the time they realize that, "Oh wow, there are people of different races," and they say something, they're told that it's not okay, so they learn that shame and guilt early, and so it's important to unpack that. And then we talk about guilt, and how guilt is not a useful emotion in doing this work. I don't expect White people to feel guilty about racism in this world, I don't expect anyone to feel guilty because none of the people alive today were the people who was doing all of this. And so we have to impact where that comes from, and that that's not the goal. A lot of people think that's the goal, or that's what happens, but it's a normal feeling. So I've been studying racial identity development, I really started with the work of Beverly Daniel Tatum.

0:32:01.6 DJ: She highlights and summarizes the work in her book, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" And then in one of my classes, we unpack, we look at some of the other research that's looked at crosses research on Black racial identity development, we also look at Latinx, Asian-American, Native, and they all have their research. And so some of them distilled it into, like, "These are the stages that people of color go through, and these are the stages that White people go through." And there's a stage, and when White people are learning about race, that they get feelings of guilt and anger, and they actually start blaming the victim. And that's where all of these people who are against CRT, that's where they stay, they don't realize, "That's not the goal, we don't want you here, that's... " But there's a natural stage to learn about oppression and know that the people or the group you share identity with are... Created all of that oppression to get really angry, and to feel guilty, but then to blame the people, "Well, it must be your fault that you're stuck in this situation," and then they just stop there. And then they say, "CRT is racist," and all this stuff, instead of moving forward.

0:33:04.1 DJ: There are three more stages after that, we wanna get to those other stages where you continue to do the work because there is healthy White racial identity development, and that's what we want for all kids and for all people, there're these healthy levels that we wanna get to. So I've been doing that now, just exploring what does that look like, how do we get people to... And it's different with young children 'cause young children don't get through all the stages. Sometimes you're older when you hit that third stage or something. But young children mimic what they see in the world, in terms of racial superiority and racial inferiority. They do it in their play. I've had people tell me, "I can't believe you support play, I've seen kids be their most racist selves in play." And I'm like, "First of all, they're not racist, they are mimicking racial superiority and racial inferiority narratives that they have seen in the world, they don't know enough about it." They might say something or do something, but again, in play, children are mimicking what they see in the world, they're experimenting with what they know and seeing if it applies in this other situation.

0:34:00.6 DJ: And yes, play is a place where children who are socialized to feel racially superior to others will enact that in play, we've seen them talk down to children of color and do other things. And so we have to unpack that, we have to talk about that and what that means with them at a young age. And also we've seen children internalize racial inferiority through their play and in a young age, so how do we address that in the early childhood space? And it's the responsibility of teachers to do that. A lot of people wanna ignore it and say, "Oh, it doesn't matter, it's not happening." But again, then you're contributing to it. If children are seeing something and no one is challenging what they're seeing, then they're gonna go on thinking that, "Okay, this must be the way it is, no one is telling me it's not, no one's giving me new information, no one is helping me to expand my world view and my perspective." And so I argue that it's the job of early childhood teachers, along with parents and the community, to really support racial identity development, and that will help move past those feelings of shame and guilt. The children that I see educators working with in Black Lives Matter at school, they don't have any qualms about that.

0:35:04.4 DJ: We did a big event at a preschool in Brooklyn a couple of years ago when we were still in-person, and the mom was like, "Yeah, last year, we got on the train afterwards, and my little daughter, a little White girl just going up to all the Black people on the train, talking about, 'Black Lives Matter.'" And she's like, "I was a little embarrassed, but everybody was like, 'That's so cool, how did your daughter learn this?'" And she's like, "At her preschool, she just had a big celebration, so she's gonna tell everybody that she knows." And that's a normal thing for her. And she will never not have that normalized experience that that's okay, that she can say that and she's heard other people say that. And so when someone says something, she's gonna be like, "That's not true, because I know Black Lives Matter because I learned this as a young child, I learned this from the people in my life." And so, that shame and guilt won't be there for her because she's getting a foundation that challenges all of that. And so again, that's why... And it's part of my early childhood background, but that's why I believe it has to start there.

0:35:56.5 CM: Yeah, I'm struck by as you're speaking, just how joyful this is. I think a lot of times the folks that are working to counteract this, it's been studied, are filled with rage, there's a lot of anger and rage and they're upset all the time, whereas this is a, it's a kind, helpful, happy thing to talk about and to do this work.

