Blog Posts

Normalizing Blackness Beyond Black History Month (2021)

Some of you have been there. A friend or coworker is describing a human and starts with, “you know, she’s tall, has braids…”, then lowers their voice prior to saying the word, “black” or “African-American” in a hushed tone.

Or, perhaps you can feel the tension in a room when someone says the word “black”…or you automatically imagine the grimacing emoji face when topics of race come up in certain spaces.

Let’s interrupt this cycle. As educators (and people), we have tremendous power to halt cycles of daily racism and “otherization” by educating students and choosing to normalize blackness in conversations beyond Black History Month- regardless of the degrees of pigmentation existing within our classrooms (yes, both white and non-white students can and should have opportunities to participate in these conversations surrounding Black history and anti-racism). It is an injustice for white students and students of color to be robbed of these experiences. We cannot afford to continue cycles of ignorance. Education is crucial for taking steps towards racial healing and unity that our nation desperately needs. It is not “divisive” to discuss issues of race, yet just the opposite in that it frees us to appreciate one another on a deeper level. What steps can we take?

  1. You don’t always have to have the perfect words (but do think before you speak…if it feels rude, unkind or ignorant, it probably is). Allow space for dialogue and perspectives of students. People won’t grow if they are constantly stuck thinking, “what if I say the wrong thing?” Get uncomfortable. Consider it like riding a bike…potentially uncomfortable at first, but imagine what happens if you engage with anti-racist dialogue consistently. If you fall off the proverbial bike, get back up and try again.

  2. …so, you’re looking for the words? Check out quotes, poems and songs. Conduct a Google search on quotes about blackness and anti-racism, then provide students with a platform to interpret them and ask questions.

  3. Normalize sharing quotes, images and accomplishments from Black people outside of February. Ensure students see a variety of types of humans represented in classrooms to diminish feelings of discomfort, fear and “otherization” of blackness.

  4. Don’t sugarcoat history. Healing occurs when we acknowledge the past.

  5. Embed books, music and documentaries created by Black authors and creators all throughout the year. Normalize seeing all types of human beings doing human being things- as it should be. This combats the false narrative of racial superiority or inferiority. Represent humanity as it actually is…a variety of accomplishments from people representing various shades of pigmentation.

Educators hold extraordinary power now and always. What if we set ourselves free from the fear of speaking about race, and didn’t reserve Black history and conversations about race solely for Black students? Imagine the strength the next generation would possess if we could eradicate the discomfort and otherization of blackness. Ignoring these conversations will continue to breed feelings of anger, divisiveness, pain and worse. Allow the next generation (and yourselves) to heal.

Helping Learning Stick: How Do We Help Students Retain Information? (2021)

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m always extra hyped to share 792 new teaching ideas and strategies as an instructional coach and educator. I’ve found myself down countless rabbit holes nerding out over articles like “cool things you can do with Jamboard” or one of the other several platforms that ed-techies like me play around with… *maybe* for fun. With endless resources, how do we help ensure learning experiences that actually stick with students, especially during these times?

I don’t have secret tips or tricks, nor do I propose anything new or unreasonable…just my own experiences as a pupil of Evanston Township that shaped me into the learner and educator that I am today. Teacher blogs, social media and Google searches provide countless ideas left and right that promise successful teaching techniques during and after this pandemic. It can get overwhelming. For now, I just wanted to shout out all of the teachers I’ve had in my life and the simple techniques they used to make learning stick for me, in hopes that they inspire you too.

Learning sticks when student interests and classroom personalities are embedded into every lesson.

The beauty of teaching is the ability to personalize content every year according to your classroom vibe and interests. In second grade, we learned about defending our opinions. It was around the holidays, so as little ones we were naturally very chatty before break- and curious about the existence of Santa Claus (this would’ve been a cool December blog). Our teacher facilitated a classroom debate requiring us to acquire facts from our little eight year old minds that proved or disproved his existence. She used our chattiness and curiosity about Santa to our classroom’s advantage, and I still consider the importance of listening to others’ thoughts during debates.

Learning sticks when representation is normalized in the classroom.

My middle school ELA teacher provided several texts that reflected a variety of cultures. As a black student, I recall reading several books where the main characters were also black- but reading these books wasn’t made into a spectacle or a “special event”. It was simply a part of the curriculum- normalized so that we felt seen and heard in class, just as every student should.

My high school biology teacher instructed every student to draw a scientist on the first day of school. Almost naturally, everyone drew Einstein- or someone who looked like Einstein…perhaps Bill Nye, too. Our class was racially and ethnically diverse. My teacher said, “why didn’t any of you draw yourselves?” That hit home.

Learning sticks when connections are built between class that day, daily life, and the future.

