For this month’s member spotlight, we speak with Charity Freeman, a 2019-2020 CSTA Equity Fellow and chief equity officer of her CS classroom.
She is a champion for teacher and student rights and participated in the Chicago Teachers Union strike in the fall of 2019. We are so excited to share this space with her to discuss equity in CS, and her values as an educator. Charity teaches computer science at Lane Tech College Prep High School on the northwest side of Chicago, IL.
Charity, I want to be mindful and check in on how you are doing currently.
Right now, I am navigating multiple layers of grief, as I recently attended my aunt’s funeral, and am struggling to process the recent murder of George Floyd and everything that came with it. Holding space to process my grief, even in between online classes is really important to me right now. But my students have been overwhelmingly empathetic and supportive. Their kindness and understanding has been essential to my healing.
My first interaction with you was the weekend Equity Fellows came to Chicago for a CSTA meet-up and workshop. You arrived after protesting with the Chicago Teachers Union. Can you bring us up to speed since then?
At the time of the CTU strike, I was teaching computer science at Kenwood Academy, a high school on Chicago’s south side. In the middle of the school year, this past February, I transferred from Kenwood to Lane Tech. The first week was really challenging, as this was my first time since college being in a “minority” in a classroom space. However, as an educator, it’s my responsibility to fight for equity for all of my students. That’s what our strike was about: All of my students need social workers, guidance counselors, and help managing difficulties at home.
How have you navigated and reflected on this change?
In this new space, I’m much more aware of my own Blackness. This has challenged me to embrace what it truly means to be culturally responsive as an educator: to include the voices and perspectives of folks whose faces aren’t represented in our classroom. Also, at Lane Tech, students have a great deal of access to resources. For example, our school psychologist hosts monthly support groups for students dealing with trauma, such as homelessness, divorce, and personal loss due to violence. That was particularly hard to adjust to, as I’ve worked with students in other schools where they didn’t have access to these resources, but not because they were any less deserving. I’ve gone through a few cycles of what feels like cultural shock in my new environment, but I’m adjusting.
So you were only teaching a few weeks at Lane Tech before COVID-19 prompted closures across the United States, how did you prepare your students?
Correct. I had my students in class for five weeks before we transitioned to remote learning. In the classroom, my students and I had so many different myths to address and questions to answer; even I was struggling to understand what was going on. But I made sure to ask students to have strategic conversations with their parents: If our school building is closed, where are you going to stay? Who would be in your household? We talked about what this virus meant for their elderly caregivers, we talked about access to technology, and so much more. Since then, my students have thanked me for “being real” and having those difficult conversations with them as it prepared them for what happened next.
How do you support students, especially students of color, when policies, and world events affect the classroom?
I started out as a career advisor at a high school in Rogers Park and started to realize the equity issues in education in general. Students are inquisitive and ask questions about what’s going on. The morning after our current president was elected in 2016, there was no way for my students to continue life normally. They were in tears, they were afraid, and they were angry. Students who were immigrants were fearful of what the election meant for the Dream Act, if ICE could arrest them at school, if their relatives would be deported, etc. Navigating education in this context–we as educators can’t expect to continue with content-based instruction as usual, and that means we need to actively switch to the priorities of our students. In my classroom, my students have created a space where we talk about issues that are important to them: Classroom Culture Days. For my students at Ogden International School of Chicago in October 2018, it meant having conversations about Laquan McDonald and the Jason Van Dyke trial. For my students at Kenwood, as their teachers prepared to go on strike last fall, it meant having conversations about civic engagement and global citizenship.
Can you give an example of a conversation you’ve had with your students?
With regard to the CTU strike, we discussed the reasons why teachers were preparing to go on strike. I took pen to paper and showed my students that the strike wasn’t about our salaries – we actually lost this year’s 3% raise during the strike. We centered the conversation around student needs, about the need to have social workers, nurses, and counselors in school buildings, especially in Black and Brown communities. Then I shared my perspective: As a dedicated educator, I wear many hats and fulfill lots of roles, but when I’m called into emergency and traumatic situations that I’m not qualified or legally authorized to handle, I also benefit from the support of trained professionals. So, my students and I agreed the strike was about supporting teachers and students alike and creating a better learning environment for everyone.