0:36:15.7 DJ: Yeah. Well, there's the hard part, Chris, I've noticed this... And we get really... We get a lot... Again, most teachers are White. Most teachers doing Black Lives Matter at school are White teachers. We keep an all-Black steering committee on purpose, but... And that's the hard thing, we had to work with them. People feel like, "If I'm doing anti-racist work, then I'm talking about an oppressive system known as racism and I have to bring all this anger about and wanna break it down," and then it ends up focusing just on pain and struggle and horrible narratives. Look... Young kids don't want and need any of that. We center joy, because yes, this is a struggle for racial justice, but it's joyous struggle, it's joyous work to come together and to do this. And when you do it with young children, you don't start from a place of pain and strife, you start from a place... The principles behind me, the guiding principles aren't about that. We start with the idea of restorative justice, and empathy, and loving engagement, and diversity, and globalism, and all of these things that are great and uplifting before we get into the history and all that. But we don't give kids in this country a positive foundation about Black people, Black culture or anything, for them to build on.

0:37:21.0 DJ: And I always relate this to my friends, to my Jewish friends, and I ask them, "When you start going to Jewish school, you start learning about Judaism when you're young, when do you learn about the Holocaust? When do you learn about the assaults on Jewish life?" Not until they've got a solid foundation and pride in their Jewish identity, in their Jewish heritage, that's gotta come first. Why don't we do that for African-American children? Why don't we do that for Latina children, for Asian-American children? We always wanna start, with them, it's about, "Oh, this happened to you." And it's always done, but no one did it, "But this happened to you." Slavery just happened. No one... No, we didn't have enslavers, we just had slaves. We miss that part of it, and that's the problem. That's what I argue fundamentally, the problem with how we teach all that, and I didn't like learning that way. I didn't like it then, I still don't like it now because it didn't give me a place of hope. Even when we were studying women's rights and the women's movement in school, it always came from a positive perspective of women fighting for their rights, coming together and all this, I did not get that same lessons about African-Americans.

0:38:21.9 DJ: It's they were enslaved and Lincoln freed them, not they came together and resisted and collaborated, and there was no joy in that story, although there were always joys in the other stories that we learned, and why is that? And so I ask my students, "What does it mean to teach for Black joy? And I know you don't have an answer to that, so let's find out why you don't. Why don't you know what that means? Why can't you be comfortable saying that?" And it's a good starting point because they get that they don't know what that means, no one has ever taught them that, and many of us don't. And a lot of us are learning together, and it looks different, but it has to be central to the work we do. I was fortunate to do a talk to some pre-K, K students in Georgetown Day School, and yeah, we were talking about the principles, I was going over each one, and for the Week of Action, and this one boy was like, "You're so happy when you talk about all this stuff." And I'm like, "You gotta be happy, this is good stuff." It wasn't your typical sad information about that kind of stuff. So yeah, the joy has to be there all the time.

0:39:21.4 CM: For sure, for sure. And I wanna build a... Trevor asked in the chat, a connection here. He's building off of Linx's question, and to an extent that question you just answered, which is, "How can we navigate the tension between affirming and acknowledging the particular parts of identity such as race, class, gender, etcetera, while also honoring our shared humanity in ways that allow for solidarity and community-building across those differences?"

0:39:47.9 DJ: Yeah, that's such a great question. They're definitely are a tension that I know, I get a lot of my research from the teachers who are doing this work and see how they go about it, and so a lot of times they do. One educator that I worked with in New York city who does Black Lives Matter At School, high school teacher, he had to... His students are questioning why it was okay to say queer, but it wasn't okay to use the N word. Now, these are high school students, and so he's got to have these conversations with them. And so it was really interesting. His approach was talking about how in the queer community, people have reclaimed that word and they use it and it's different, but not everybody feels that way, and he said to them how a guy as a non-Black person, how do I support my Black people? I do that by not using a word that they haven't all said, "This word is okay to use."

0:40:36.9 DJ: And so he unpacks how he tries to be in alignment with the people, the communities he's working with and why he takes that approach. But he doesn't tell Black students that they can't use that word because that's not his job, but he does set up a way in the classroom where he's asking what language we can use. So you have to be very intentional with the kids. Name the tensions, right? Yeah, I get what you're saying. This is uncomfortable in one space and have that dialogue with them and just be really honest. Once you start doing these work, these kids will call you out quickly if you're not living it. My other colleague, she's a high school Spanish teacher, she's always talking about Afro-Indigenous perspectives and getting away from the European colonizer, and they called her out for straightening her hair. And she was like, "Oh snap, you're right, I am doing this." And so she's wearing her hair in her natural curly state to show her students, "You're right, I can't be talking to you about all this and I'm not doing it myself."

