September/October 2020 Issue
August 22, 2020

Students step up to save ‘race’ class

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social justice
Caption: Pamela Fordham, right, an English teacher and member of the Amherst Education Association, poses pre-COVID-19 with former students, from left, Danita Harris and Juwan Baker. Fordham’s “Race in America” elective made national news when students petitioned to save the class. Photo provided.

Talk about student engagement.

When Amherst English teacher Pamela Fordham learned over a Zoom faculty meeting that her “Race in America” elective was canceled for this fall, she was stunned.

Yet with everything turned upside down by the pandemic, she just didn’t feel like it was the right time for her to try to fight the decision.

Instead, much to her surprise, three former students stepped up and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

As the death of George Floyd ignited nationwide protests over systemic racism, students at the suburban Buffalo school told the administration this is no time to be cutting such an important course. Fordham, who grew up in suburban Buffalo herself, started the elective course about 10 years ago to raise cultural awareness and teach students how to have productive conversations around race.

“In all honesty, the class should be mandatory because it was so educational,” said rising senior Maria Alaimo, who emailed principal Gregory Pigeon. Alaimo, who is white, credited Fordham’s course with opening her eyes and helping her realize she wants a career in criminal justice reform.

Darion Frederick, a Black student who took the class a year earlier, told a Buffalo News columnist the course “opens up conversations and dialogues that aren’t often had, but that should be.”

While Alaimo and Frederick pushed the administration to restore the class, Aden Clemente, the high school’s valedictorian, launched a change.org petition drive to reinstate the class.

The online petition noted that eliminating the class taught by the school’s only African-American teacher “would have been unacceptable before, but considering the recent episode of police brutality and the subsequent rise in profile of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is more of a need for this kind of course than ever before.”

Within a few hours of posting the petition, Clemente was on the phone with the principal, who noticed how quickly the petition was gaining signatures.

Several of those signing the petition added pointed comments: “By canceling this class (and while you had it, not promoting it very well), you are siding with racism. Do better,” wrote one. “What message does this send to Amherst’s POC (specifically Black) students when Amherst chooses to remove such an important class,” wrote an Amherst alum.

Within five days, the petition gathered nearly 1,300 signatures — and the administration agreed to reinstate the course. Instead of offering it one semester a year, the principal said the course will now be offered twice a year. He emailed parents and students with a list of available electives for the 2020–21 school year, including “Race in America.”

Clemente, who is starting at Duke University this fall, posted an update with a “Victory” headline and called it a great first step. Next, he said, the district should focus on hiring a more diverse workforce of educators, especially since students of color comprise more than 30 percent of the school’s enrollment.

Fordham, whose father taught African-American studies at Buffalo State and whose mom was a longtime fourth-grade teacher in Buffalo City Schools, was overwhelmed by the students’ courage and how they handled themselves.

“As a teacher, you always wonder just how much the kids are absorbing and whether you’re getting through to them,” she said. “Honestly, I couldn’t be prouder.”

About “Race in America” Established as a half-year elective, “Race in America” empowers students to find their voice while having difficult conversations about what can be uncomfortable topics.

The course delves into topics like interracial relations, stereotypes and implicit bias with thought-provoking assignments and discussions. One unit looks at television shows like “black-ish,” and “Fresh Off the Boat” as students explore what’s funny and what crosses the line. Another unit addresses “the talk” that African- American families must have with their children, especially Black sons, about how to act at the mall or if they’re stopped by a police officer.

Beyond race, students discuss what “talks” they have in their family.

In addition to examining current events, other projects are tailored to student’s individual interests, such as sports and discrimination in the make-up industry.

“I try not to have all the answers and I don’t want it to be a history class,” she said. ”I want them to understand there are many ways to use their talents to advocate and protest.

If you’re a musician, write a song. If you’re techy, make a website.”

For more information about the course, suggested readings and other resources, go to nysut.org/socialjustice.

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