What would be your suggestion for CS teachers trying to navigate hard conversations during these times with students? How can our members become “Chief Equity Officers” of their own classrooms?
To the teachers who are not having tough conversations about racism and inequality with your students: your silence is deafening, and your students are listening. In CS education, we’re dealing with racism, sexism, all the isms, and we are actively trying to broaden participation in CS. Your intentional silence actively perpetuates inequalities. Underrepresented groups will continue to be barred access to equitable computer science opportunities because your silence isn’t actively subverting the existing current systems and structures that are rooted in inequality.
Education doesn’t happen in a bubble. Just like a global health pandemic is affecting our students, this next wave of the civil rights movement is affecting them as well. When we talk about CS for All, we have to address systemic inequalities in education. That means talking about racism. That means talking about police brutality against Black people. Of course, it’s uncomfortable. A colleague and ally of mine, a white male, told me he talked about police brutality with his students, and it was really awkward. But I couldn’t be more proud of him. Racism isn’t an easy topic of discussion, and it’s especially difficult to discuss if you’ve benefited from it. But if we as educators haven’t learned anything else from this pandemic, we know now that we are the most adaptable humans on the planet. (Reminder: Some of us had no Zoom or Google Classroom experience before we shifted to full-time, crisis-mandated online learning. Teachers are AMAZING!)
Even if we don’t teach history, social science, or civics, we can still have engaging, content-based conversations about racial discrimination. CS teachers can ask students to consider the impact of the systematic exclusion of diverse faces, voices, and ideas in computing. Example: Think about the process of developing facial recognition software. If the majority of the faces used to develop this technology belong to white males, then it won’t be able to correctly identify the faces of women or people of color. When could this become really problematic? Introduce this underdeveloped tech into law enforcement, and now your facial recognition databases are a lot more likely to implicate a person of color in a crime.
This is a simple yet really impactful way to discuss relevant societal implications through the preservation of racial and gender disparities in CS. It’s imperative to have these conversations because the underrepresented individuals whose lives are being impacted by racism in society at large are the same ones whose voices are being excluded from equitable experiences in computer science classrooms. CS teachers: Your silence is violence.
How have your values led you where you are today as an educator?
Since I was a child, I’ve always been giving and affectionate, so people would say “you’re so charitable”, thanks to my name (cringe). But I soon realized that it’s okay for my name to match my personality, especially when it comes to expressing empathy as an educator. Honestly, is it possible to be a teacher without empathy? I’d go so far as to say that humanity at its core is empathy, the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, understand and relate to their joys, happiness, and pain. I’m never more effective as an educator than when I can relate to my students. Empathy is key to maintaining their trust.
How are you taking care of yourself?
Ouch. Teachers can be notoriously bad at taking care of ourselves. We invest so much with little expectation of any return. It took the pandemic to teach me that self-care is not optional. Before it wasn’t a priority, but now I’m learning to listen to my body without arguing. Self-care these days includes surrounding myself with “mirrors” – people who give me positive, truthful reflections of who I am. This includes frequent phone calls with my closest friends, FaceTime sessions with my family, and reading emails from parents are now painfully aware of our value as teachers. Another understanding: No one is more familiar with the struggles of teachers than other teachers. Checking in with my teacher friends, especially my colleagues (read: family) from Lane Tech and Kenwood, has been incredibly affirming during this time.
In what space are you holding optimism?
Nothing brings me more hope than the young people that I serve and love. Seeing criminal charges brought to all four officers in connection with George Floyd’s murder was a huge relief for me, but that was all because of young people who used their voices, assembled their resources, organized, protested, and put their lives and sanity on the line for the cause of equality. Nothing could bring me more hope than that.