0:41:32.5 DJ: So those tensions are there. We have to honor them and always remind students, who are we being accountable to? That word "accountability" is thrown out a lot, but who are we as people doing this work accountable to, and how do we show that accountability, and what does it look like so that they can see that? And I think that really helps them to understand that it's not easy, there's no one answer, and nothing works for everybody. Some queer people don't like the term "queer," so how do we deal with that? And so it is a dialogue. It is always willing, I think, to dialogue and to talk with them about these things, and to not feel that we need to end it, that it needs to be final, that it needs to have closure. It's not closure, it's going to be ongoing, and kids can recognize that. We're having these conversations in a quorum but it doesn't mean we're gonna solve this problem today, it means we're just gonna show that it's something important, it's something worth talking about.

0:42:23.5 CM: Yeah. And I wanna shout-out to some messages here in the chat that I think relate so well. Linx's comments, someone who identifies as trans, the first thing that they learned about trans-people in Latin America was they only live to be an average of 35 years old, and how, when we talk about current events regarding folks who have been historically and currently oppressed, it tends to have that negative narrative and how that might change the way you view yourself. And then, Hana, who says that we have to go through the re-humanizing processes of adults and educators, we can't support our students in joyful ways when our own educational experiences lacked joy, and reclaiming that. So, something I'm curious about is how you navigate the waters between the concepts of true play and self-directed learning and social justice, because some folks that are in that, that self-directed learning space, it's all about "freedom," and being able to act outside of a prescriptive curriculum and letting students do what they want. However, what if a student is in that environment and they don't have parents or families who are anti-racist, for example, at what point do we integrate these social justice components and just love of humanity in general to that type of pedagogy or world?

0:43:55.7 DJ: Yeah, yeah. Well, there's different limits on like, "We can't ever do what we want." There's freedom to do things, but there's always gonna be some type of limits on what that means. And I usually say, "We are free to do what we want as long as we're not hurting other people." And getting children... And young children understand that. So, people say, "Oh, you can do whatever you want. Not if you're denying me my... " And hurting other people means denying them their humanity. So if your freedom cost me my humanity, then you're not free. None of us are. And so how do we have those conversations as well too? And I guess that's what people think. And Anji tried so hard to drive this point home like, "We are at school, kids come in and we go into the classroom, we hang up our stuff, we sit down, we have conversation."... They have a schedule. They have a flow. It's not just... But they're still... But then they go outside and they go into a space and they're in that space. Are they free to go? Yes. But you have to come tell a teacher that you'd like to go to another space where other kids are, and that's all you have to do and you can go through. There's still structure.

0:44:54.5 DJ: Children create the structure too. Children want to be safe. They want that structure. They want those limits because they need to know how far they can go. And so they will set them up and look for them, and they do have them in place, and I think that's important. But they are free in the sense that I'm not telling you, "Go and build that slide up the hill. That's your choice." I'm not telling you, "Go do this, or if you practice balancing, it's gonna make you stronger for your test later." No. They're free to make those decisions in that sense, but within the environment. They can't just leave the center. They can't. It's funny, all the pre-schools in China, the police are outside to keep bad people from getting in. They're not in the school policing the children, they stay outside. And so you can't come in and out of the building without the police right there. And so the children are protected in that sense as well too. With the self-directed learning, I think at the end of the day, what I try and do with my students in the college level and I'd like to see this more in K-12, I say, "You need to do these five things a semester, how you wanna go about doing them is on you, and if you're creative, you will combine as many of them as possible."

0:46:00.8 DJ: So we're in a class and I say, "You need to collaborate with at least one person, you need to present, you need to research and write, you need to reflect and you need to contribute to the class in some way. And then you have to tell me how you did those things." Now, imagine if we told kids that in a class, "You have to meet these... These are the standards and you have to show us how you've met them, and then you can spend all your time figuring that out." There are some kids who are gonna work on them everyday 'cause they're that diligent, and there are gonna be some kids who are gonna wait till the week before they're due, and then they're gonna do them, and the other time... And that's okay. But we don't let children take responsibility for their learning. Anything that's imposed on me, I tell my students, "Okay, this is the day grades are due. If I don't turn in these grades this day, I get a nasty email, so let's work backwards. I need this much time to grade your work, so I would like all your work due on this day. And it's not my rule, it's the school's rule and this is what I need you to do," and we go back from there. And we can do that with other kids too, and it is that freedom because then they're really creative.