My middle school social studies and ELA teachers taught us some of the GREATEST lessons about the power of digital literacy and the importance of thinking critically about sources of information. We were taught to ask questions, seek multiple perspectives and be informed prior to forming opinions. One of our teachers strategically guided our class to explore a site that supposedly gave information about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (this was in the early 2000s, as internet research was becoming more common in schools). Upon our explorations, we discovered that the writer, a Klansman, was actually scribing false information and sharing it as legitimate facts. Our teacher used this lesson to investigate sources and how to identify false information. If these aren’t some of the most important skills our nation could use right now, I’m not sure what is. I thank my teachers.

Learning sticks when teachers are legitimately excited about their content.

I don’t remember too many first days of school, but I still remember a speech on triangles from my first day of geometry class in 2002. Let me tell you, I’ve never looked at a triangle the same way again! My teacher preached so hard on triangles that he had me questioning every shape that year and how I could be absolutely sure in proving it was the shape that I thought it was. Not only that, but because of his passion about the complexities and beauties of mathematics, I can confidently say that I still feel the same way about numbers today. True story.

Anyway, If you are a teacher past or present…thank you. Keep pushing! You’ll never know how far your impact has reached!

Respecting the Roster: Combating Classroom Discrimination Before the First Day of School (2020)

If you watch “Black-Ish”, you may recall the episode where Rainbow & Andre Johnson debate whether or not to name their fifth child Devante1. The fictional couple embraces the pride and beauty in naming their child an “African-American sounding” name while simultaneously understanding that their child could potentially face increased discrimination in classrooms, the work force and beyond.

Names & Implicit Biases

What thoughts occur in the mind of educators upon coming across traditionally African-American sounding names on rosters? In those moments, if thoughts were published onto those fabulous word clouds from tech savvy professional development sessions, what words would pop up the most?

Now that you’ve reflected a bit, ask- “where do these thoughts come from?” and then evaluate. Are these thoughts rooted in biases, stereotypes, anti-blackness or internalized racism? What assumptions are made about the family? According to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, traditionally whiter sounding names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews. Some studies also conclude that discrimination occurs in classrooms through lowered expectations for students with African American sounding names. There are also studies that suggest all candidates are treated the same regardless of name, but these focused upon surnames, not first names. Regardless of studies, discrimination exists.

As educators (and human beings), we must realize the significance of valuing every student name and the humanity behind it.

What does this have to do with me?

As educators and administrators, our role is imperative in strategically dismantling systemic racism and discrimination in school systems and beyond. We can start prior to day 1 with examining the beauty and value behind our students’ names. This matters.

There’s a lot that people, as a society, do not know about traditionally African American sounding names. These names originate from rich history, culture, and of course simply the joy and freedom that comes with a family’s ability to design beautiful, unique names! Here are some facts below!

Where do some (read: some) ‘Black’ names come from?

  • When West Africans were sold into slavery, name retention often became lost and inconsistent. Misspellings and revoking of West African names were common. Wanted ads for runaway slaves included “proper names” (given from the slave master) and “country names”(name of their country of origin). Over time, the combining of cultures, languages and names birthed new names unique to black Africans and their descendants.

  • The addition of accent marks and apostrophes originated from Creole culture in Louisiana, which introduced French into black naming (Monique, Andre). Around the 1960s, the addition of Le’ and De’ to names (i.e. Le’Andra or De’Sean) rose in popularity.

  • Some traditionally African-American names originated with the growth of Pan African politics, the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements in the 1960s and 70s. An increase in African & African-sounding names occurred after the airing of “Roots” as well. Along with Pan African politics included incorporation of names from Swahili as well, such as Imani and Nia

  • Some names have religious roots from the Bible (Moses, Jedediah, Moesha- a version of Moses!) or Arabic and Islamic names that gained traction with the rise of the Black Power movements (Muhammad Ali & Kareem Abdul Jabar) .

So…what’s next?

If you find yourself asking, “we are in the middle of a pandemic…how do I have time to teach about/address systemic racism and care about student names in the middle of all of this?” I encourage you to rethink what you do have time for, and what you should have time for. Read books that address implicit bias and the history of the black experience (that history is yours too, even if you are a non-black person), and most importantly, spend the time getting to know your students as individuals. Now, more than ever (and always), is the time to focus on the social, emotional and cultural needs of students. This work should be a priority for every educator.

Ready to dive in? I’ve included these simple projects & activities for you to explore here. Be sure to read the tips below as well!

Tips for Teachers:

  • Be careful not to ‘otherize’ names, or assume some names are “normal” while others are “not normal”. Celebrate the beauty in apostrophes, multiple upper-case letters, accent marks, or spellings you may not have seen before.

  • Refrain from participation in teasing. It happens amongst people of color as well and also must be addressed- but please note that this does NOT justify non-black groups in devaluing our names. It’s a collective effort….a journey of self love for black folks and one of allyship through love and appreciation of black culture.

  • Be sensitive to students who may be adopted or in foster care who may not have had the opportunity to learn about the rationale behind their naming.

  • Understand that not all names have a historical context, but could simply be originated in family creativity. That is okay! Aren’t we all free to do this?


