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Wakanda in schools: How a Chicago teacher inspired by Black Panther is using the movie to teach

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From moviegoers showing up in traditional African garb to Black communities fundraising for private screenings and viewing parties, the release of Black Panther has demonstrated a political consciousness unlike other recent cinematic releases. So when Chicago sixth-grade teacher Tess Raser shared her Wakanda Curriculum on Twitter, it was no surprise that it, too, would be celebrated.

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The film, which opened Feb. 16, offers a celebration of Black culture, empowerment, ingenuity and beauty in a fictional African nation unburdened with systemic racism and oppression.

Raser’s two-part curriculum provides a creative opportunity for educators to leverage the film and discuss African colonialism and American racism separate from the Eurocentric history typically taught in American classrooms. Students are given the space to digest heavy topics, such as global anti-Blackness, and learn about the effects of colonialism through the experience of Wakanda, an African country that escaped the emotional, societal, and political trauma of White imperialism.

“After seeing Black Panther, I started to think about how students could analyze the movie as they would with a piece of literature,” Raser said. “It was a good way for them to make connections to their community and to prepare them to be change makers.”

Raser leads a classroom of 30 Black students at the Dulles School of Excellence on the South Side of Chicago, an area that she said is often referred to as “Chicago’s most violent block.”

“There’s just so much that teachers have to deal with,” she says. “I think the response I’ve received really highlights a need that teachers have for meaningful radical curriculum that’s created for Black children.”

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Due to high-stakes standardized testing and district pressures to do well on math and reading assessments, many students in Chicago Public Schools receive minimal exposure to social studies, she said. Many of her students over her five years in the district have had little to no preparation in these subjects.

On Feb. 28, The Chicago Sun-Times reportedthat the school board would be closing four high schools and one elementary school in the South Side Englewood neighborhood because of low test scores and lack of enrollment. The closures make way for a new $85 million dollar Englewood High School set to open in 2019. The news comes just five years after the district voted to shut down 50 other schools for the same reason, a decision thatintensified flight from affected neighborhoods, forcing more than 1,600 Englewood students to leave for other school districts.

To increase enrollment in these communities, CPS has distributed 73 percent of hundreds of millions of dollars in school construction dollars to neighborhoods where more than one-quarter of the student body is White, WBEZ reports. That amounts to just 12 percent of all schools in the district.

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“The area is changing, and White people are moving in. They want a school for their kids. Meanwhile, our schools are fighting to stay alive. I don’t know how much CPS would even care or value a curriculum like this because they’re focused more on test scores,” Raser said.

New opportunities have emerged for Raser since her Wakanda curriculum went viral. Despite the threat of school closures in her district, she remains committed as an educator and admits it’s hard to imagine a life outside of school. “These viral moments are like the movies where the teacher comes in and saves the day, and it’s always pleasant,” Raser said, “but there are so many times a week where that is not the case.”

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In Dayton, Ohio, another teacher, Tina Bailey, was inspired to incorporate lessons from Black Panther into her fourth-grade classroom.

While wearing a Black Panther mask, Bailey greeted her students with the Wakandan salute as each entered the classroom to start the day—another video moment that went viral. For Bailey, the salute represented a society where people lived harmoniously with each other despite differences.

“No matter where you are from or what tribe you come from we can come together,” Bailey said. “We can grow together and change things together. We may not look the same, but when you enter into our classroom we become one.”

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For both teachers, Black Panther offers a refreshing recentering of the Black narrative, one that unites the diverse cultures within the community and celebrates Blackness in the image of rulers of a kingdom and creators of an advanced world.

“The movie really touched on the relationships and tensions among the diaspora,” Raser said. “In my area, the kids had previously used the term ‘African’ as an insult for someone. That really bothered me, so I wanted to address their misconceptions, and this was a good moment to hook them into focusing on broader themes.”

Shaima Shamdeen wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Shaima is a solutions reporting intern for YES! She is passionate about cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


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