0:47:00.4 DJ: Most of my students met all those five expectations one way. Well, four of them you can meet. They collaborated on everything, and did a presentation on everything in a large group together. And it was good work. And again, it made it easy for me instead of reading five papers, I read one from five people. Instead of five separate presentations, I had one from five people, and the work was still good and they were engrossed and they got to know each other. Again, why is that only good for my students at a private liberal arts college? Why can't we do that with high school, junior high, fifth-graders, third-graders, first-graders? When children know that there's an expectation, they will rise to the challenge. When I was teaching kindergarten, and I always tell this story and I probably shouldn't, but I was struggling. It was a struggle. My kids were loud. I'm loud. I had zero control over the classroom because I wasn't there to control. And I was being observed the next day and I sat them down, I said, "Look, they're coming to observe me tomorrow and if we don't do good, you won't have me as a teacher no more." "What, Ms. Jones?"

0:48:00.6 DJ: And I'm like, "I'm just being honest, guys, that, we get in trouble, I get in trouble all the time, I don't know what else to say." "What do we need to do?" I said, "We need to do really... We need to show them that we actually learn in this classroom and that you guys actually do things." Oh my goodness, it was the best day of teaching I ever had to the point where one little boy came up to me was like, "Wink wink, how are we doing?" and I was like, "High five, you're doing excellent." And I think 'cause I was honest with them and I told them that like, "Tomorrow is an important day and I really need you guys to show up and do this." And they did it, and they rose to the occasion. And we should do this all the time. I said, "Someone should come observe me every other day and maybe you guys will... " But I had to be honest with them about that and put it in their hands like, "This is the reality that, these rules are in place because I get in trouble, if you're loud in the hallway, I don't care, but other people care."

0:48:48.7 DJ: But then also tell them about working in a shared environment. "Why can't you run around the school? Because other people are in the other room and they're trying to be quiet and you're disrupting them," and then they get that, instead of just saying me, "Be quiet, we don't talk in the hallway. No, we are being respectful of other people in their learning environments, so we keep our voices down when we go back and forth in the hallway. Are there spaces where we don't have to worry about that? Yes, we can be loud here, we can be loud there, we're not disturbing anybody else." But giving them that understanding and putting it back on them really shifted the rest of the year for us because I was honest. And I think that's what's lacking. We don't give kids the responsibility. We teachers take it all on us and then when they don't do well, we blame them. But if you're taking all the responsibilities for the learning, you're responsible throughout. But we can't be. I can't force you to learn, I can't force you to do anything.

0:49:38.3 DJ: I tell my students all the time. "If you don't wanna do something you don't wanna do it. But I could tell you, this is the expectation, this is what I would like you to do, and then see, evaluate whether you do it or not." That's the best I can hope for in that situation. But the more children are aware of that, I think the more they come together and they understand that. So yeah, how do we spread that freedom? I wish it didn't take me in a private liberal arts university to start doing that, I wish I was doing that when I was working with young children. I wish more people were doing that when they were working with young children. There are people doing ungraded in younger grades and they're asking students to grade themselves and some struggle, but they get better and they realized that this was better once they didn't have the pressure of the grade and they were just forced to really document what they were learning and how they were engaging and showing up. They were honest, "I didn't do that well in this area 'cause I didn't really care and next time... " It is that trust that I think we need to develop with all of the kids that we work with.

0:50:35.0 CM: That's such a powerful message. That transparency thing is so huge. Plus, it's just a huge relationship-builder. I remember working with high-schoolers, being able to go in there and say like, "Hey, this is the reason why I do grades this way, this is the reason why I do discipline this way." And not everybody necessarily agrees with me, so show us that it works, and the kids just love having that, almost like backroom feeling like they're getting away with something, but really having that power to know that they are able to transform their own environments and having that autonomy. That's so huge. We have a few minutes left. I have one more question that was sent in a DM, from Rachel. And I think it's an interesting question to summarize everything, which is, she would love to hear how you would respond to school's social workers, restorative practice leaders. I would even add myself, progressive educators who receive pushback from Black families around restorative justice practice, progressive practice, which they view as coming from an out-of-touch White educator who doesn't understand schools and their communities.

