by Michael Ward
Our next teacher feature is Mr. Dan O’Grady. O’Grady is a teacher at South High School in Columbus and is passionate about equity in education. He was raised in the Pittsburgh area and later moved on to become an English major in college. Eventually, he became a teacher because he wanted to make a positive impact on students through being a positive figure as well as educator.
He believes in breaking through the “whitewashed” history barrier in education and makes an effort to teach students history that is rarely taught through literature in his English class. When teaching that history he is “prepared for any response” because he acknowledges that there are different perspectives in the room and there might be different responses to the material. With that being said, he does not shy away from tough conversations; he embraces it and believes that productive conversations start from this uncomfortability.
I asked him, “How much does he think the school a kid comes from impacts their version of the American dream?” O’Grady responded saying, “The school is a reflection of a community,” and the school a kid comes from greatly impacts their expectations for life. He teaches at a school that educates many students that struggle with poverty and reside in communities where upward mobility is hard to come by for many reasons, one glaring reason being the city of Columbus sacrificing the growth of the schools for the growth of business and the city. O’Grady attempts to combat the expectations and narratives predetermined about his students by the “whitewashed” history of the city and its schools. In his classes, he takes the initiative to mentor and tell stories of success so he can do what he can to help his kids have as open a trajectory for their life as possible by introducing them to narratives that inspire them.
O’Grady has facilitated an Erase the Space exchange before with our last teacher feature, Laura Risaliti, and they are doing it again this year! Students from South High School and Olentangy High School will meet at Otterbein this week to complete their year-long exchange about inequity in schools and larger structures that create those we have seen during the pandemic.
By Derek Burtch
This semester was a weird one. I mean, last year was weird, but everyone acknowledged that. This year was different. So many teachers/administrators were ready to “go back to normal,” but the fact remains that we are still in a pandemic. Things are not the same, and they won’t be. It is not normal, if it ever was. This week, I listened to a panel discussion presented by the Brookings Institute and the words of Lauren Camera, a senior writer for US News and World Report, struck a chord of empathy inside me, like someone outside education understood what we are going through, “We were already asking a lot of schools, and the pandemic dialed that up.”
Our world has changed, and there has been a concerted effort to deny this fact throughout all levels of education. Setting aside the issue of consistent attendance caused by quarantines, students’ mental health is still suffering from the social isolation and life interruption caused by the pandemic. Teachers’ mental health is still suffering. Schools everywhere are constantly one step away from a collective mental breakdown. No one in school is okay, but we’re supposed to be. Structures demand that we go back to “the way things were done before” without acknowledging that we are all different in this new world. We are different individually and it impacts how we show up together. Not acknowledging these facts of our present existence is damaging to young people and to us, teachers.
I was talking with my therapist about the experience of teaching this year. I told him that it felt very similar to my second year teaching (I am in year 14). I have all this experience, but it comes from a time that doesn’t translate to where we are now. I told him, “My students are slower than normal, I’m slower than normal. It’s a struggle just to read essays and give feedback. I’m so tired. They’re so tired.” What he said next just about made me melt from the recognition of my experience and the student experience to which I have bore witness. He said, “It sounds like they’re stuck in peanut butter. And you are too.” All of a sudden, I felt okay not being okay. Like I realized the peanut butter all around me, slowing me down, getting stuck to me, tiring me out from struggling against it. COVID fatigue is real, and recognizing it, to give ourselves and our students some grace, is part of finding our way out. Moving faster or at the same speed as before just deepens our stuckness.
As the semester comes to a close, I offer you an opportunity to see the peanut butter: the thin, unseen layer of the pandemic that has impacted our lives beyond masks and hospital visits, death and sickness. And maybe it’s not so thin as Camera phrased it, “Layer on top of all of [the logistics of pandemic schooling], this national reckoning with systemic racism and inequality spurred by the death of George Floyd and so many others. [Plus] the politics of the pandemic, so you’re talking masking, testing, vaccinations, and now in our third pandemic school year, this intense COVID fatigue.”
We live in a different world, and I believe that when we realize that and acknowledge it on a daily basis, we are one step closer to getting out of the peanut butter and helping our students discover their own way out.
I hope you all take time to enjoy life and slow down during winter break.
