Racial Literacy Roundtable: Educating Greatness

It’s no secret that schools today are populated by students who carry their own unique stories and struggles to the classroom. What we may lack, however, is the space to talk about it.

Six years ago, Assistant Professor of English Education Professor Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Ph.D., and her Masters students realized they were not satisfied with the levels of conversations they were having about race. “We wrote a proposal to have an informal space where we could come together to talk about anything that impacts life and humanity and education — race, class, anything,” she said.

Sharieff Clayton was the guest facilitator Monday night and brought up issues facing vulnerable youth.

Professor Sealey-Ruiz opened the Racial Literacy Roundtable to a filled room on Monday evening as attendees munched on cupcakes and pizza in Russell Hall 104B.

The topic of the roundtable, the second in a series of seven held each year by the English Education Department, was Educating Greatness: Our understanding of history determines our pedagogical approach.

The topic was chosen by the night’s facilitator, Sharieff Clayton, author and Program Coordinator at the Center for Alternative Sentencing, or C.A.S.E.S., where he works with New York’s justice-involved young people.

Mr. Clayton was invited to Teachers College with a deeper understanding of the justice system than many would care to know. The Brooklyn native and father was imprisoned at the tender age of 19-years-old, where he would remain for more than twelve years.

In his introduction letter to the attendees of Racial Literacy Roundtable, he wrote, “The very essence lies in the understanding of history. It is a forgotten history, whether wilfully or neglectfully, that holds the key. As educators how much do we know about the historical legacy of the population we teach?”

With his esoteric understanding of prisons, Mr. Clayton can attest to the lonely life of being a young inmate. “There is something about that prison air — it just strangulates,” he said. “I had to find air in a place that strangled.”

Guests sit around Russell Hall to discuss race and education.

For Mr. Clayton, his oxygen became education. He was introduced to a history class focused on the pre-colonization period and learned about great men of color who looked like him. The class introduced him and his peers to great civilizations he had never heard about before and challenged them to expand their vocabulary, learn about geography and acquire a hunger for reading.

“You started seeing kids changing their names from ‘Killa’ to ‘Imhotep’,” he said of young men taking the class.

With his involvement with C.A.S.E.S., Mr. Clayton now says he is in the position to see what works and what does not.

“I picked this topic in particular, because, I genuinely feel as educators we have been robbed of an education as well,” Mr. Clayton said. He opened the topic up for discussion where attendees then shared their personal stories in the classroom working with at-risk youth.

Many of the guests in attendance were part of the Youth, Multiliteracies, and Educational Justice course in the English Department, taught by Professor Sealy-Ruiz. The yearlong seminar addresses understanding the various literacies that impact the teaching and learning process for vulnerable youth.

Dr. Sealey-Ruiz appearing delighted to see the turnout at Monday night's Racial Literacy Roundtable.

“If, as educators we do not know anything about the culture, how do we tap into the genius? How do we recognize the potential?” Mr. Clayton asked.

One of the guests was David Baksh, a Teachers College graduate and teacher, who recounted an incident in his English classroom. “Today I was teaching a lesson on being culturally conscious. And you know what a lot of my African-American students said? ‘I ain’t got no culture.’”

“You definitely do,” he responded. “People should have been teaching you about it. And you should have been hearing about it. But you know what? If you haven’t, now you will.” Mr. Baksh will be facilitating the next roundtable on December 10.

Mr. Clayton invoked the Nigerian proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” to explain his continued efforts to educate at-risk youth. He said that a teacher alone, or a parent, alone, cannot carry the weight of a child’s future on his or her own.

“As educators, we fall into these silos. We don’t connect to parents and we don’t connect to the student. If we don’t connect, we can’t educate,” he said.

Guests continued to voice their concerns on teaching culture to vulnerable students while others listened intently.

John MacElveen, a graduate of Teachers College, has attended the roundtables for three years. He sought out Professor Sealy-Ruiz after being concerned that urban education issues were not being covered in his regular coursework for Secondary English Education. “I find the discussions helpful, I see it as professional development,” MacElveen said.

At the close of the event, students and teachers still eager to share their thoughts and recount their stories would have to wait until the next roundtable. The discussion was clearly not over.