Critical Explorers Supports Teachers in this Time of Pandemic and Protest

Posted by Alythea

December 2020

Dear Friends,

We hope this letter finds you well as this tumultuous year draws to a close. In these uncertain times, we are extremely grateful for the support of this community and our shared concern for teaching and learning. Your donations strengthen Critical Explorers, sustaining the organization as we adapt to this challenging new environment and continue and expand our work with teachers and their students. While school district resources are stretched to cover pandemic-related expenses, teachers, more than ever, need to learn and practice new ways of creating connections—from a distance of six feet or over the internet—with students and their ideas. In whatever form classes meet and communicate, Critical Explorers increases the quality of their interactions and helps their conversations deepen.

Educators are finding that the proportion of teacher talk common in many pre-pandemic classrooms must shrink dramatically when classes meet online or in socially distanced environments, where students’ attention spans tend to be much shorter. Frequent opportunities to contribute to their learning communities help students sustain and refresh their attention. Because student thinking and student work—and, as important, the combinations of primary sources and other materials that offer students authentic occasions to think, speak, listen, draw, write, and create—has always been the lifeblood of our units, Critical Explorers offers teachers essential perspectives and crucial tools for all classes, including virtual, hybrid, and socially distanced ones. Our curriculum design and professional development work uniquely positions us to help teachers convene thoughtful, democratic class discussions throughout this time of pandemic and protest.

Building on our remote work last spring, when we continued collaborating with teachers through the lockdown, we successfully recast aspects of our summer workshop in virtual form. During our online seminar in August, educators strengthened their abilities to teach with primary sources and in virtual environments through their own shared experiences exploring the themes of race and pandemics as learners. As they listened to each other’s thoughts about—for example—an advertisement published in the NAACP magazine near the end of World War I and the height of the influenza pandemic, as well as a photograph of the first colored nurses at Camp Sherman, they revealed tensions in these sources.

Participants observed, for example, that Kashmir simultaneously marketed vanishing cream—as if, one commented, readers’ skin needed to be fixed or erased—and “powder (6 shades)” to suit various complexions. They saw that the ad called out prejudice against people of color, yet implied that “the Kashmir Way” of improving the skin was the way to address it, appealing to the experience of prejudice—a sales tactic the company seemed to expect would resonate with its audience. By designing and publishing the ad, the (Black-owned) Kashmir Chemical Co. and the NAACP were promoting colored women—like those in the photo, whose expressions the group described as serious and kind—to do their work in the world; at the same time, Black businesses and organizations were also seeking ways to work within that world (advertising dollars from Kashmir helped support several Black publications). It took a world war and a pandemic to begin to break the discriminatory rules against Black nurses—and even then this ad, printed by their own organization and intended, in part, to celebrate that progress, still failed to fully accept or represent Black people. Our participants were struck by the nuanced understandings of the past that emerged from the materials and their shared observations. As one put it, the experience “opened a door into a world I didn’t know.”

The last text explored in the seminar was “i am accused of tending to the past,” in which the African-American poet Lucille Clifton writes: “this past was waiting for me / when i came, / a monstrous unnamed baby, / and i with my mother’s itch / took it to breast / and named it / History. / she is more human now, / learning languages everyday, / remembering faces, names and dates. / when she is strong enough to travel / on her own, beware, she will.” The horrible, monstrous past could be a threat, the group heard the poet saying, but in seeing worlds we hadn’t known before, in allowing our understandings of history to expand to hold experiences of erasure—and responses of resistance—it becomes, paradoxically, less monstrous and gains more human strength. In the words of one teacher, “In tending the history, in seeing even what we don’t want to see, we are creating power—and an opening—in the future.”

“We’ve been tending to the materials,” another of the teachers observed, near the end of the last session, “and through that, everyone [in the group] is tended to. We tend to each other—and we learn from the discussions how to do that with our students. And I’ve learned that, as the teacher, I don’t want to be at the center.” Instead, she said, the materials—and the students’ thoughts, spoken and in writing and other forms—should be centered. Whatever subject matter teachers and students are working on, Critical Explorers helps teachers focus on students, their interactions with carefully selected materials, and their work, helping students, in turn, sustain their attention, support their arguments with evidence, and listen closely to each other’s ideas—essential practices for emerging democratic citizens.

Your contribution will help to sustain and expand this work even as the pandemic continues. You may make a gift online (where there is also information on the increased tax deductions for 2020 charitable giving, whether or not you itemize) or you may mail a check to Critical Explorers, P. O. Box 962, Brookline, MA 02446. On behalf of all the teachers and students who will have the opportunity to become critical explorers, thank you.


Eleanor Duckworth

Alythea McKinney
Executive Director

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