*If you get a chance, check out the recording of the Brookings panel. It's interesting enough and is validating to hear other people outside K12 education recognize the issues we deal with on a daily basis.
by Michael Ward
Erase the Space is excited to restart our blog with posts about teachers involved in classroom exchanges. Our blog is always written and curated by our student interns, and this year’s posts are especially exciting because we are facilitating classroom exchanges for the first time since 2020 when the pandemic hit and schools closed in-person instruction.
Our first “teacher feature” is Laura Risaliti of Olentangy High School. Laura grew up in a family of educators and chose to go down the same path because she wanted to be in a career where “she was doing something good everyday and trying to better the world.” She chose English because to her it is a great position to help aid the next generation in the process of becoming better than the previous and says she “felt like that’s where you can have tough conversations and look more at things like critical thinking and the humanities.”
When asked how her perspective has changed since the last Erase The Space exchange she said “she’s become more knowledgeable and has realized even more how important these issues are and they need to be shared with her students and the world.”
The summer 2020 showed her she needs to become more direct in teaching her students about inequity. Believing a lot of people shy away from those conversations out of fear of being the villain, she took it up to herself to lead those conversations and participate in Erace The Space saying, “As educators we need to be on the front lines of those conversations.”
Laura and Derek Burtch are working with students at Olentangy High School to exchange and collaborate with students at South High Schools in Columbus along with South HS teachers Dan O’Grady and Nick Casale. We’re looking forward to their process this year and the in-person meeting for students in May!
By: Jade Fink
Another February and March have passed, and, amid calls for schools to respond to racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia in their buildings, we saw lackluster efforts to celebrate and recognize Black History Month and Women’s History Month in schools. During February, we saw school boards silence student productions for BHM and during Women’s History Month, we witnessed the murder of Asian American women in an attack spurred on by racialized misogyny. The absence of celebration and pushback to celebrating Black History Month and Women’s History Month is rooted in white male superiority. This is a very disturbing, everyday reality for women, especially women of color. Celebrating Black History Month and Women’s History Month is important because it recognizes how marginalized groups have a central role in our history, and the more we recognize this truth, the more it can become a reality. When a young girl sees the amazing things that women have done and accomplished, when they see all that women have faced and survived to be where they are today, we don’t feel as small. These celebrations also challenge the narrative of white cis male supremacy. And, with that challenge comes resistance.
Recently, I was speaking with a friend who is in Greek life. She mentioned how the organization that she is joining did not mention a single thing about Black History month, nor Women’s History Month, but without missing a beat, they were sure to mention the celebration of “Irish Culture” for St. Patty’s Day. As disappointed as this made me, I wasn’t surprised. Greek life across campuses reflects the exclusionary American experience. The history of exclusionary recruitment for sororities (and fraternities) is contrary to the ideal of “sisterhood,” and is rather reflective of ordinary, exclusive white existence in America. White Americans’ entire lives are spent brushing past the “things that cause controversy” or “make people uncomfortable” but never forgetting to pinch someone for not wearing green or shame the houses that don’t put up lights during December.
Brushing by uncomfortable realities is a luxury only afforded to white Americans. During my freshman year of high school, I was enrolled into a new school. It was during that year that I recognized my white privilege. I really struggled connecting with my new peers, but when I finally began to, it was in ways that I regret. I lost myself, and I also lost the voice that accompanied my morals. I was complicit. I stood by many conversations that I did not agree with without saying a word, and ignored acts of discrimination because it made it easier for me to fit in with most of the girls around me. It took until my sophomore year, when a Black female student athlete was turned away from representing the school in a professional setting because she showed up with her hair in beautiful braids. They made sure to tell her that she could instead represent the basketball team. This blatant act of racism and sexism towards Black women was the moment when I realized as a cis white woman, I needed to do more than just be comfortable ignoring things that made other white people uncomfortable. I began the never-ending journey of learning allyship and understanding what I can do with my own privilege. We aren’t perfect people, and that’s okay. No one is. However, it’s not okay to be a part of the silence that contributes to hate and the lasting effects of patriarchy and white supremacy.