  1. Black-ish Recap: What’s In a Name? Season 3 Episode 14

  2. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination” by Marianne Bertrand & Sendhil Mullainathan in The National Bureau of Economic Research, 2003

  3. Names, Expectations and the Black-White Test Score Gap. David N. Figlio NBER Working Paper No. 11195 Issued in March 2005

  4. Hiring bias study: Resumes with black, white, Hispanic names treated the same” By ALEXIA ELEJALDE-RUIZ CHICAGO TRIBUNE MAY 04, 2016

  5. “Black Sounding” Names and Their Surprising History: S1 E8 of “Say it Loud” on PBS

Additional Resources to Reference:

Harvard University Implicit Bias Test

12 Books for Anti-Racist K-12 Education

“These Kids Just Don’t Care”: School Segregation and the Dangers of Microaggressions (2020)

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, many schools today still remain widely segregated. What are we doing or saying to maintain the status quo?

Some may question modern day school segregation. One may automatically think or say, “all people have a right to attend any school”, “everyone has equal opportunity”, or “my grandparents worked hard and were able to make it without a good education”. In reality, the deep rooted history of our country very much impacts the state of education today, with redlining and lack of educational resources limiting opportunities for African American people.

Yes, Brown v. Board of Education overturned segregation in 1954. However, “separate but equal” is far from the truth. In 2016, UCLA’s Civil Rights Project & The Center for Education and Civil Rights reported that 40% of African American students nationwide attended schools with a population of 90% or more students of color (Sources: Time Magazine and “Harming our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown“). While some claim “separate but equal” as truth, this is not reflected in today’s schools. Facts and observations affirm this.

Your Words Have Power.

Given the academic opportunity gaps existing today, we stand responsible for change. For those of us working in schools- with AND without students of color, it is imperative that we honor our students with the way we speak about them and their communities.

The following statements, IF said in reference to an entire racial group, are stereotypes and microaggressions.

“These kids just don’t care”

“Education just isn’t a priority for these kids”

“These parents are lazy”

Always challenge yourself and others to question- “Who are we referencing when we make statements about “these kids”? Are these statements affecting how we treat our students or the opportunities we provide in the classroom?

Surely, individual students of all races display undesirable personal characteristics- this is humanity and none of us are perfect. When used, however, to generalize African American children or attribute personal struggles to skin color, the statements carry more harm than we might think.

The purpose of addressing microaggressions is not to invoke guilt, but to challenge implicit biases. We cannot effectively make change for children if we remain lost in guilt or self-pity. We must understand that statements such as these can harm student mentality and reinforce low expectations – hence continuing a cycle of systemic racial oppression in schools.

Thankfully, there is a lot we can do as educators and community members to make change. Our words have power. Having Courageous Conversations, reading, listening to and empathizing with others are key steps to combat systemic racism in our schools.

Below are a few texts to get started. Please note that fighting for equity and justice is an ongoing process and does not end with a few books. Continue to have conversations and learn.

We cannot combat racism if we remain stuck in guilt and discomfort. Dive in and inspire change!

Texts to Inspire

“Courageous Conversations About Race” by Glenn E. Singleton

“Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” by Zaretta Hammond

“White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo

“We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom” by Bettina L. Love

“How to Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi

Combating Learning Loss with Project-Based & Maker Learning (2020)

Urban, suburban, rural…at this point in time, schools in EVERY type of district are asking, “how do we combat learning loss after Covid-19 school closures?” Every child will experience some form of loss during these times. With the added pressures of state testing and benchmark assessments, educators and administrators are most certainly fearing the pressure of what’s next.

Right now (and always), it’s most important that students love learning and see the windows of opportunity that education can give.

With summer camps out and questions flying about addressing student learning loss, The Pittsburgh Village Project is taking this opportunity to create summer project based maker learning kits for students to learn problem-solving and cross-curricular academic content through play!

Our first summer initiative includes The Safe Play Challenge, a project-based maker learning experience in which students will receive materials to design their own obstacle course or games to play safely in their communities and lessen the likelihood of exposure to illness from playground equipment.

Why maker learning and project-based learning?

The two are separate, fabulous buzzwords that pack a lot of punch. We define maker learning as an approach to education in which learning occurs through the creative design process. We define project-based learning as an engaging educational approach in which students learn through solving a real-world problem. The advantages of both are below. Maker and project-based learning experiences provide…

  • Real-world, relevant learning

  • Opportunities for problem solving

  • Cross-curricular connections

  • Differentiation of assessment

  • Fun!

What can you do to help?

Share your ideas

Think about how much more we learn when we are genuinely interested in a topic. The Pittsburgh Village Project aims to design learning experiences that are geared towards the needs and interests of families, students and educators in all forms. Complete the family or educator #villagevoices survey and/or share your thoughts on social media with us so we can ensure that materials we create are relevant and personalized!!