0:51:41.6 DJ: Yeah, that's a great question Rachel. And I've blogged about this a few years ago because I was surprised. People get surprised when Black families want things like testing... Think about all the Black families who willingly put their kids in success charter schools and KIPP and all that, and they just wanna dismiss them as being out-of-touch. But again, if you understand the history of their experience in education and what they believe, you have to, one, acknowledge that they are justified in this thinking. And so there's a lot of it. First we hear, clay in early childhood is for White teachers who don't care about Black children. And you know what, I bet there were times when that's what happened, they didn't care about those kids and they just let them do whatever they want, and so they're justifying reasons for that. Or, "We need testing to show that our students aren't doing well." We hear that a lot from Black parents too, and they've been told these things as well too. So I think we have to acknowledge that, a system not designed for their children have left them feeling like they need things to reassure them that the system is trying to work for their children, that the teachers and educators are trying to work for their children.

0:52:42.9 DJ: And so acknowledging, "You're right. Historically, this has been the way." And then helping them to see why though, the stuff they're getting, the so-called reform, these charter schools that's all this, aren't really designed to help their children. That's when I go back to one of the best tenets of critical race theory that I love is, interest convergence. And Derrick Bell taught us what interest convergence means, and that we will only see progress and change when it benefits the majority group. Charter reform and all of this, this is not... They're talking a good game, that this is for Black kids, but it's not, it's gonna benefit the majority group. And so they're now pretending as though the interest has converged and they actually care about Black kids. But if there wasn't money to be made off charter schools, they wouldn't give a damn, there's no money to be made off of play because play is free. Even if you buy the materials once you have them, they last forever. Play is one of the most low-cost ways to really support learning and engaging, and that's why it hasn't been capitalized. And I fear what will happen when it is, when they find a way like they did with SEL to monetize SEL into tech stuff.

0:53:50.0 DJ: The minute they can do that with play. And they tried, they tried with something called personalized learning. Guess what? Play is personalized learning, you don't need a computer script, you don't need these things for that, but that's what they've created. And so we have to remind people that the things that are easy, that are not to make money, those are not the things being pushed on you. And then we get into the cultural practices. If we study the history, a lot of European colonizers and settlers were very upset with how other cultures allow their children freedom. I learned this about Native American groups... "What, you let your kids run around and do all this? That is not okay." And so, they brought these ideas of obedience and that children were flawed from the beginning and they needed to be taught how to be right. They brought these ideas with them, those weren't our ideas of who we are. We don't know what our ideas were, 'cause they were stripped from us, that's the other thing that we have to look at. And partly, for me, I have to accept that what I'm selling here is not for everyone, and I get that, no matter how much I say that this is the best thing for a child, not everyone wants this, and that's okay, I can't do that.

0:54:58.3 DJ: But I do feel like we have to push for the option for those who want it. If we're really gonna talk about choice, choice means the choice to choose, opt out of everything that we've got going and pick something else. That is the real choice and we're not giving that to real families, we're giving you the choice of underfunded public school or rigorous charter school. Those can't be the only two options. And so we have to work with those people who want that, and I think the more people see it, the more you see the joy of the children and their happiness and how engaged they are, the more you're gonna start questioning whether what you're doing is actually the right thing to do, but we have to give people the information. But really in a respectful way, and to honor, then saying, "I hear what you're saying, you're right, these schools have not done your children well historically, they weren't designed to, and they're not doing it right now, even if there are good people working in them trying to do that. And this is why I think this is what you need, this is why I've come to understand." And letting them make the decision for themselves once they have all the information that you can give them.

0:55:57.3 CM: That's one powerful message. Seriously, Denisha, thank you so much for being here and talking with us all today. I think this conversation was super inspiring, and a lot of great things came out of this. In terms of next steps, folks, as a reminder, you can continue the conversation about Dr. Jones's keynote as well as this Q&A session in the day two keynote channel. Denisha is actually there, so I'm assuming that you can probably just ask her and she could respond to you and speak with you there. Also, don't forget that today you can watch the keynote recording of the Harvest Collegiate Circle Keepers, who was actually referred to us by Denisha, so there's a straight connection there. And...

0:56:42.0 DJ: Yeah, one of the students I mentored is with that group, so awesome.

0:56:45.1 CM: Awesome. Yeah, and they are a perfect example of how you can encapsulate everything that we're talking about and just see it for real from young people. Tomorrow we'll have our Q&A with them at 11 o'clock Eastern, which will be at the panel with about 10-20 students. And then finally, don't forget to just keep on with your tracks, please let us know if you have any questions, and enter the giveaway in the Discord. All of you are welcome to hit the little button, that's all you have to do and you can win a cool shirt. So see y'all later. Thank you again, Denisha, for joining us, and we'll talk again real soon.

0:57:18.6 DJ: Thank you.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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