Virtual Professional Learning

Know Better to Teach Better with ​American Promise​

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As part of our new initiative, POV Watch Club, we invite educators to watch a documentary, join our virtual space and discuss the programming. It’s a wonderful way to virtually meet colleagues and understand different points of view on issues of social justice and current events. Our March selection, American Promise, prompted much discussion and offered information and ideas educators can take back to their own classrooms. Here is how KQED Media Literacy Innovators, Aspen, Kara, Mary Kate, and Merek are using this film to Know Better and Teach Better. 


Every student deserves a safe educational journey

The PBS documentary American Promise, is an important media piece for educators to engage with to develop their professional practices through critical discussions and self reflection with their colleagues. In education, children should not be judged but rather be celebrated for their own unique talents, range of experiences, cultural background, and abilities. A child’s educational journey should NOT be filled with heartache, anxiety, judgment and fear. Creativity, not assimilation, should be fostered in children. 

Avoiding the trap of comparing students

When I watched the documentary American Promise I was struck most by Idris’s mom, Michèle and her comments about Idris and his academic performance. She talks about what she had to overcome at his age, and expresses her belief that her son would be capable of more academically if only he matched the level of motivation she had as a student. While I saw areas where Idris still needed to grow and mature, I had spent most of my time in awe of the things Idris and his peers were doing at an extremely young age! 


Mary Kate:
How modern segregation impacts our American education system

As a social studies teacher, I approached the documentary from a civic engagement and social justice perspective and I thought and wondered about how modern segregation still impacts our American education system. While students learn about the historical struggle to integrate public schools, modern issues of segregation are often absent from curricula. How can I help my students understand the transition between the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, and today’s modern day classrooms?   

Activity #1: Visualize Segregation and Inequality in Education
Based on civil rights data released by the U.S. Department of Education, ProPublica has built an interactive database to examine racial disparities in educational opportunities and school discipline. Play around with the data filters. Ask students, “What do you see? What do you wonder? What stands out to you?” Check to see if your school is included in the data. What do the students notice? How does it compare to other nearby districts? 

Activity #2: Listen, Learn, & Take Action
Ask students to consider: Since racial segregation is illegal, what other factors do you think led to schools re-segregating? Show students PBS/KQED’s Above the Noise video, “Why Are American Public Schools Still So Segregated?” You can find an accompanying lesson plan for the video here. Ask the students to take action based on what they’ve learned. Students can create media (poster, video, social media post, infographic) to share their opinion about the issue or what they think people need to know about segregation in American public schools today. 

Activity #3: Linking the Past to the Present 
Redlining’s legacy looms large in our education systems. Show The Root’s explainer video about redlining or PBS’ video describing redlining. Locate your local area on the Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America- this collection of “security maps” created by the New Deal agency HOLC, or the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, who “recruited mortgage lenders, developers, and real estate appraisers in nearly 250 cities to create maps that color-coded credit worthiness and risk on neighborhood and metropolitan levels.” Ask students what they notice about the language used to describe areas, what stands out to them, and what do they want to know after they view the maps. Connect the past with the present by taking a look at the Racial Dot Map. This interactive map from the University of Virginia uses census data to visualize the racial makeup of the United States. This map can be used as a comparison to redlining maps of the early 20th century. Have students evaluate their own town, or cities across the U.S. Where has integration happened? Where has segregation remained consistent? Why? How does it compare to the historical maps? Is their school racially diverse? Why or why not? And what impact do they think it has on their education and experiences?

Lesson Idea #1: American Promise through literature 

If I were to create a unit for this documentary, I would utilize it in my AP Literature & Composition 12 classroom. The film acknowledges parallels between the experiences of the boys and several selections of literature, most notably Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” and Ralph Waldo Ellis’ novel Invisible Man. These were subtle references in the film and mostly left unexplored for further interpretation for the audience to mull and think over. Pairing the documentary, fictional texts, and other media-rich texts with the critical analysis of How to Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi would offer a lens and framework for comparative analysis, reflection, how to identify racism and solutions for how to dismantle it through the texts. 

Lesson Idea #2: Media scavenger hunt and discussion

The film mentions the rise of Barack Obama to the presidency, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s murder, and features the experiences of the young black boys trying to hail a cab and be accepted by their peers. Finding media pieces related to these events and more recent events would bring a much-needed contemporary lens to the classroom for discussion and reflection

A Daily In the Life video project 

As a video production teacher in a Detroit-area public high school, I am always seeking out exemplar videos to show my students. After watching the POV documentary, American Promise, I started thinking about how my students might produce a similar project. I would like my students to tell their Day in the Life of Stories. This style of documentary filmmaking would help share stories of how our students are impacted by social justice issues including food deserts, water quality, racism they encounter in school or in the community, etc. 

More About the Authors

Merek Chang
Merek Chang is a chemistry and engineering teacher who currently teaches at Workman High School in Industry, California. He received his B.S from UC Davis in Food Science and Technology and worked full time in the food industry prior to entering education. It is his desire to incorporate technology into his lesson plans whenever applicable and, if possible, through the lens of food or in partnership with stakeholders in the local community.

Kara Clayton
Clayton is a high school video production educator as well as an instructional technology coach in the South Redford School District. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Rhode Island. An award-winning educator, she teaches students to use video as a tool for effective communication and empowerment. Kara presents regularly at state and national media and digital literacy conferences, is a graduate of the inaugural class receiving the University of Rhode Island Graduate Certificate in digital literacy (2014), and holds a masters degree in adult education with a specialty in digital literacy from the University of Rhode Island (2016). She launched Kara Clayton Digital in 2018

Mary Kate Lonergan
Mary Kate teaches 8th grade social studies and empowers students to critically engage with media and information at Fayetteville-Manlius Schools in NY. She has made media literacy the heartbeat of her social studies curriculum. Mary Kate has developed and implemented several media literacy professional development courses and workshops across the country and at the local level.

Aspen B. Mock
Dr. Aspen B. Mock (@AB_Mock on Twitter) is a KQED Innovator, secondary ELA educator in Pennsylvania, adjunct ACE instructor, writer, and educational consultant who specializes in leadership, creativity, literacy, and providing a creative, collaborative education environment with a focus on 21st century skills, service-learning and critical thinking skills.  Certifications she holds include PBS Media Literacy Educator, National Geographic Certified Educator, Nearpod Certified Educator, and Registered Yoga & Children's Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance.  She is a playwright, presenter at conferences and is currently facilitating a National Geographic grant-funded project for Johnstown Area Heritage Association in which students will be empowered to write, illustrate and publish a children's book based on National Geographic's Explorer Mindset.

Kara Clayton, Mary Kate Lonergan, Aspen B. Mock, Merek Chang KQED Media Literacy Innovators

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