Ignoring the tension of patriarchy and misogyny is only afforded to males. Celebrating Women’s History Month recognizes this tension caused by oppressive systems. Ignoring or downplaying these celebrations also ignores the everyday reality for women and girls. In middle school, I hit puberty early and we couldn’t always afford to buy new clothes every time that I outgrew things. I got dress-coded at least once a month for my jeans being “too tight” or my gym shorts not being long enough. Guess who didn’t get punished. The boys who would run down the hallway slapping girls’ butts. The boys who would steal girls’ tampons and run around with them to embarrass them. From the beginning, girls are taught to be as small as they possibly can to avoid judgement and harassment. A statistic that everyone seems to know, but has only gotten worse in recent years: 1 in 5 women in the United States have been raped at some point in their lives. Last March, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a third-degree sexual assault conviction because the woman was “voluntarily intoxicated.” Patriarchy teaches women to remain as complicit as possible in order to please the men around them and stay safe from the consequences of hurting the male ego. Misogyny reinforces these ideas with violence. Cases are being overturned in the benefit of men and more women continue to be harmed. Our institutions uphold and perpetuate oppression rather than fixing the source of the problem: white supremacy and patriarchy. Whether it’s police killing a Black woman who was asleep in her own bed, or Brock Turner raping a girl who was unconscious and leaving her behind a dumpster, American structures protect powerful white men with money.
This is hard for me to write about because I am angry. I am angry that there is still a wage gap. I am angry that every girl I know is afraid to walk alone. I am angry that our country elected a former president who actively uses hate speech against women. I am angry that one of my graduation gifts was pepper spray to carry with me around campus. I am angry that when I interview for a job, whether I may or may not have children will affect the outcome. I am angry that when I am the only woman in a room, the things that I say are insignificant to the men with whom I am speaking. I am angry that, as women, we are so afraid to turn a man down that we go to extremes such as faking not speaking English to avoid engaging in their advances. I am angry that the maternal mortality rate in America is double any other country, and that the rates are tripled for black women compared to white women. And I am angry because the leading institutions of our country have done little to nothing to change it. Instead of honoring the survivors of sexual assault, stop raping us. Stop teaching us every way to be safe and start teaching men to respect women and the word “No.”
Working against, demeaning, or omitting months of celebration—whether it be Black History Month, Women’s History Month, or Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April)—perpetuates the harm inflicted on people excluded from the dominant power structure (BIPOC, women, the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities). To push against white cis male supremacy, recognize these celebrations. Talk to a friend about why they are important in our quest for justice for all. In order to fight these injustices, we have to engage in smaller, personal interactions as well as linking arms to challenge and transform larger structures of oppression. This work is big, but it’s also very personal. We all need to do better to disrupt the power structure of white patriarchy; taking celebrations of minoritized and oppressed groups of people seriously and with enthusiasm is one small way to disrupt.
By: Sarah Bach
On February 18, 35 educators across Ohio met virtually to continue dismantling white supremacy in their classrooms. The seventh session brought together Kaleidoscope Youth Services, who presented on issues facing LGBTQIA students, representatives from LASER (Latinx Space for Enrichment and Research) and Jamie Upthall and Alyssa Chrisman from The Ohio State University department of Disability Studies, who tackled normative culture regarding disability.
These groups introduced a new aspect to our ongoing study of antiracism: intersectionality. Intersectionality expresses the interconnected nature of social categories such as race, class, and gender. Considering these aspects of identity together allows us to see overlapping systems of discrimination or disadvantage. Kimberly Crenshaw, a Columbia law professor and Ohio native, coined the term in 1989 while analyzing the multidimensionality of Black women’s experiences.
According to Crenshaw, “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”
Each of the presenters from session seven confronted how oppression compounds at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. Amanda Erickson from Kaleidoscope Youth Services shared data that indicates white LGBTQ students are less likely than all other racial/ethnic groups to feel unsafe at school.
Alyssa Chrisman and Jamie Upthall highlighted the problem of minority overrepresentation in special education, and the representatives from LASER discussed the unique barriers facing undocumented students.
Scrutinizing different forms of prejudice is essential to anti-racism work, and our presenters offered several questions for reflection:
How can I adapt to meet the needs of different groups?
How do I show up for LGBTQIA people in my life?
How familiar am I with the experiences of undocumented people?
Erase the Space aims to dismantle white supremacy in the classroom, and this session’s topics reminded us of the inextricable ways identities overlap and interact. No person has a single identity, instead they are a mosaic of many things.
Michael Ward is a senior at Olentangy Orange High School. He is passionate about social justice and has been active in different movements from the summer of 2020 on.