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Students Become Activist-Experts as They Tackle the History and Current Discussion around Reparations
Rachel Freeman, communications/website manager

Every unit in Sam Modest’s sixth-grade humanities class begins with a discussion about a current event. 

“We look at that event as a catalyst for curiosity,” Sam explained, “something that inspires the deep research we will do into the past that will then help us better understand what is happening right now.”

The most recent unit began with an article about California Governor Gavin Newsom adopting a law to study and develop proposals for reparations to descendants of enslaved people and those impacted by slavery.

Sam said, “This article kicked off great questions. ‘What are reparations?’ and ‘What would cause reparations?’ are two questions students began to think about deeply. This kicked off our study of slavery, abolition, reconstruction, and reparations.” 

Sixth-graders looked at reparations case studies, times in history when countries have given reparations to certain communities of people: Germany paying reparations to Jewish people after World War II; Canada paying reparations to indigenous people for abuse in residential schools; South Africa paying reparations because of its long history of institutionalized racism.

In analyzing these case studies, students focused on a framework created by reparations scholar and Duke University professor William Darity called ARC: Acknowledgement, Restitution, and Closure. 

“We used his model to look at these other reparations programs to see how successful the programs were,” Sam added. “We asked, ‘Was there sufficient acknowledgement of wrongdoing?’ ‘Was there restitution?’ and ‘Did the community feel they had closure?’”

The final project turned students into activist-experts, tasked with representing different areas—education, housing, labor, voting, healthcare, and criminal justice—and improving a fictitious Congressional bill titled, “A Bill to Apologize for and Repair the Harm Done to African Americans by Slavery and Racial Segregation.” The curriculum was created by the Zinn Education Project, and Sam and Evan Bartz (the other sixth-grade humanities teacher) adapted it for Nueva students. 

“As a white person, I am looking for ways to amplify Black voices, and the people at the Zinn Education Project who created this project are educators of color,” Sam said.

Each group of students reviewed the bill with its particular lens and presented its suggested edits to the bill before the class worked together to vote on the 10 changes they would make to the draft. 

During the presentations, students were encouraged to share their questions, compliments, and counter arguments to the group presenting. 

“I felt like you really thought it through, and I can see how your organization would push for these changes,” sixth-grader Samantha R. said to a group of presenters.

Camille C. shared, “I really enjoyed your presentation. I do have a clarifying question: Is your organization specifically focused on education and jobs or does it focus more broadly on quality of life?”

When it was Ela K.’s turn to present, she explained to her peers, “We are representing the idea of using the past to help repay African Americans and using the workplace and education to do so.”

Before even getting to the final voting stage of this process, Sam was already blown away by his students’ work. 

“This was a big experiment to do this new project and over Zoom,” he said. “I was incredibly impressed by the students. One of the key goals I had was for students to understand that after slavery was over, there continued to be many forms of systemic oppression that have really layered on the Black community in a way that results in the world we see today. Through their presentations, I can see that they now have a better understanding of how inequity is generated, how it builds, and how it is reinforced.”

When it came time to vote, each of Sam’s four classes settled on different edits to the bill. Click here to view the four bills.

Sam credits the school’s affirmation of being an anti-racist institution for giving him the confidence to do this project with his students. 

“For this lesson, we made the assumption that reparations are the right thing to do,” he reflected. “Being an institution dedicated to becoming more anti-racist gave me the support I needed; I know the administration has my back on this. Tip of the hat to Head of School Lee Fertig and everyone else who is advocating for this work.”

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