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Politics, social justice at forefront of education on first day of school in SF

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James Cunningham, a teacher at Visitation Valley Middle School in San Francisco, sports a Black Lives Matter T-shirt while gathering students during the first day of school Monday. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Visitacion Valley Middle School students returning to school on Monday were preoccupied with a mid-morning solar eclipse, but their teachers set a more serious tone for tolerance in the upcoming school year.

About a dozen teachers at the school sported “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and welcoming smiles among the predominantly minority student body that buzzed about the cafeteria on Monday morning, the first day of the 2017-18 school year.

“This school is all about community, in that we are diverse and we’re one,” said Lisa-Beth Watkins, a physical education teacher.

She and other members of The City’s teachers union, United Educators of San Francisco, decided on the show of support just days earlier and in light of current events such as the attack on anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Va., according to Watkins.

“We are wearing our [Black Lives Matter] union shirts today and our [Visitacion Valley] shirts tomorrow,” Watkins said. “We want to let everybody know that they are safe and secure here.”

Following hate-fueled attacks and racial tensions that have made national headlines in recent weeks, some San Francisco public schools like Visitacion Valley are working to keep damaging rhetoric from spilling into classrooms by pushing curriculum focused on social justice and community building.

“If kids have a question, if they want to talk about [President] Trump or want know what’s going on, then hopefully they’ll feel safe to talk about it and any viewpoints they have. We honor them,” Watkins said.

The point is not to stifle conversation about race and politics among the middle schoolers, but to create safe spaces where students are better able to connect with teachers and with each other, said Joseph Truss, the school’s principal.

Addressing racism, Truss emphasized, will be a part of that effort.

“For us not to build our students’ identity and self worth in a time like this would be complacent and it would be a crime,” said Truss, who shared his vision of “love, literacy and liberation” for the upcoming school year.

One way that the school is attempting to support its students experiencing personal conflict amid the political turmoil is by facilitating “healing circles and reflection spaces” in their homerooms and general classes, Truss said.

In addition, Truss said that the school is one of only three San Francisco middle schools with an extensive ethnic studies curriculum, where students as young as sixth grade are privy to learning about “the power of privilege, oppression and liberation.”

Through a focused and more critical approach to the school’s ethnic studies and history curriculum, Truss said that teachers are tasked with “making sure our students know the greatness of their history.”

“We don’t shy away from supporting our teachers in having conversations with students about current events or teaching with a social justice lens,” said San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Vincent Matthews, who, along with Mayor Ed Lee, joined Visitacion Valley students on their first day back to school.

As part of a district-wide effort to redirect teaching methods to a more personalized, project-based learning style that integrates technology, seven of the school’s classrooms were recently revamped to allow for more student-to-student interactions.

Rather than individual desks turned toward the front of the room, students in those classrooms sit together in groups of three and four at desks facing each other.

Truss said that incidents of bullying haven’t noticeably increased at “the tight-knit school where kids stick up for each other,” though many students and parents alike have shared growing safety concerns in regard to the current political climate with him and his faculty.

“More students [are] feeling unsafe at large, and are worried for themselves and families,” said Truss.
Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, who’s seventh grade son attends the middle school, said in reference to the Black Lives Matter shirts, that she admired the teachers’ willingness to take a political stance.

“I’d hope that any kind of current events come into the classroom,” she said. “That’s what kids hear about outside of school. They want to know and be able to discuss it with their peers.”

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