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Home Free: Creating a Homeplace for Students

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    Shatera Weaver

Traditionally, Black History Month is a time to reflect upon, acknowledge and honor Black leaders who significantly changed and influenced America’s history. Just as it is important to honor those who came before us, it is just as necessary to acknowledge and spotlight those who are leaders today. During Black History Month, and throughout the year, we will profile a few of the many Black leaders and EL Education partners who are making waves in education. This blog post is a part of a series and you can read part one and part two today.

“Next stop: Vaaaalhalla; Where the vikings go to die.” I can still hear each additional ‘a’ the train conductor would embellish his pronunciation of Valhalla with. I remember not only because it made passengers chuckle each time (yes, he did it every morning and afternoon, and it was never unamusing), but also because his melodic announcement was music to my ears. It meant that I was only two stops away from home, White Plains, NY.

Valhalla may have been where vikings went to die, but it was the train stop I awaited in order to commence living, fully. When we pulled off from Valhalla, it seemed that both the train and I let out an equally relieving sigh of relief. My body would instinctively allow my shoulders to relax, and release the clench in my jaw. That lighthearted announcement meant my heart could literally lighten.

I had the privilege of attending a renowned private school in upper Westchester, NY. On the other end of that 35 minute Metro North trip, I was able to dabble in softball, figure skating, theater, dance team, and more. I earned awards, learned Latin, and had access to a middle school education that my classmates were paying college tuition prices for. All with the support of a needs-based scholarship I worked tirelessly to lose.

From 6th to 8th grade I got into fights, broke dress code, I even purposefully dropped my grades. Because amongst all the standards-based critical thinking skills I learned there, I also learned that I didn’t belong. A couple decades and educational degrees later, I know now that it wasn’t home I was (sometimes literally) fighting for. It was a homeplace.

In her book We Want to do More Than Survive, Bettina Love references the idea of a “homeplace” from social activist and author, bell hooks, and describes it as a “space where black folx truly matter ...where souls are nurtured, comforted and fed” (63). My middle school experience leaves me wondering how many minds we’re feeding, but whose souls are starving.

Black At Mels Affinity

I’ve made it my mission as Dean of Culture at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS), to tend to the souls of our Black students by creating a homeplace for them at school in hopes they don’t have to just survive throughout the school day, and then begin living again while heading home. In her essay Homeplace, (first appearing in her 1990 book Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics) hooks defines homeplace as a space where Black people are able to “recover our wholeness” and “where we can be affirmed in our minds and hearts… where we could restore ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world.”

Both Bettina and bell have unknowingly co-created the affinity group for Black students at MELS that I’ve piloted this year. Research reinforces the importance of belonging in a learning community, and this affinity group is my way of offering a “small private reality where Black [students] can renew their spirits and recover themselves.” (hooks, 388)

Titled “BAM! Black at MELS,” our affinity group formed at the onset of the new year, and has been described by students as the highlight of their schooling experience. In a survey given at the end of our last meeting, one student even asserted that BAM! was an escape for them. This declaration speaks volumes, especially as in the current context of remote learning, students already are home throughout the school day. A number of students even reached out to me when they realized that there was no school for the Lunar New Year, asking if we could meet anyway. Never have I ever heard of students asking for school activities on their day off!

I’ve done immense research in preparation for this pilot. Partially to justify the need for its existence (experiential knowledge isn’t often taken seriously as a Black woman), and partially for ideas on how to structure our time together. However, the research on school aged racial affinity groups is limited. Yet, I find that the most important facilitation move I make is simply that I [1] Be myself, and [2] Allow students to do the same. No really, that’s it. With that foundation, this homeplace that students and I continue to curate with one another is a mutually gratifying space where we can learn, “grow and develop, to nurture our spirits” (hooks, 384).

In her book, Bettina Love states that “there is no one way to be an abolitionist teacher. Some teachers will create a homeplace for their students while teaching them with the highest expectations; some will protest in the streets; some will fight standardized testing; some will restore justice in their classrooms; some will create justice-centered curriculums and teaching approaches; some will stand with their students to end gun violence in schools; some will ...and some will do a combination of all of these” (pg 90) This school year, I have chosen to lean into the former.

The wonderful thing about working at MELS is that there are a number of other educators who are leaning into some of the other methods Love mentions. These teachers created curriculum that provided students the opportunity to learn about the Black Lives Matter at School 13 Principles. A couple of colleagues have even begun to share homework assignments and class journal entries that their students have written featuring their thoughts and experiences from participating in BAM!

One high school junior writes: “Unapologetically Black and Cultural Diversity are two principles of BLM that I see exemplified in my life because in the black affinity group with Ms. Weaver that I joined we talk about how being black doesn’t necessarily mean one thing or the other the black community is vast and they shouldn’t be ashamed of who they are or try to change because of society’s norms.”

Teaching in the midst of this simultaneous pandemic and racial reckoning, I find myself bringing to mind the tried and true words of Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” What I want my students to feel is both belonging, and joy. Specifically, Black joy. “Black joy is finding your homeplace and creating homeplaces for others.” (Love, 120)

That is why in recognition of the Week of Action in Schools, a few other MELS staff members also created homeplaces in the form of affinity groups for students. We offered affinity groups for every racial demographic that the NYCDOE recognizes: Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, and Biracial/Multiracial, so that all students have the chance to show up as their authentic selves and achieve their best.

Shatera Weaver spent her undergraduate years at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, majoring Psychology with a minor in Child Development. Post-graduation, Shatera moved back home to New York and began her career as a Behavior Specialist working with students on the Autism spectrum K-12.

Shatera completed her dual Master’s degree in Education and Special Education at Manhattanville College while teaching 6th grade Science at MELS. She later earned her Educational Leadership degree, SBL & SDL from Bank Street College of Education.

In addition to serving as the Dean of Culture at MELS, Shatera teaches yoga and meditation classes, working to bring faces and bodies of color into the world of “Wellness.” Shatera’s next step is to open a school for learners with lineage in the African Diaspora.