Like countless families around the world, the onset of COVID-19 has brought us many sudden changes and challenges. It’s been approximately five months since stay-at-home orders were initiated in the U.S, and with no end in sight, every day is a struggle to juggle all of our different roles simultaneously and in isolation of our village. Among the most difficult challenges has been ensuring that our middle schooler, Evan, is actively engaged in learning.
A handsome, brown-skin boy with dark, kinky curls and eyes that squint charmingly when he smiles—Evan is just beginning to understand his Blackness.
Evan is my thirteen-year-old brother. Almost a year ago, my husband and I became his legal guardians and moved him out-of-state from New York City to live with us permanently in Los Angeles, California. Like me, Evan is a first-generation citizen in the United States. In the early 80s, our parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic—a small country in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean—and planted roots in Washington Heights, New York City. Washington Heights is home to a large low-income, Latinx immigrant population. Young and surrounded by other Dominican kids, Evan never really thought about his racial-ethnic identity. His move to LA, however, has made it extremely salient—both because he stands out among his peers and because my husband and I have been intentional about his racial socialization.
Elianny C. Edwards
She is a Ph.D. student in the Human Development and Psychology Division at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
Earl J. Edwards
He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Urban School Division at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
The racism, activism, and injustice that Evan had learned about during his reading of the Autobiography of Malcolm X was now unravelling before his eyes as the country erupted in protest.
Evan has always identified as Latino; after all, he has grown up immersed in merengue music, taking trips to the Dominican Republic, and surrounded by tias and abuelos who only speak Spanish. A handsome, brown-skin boy with dark, kinky curls and eyes that squint charmingly when he smiles—Evan is just beginning to understand his Blackness. While in New York, he was one of many Latinos, in Los Angeles he became one of the few Black kids. Starting school and making new friends in Los Angeles has introduced Evan to the difference between race and ethnicity and has allowed us to begin cultivating his Afro-Latinx identity. As life would have it, during his first school year in LA, COVID-19 school closings happened—bringing all of his new social experiences to a sudden halt and thrusting our family into remote learning.
As tech-savvy education researchers and former schoolteachers with over 20 years of combined experience, we seemed uniquely positioned for a successful remote learning experience. Yet like so many others, we’ve confronted impossible challenges engaging with the new online learning guidelines. After two weeks of managing inconsistent waves of assignments, arbitrary deadlines, endless hours of homework, and not a single call from any school personnel, we called it quits. Assured that Evan’s grades would not suffer, we stopped engaging with his school’s remote learning model in favor of our own version of school. Instead of spending endless hours trying to help him complete work for school, we decided it was a better use of our time and effort to engage him in learning for his life. The first lesson consisted of basic skills for communal and independent living. Evan started doing his own laundry, cleaning the bathroom and kitchen, preparing breakfast every day, helping care for our toddler, and he picked up baking as a new hobby. Every day, he had to dedicate 30-minutes to listen to positive, motivational speeches and engage in reflective writing as well as exercise his body with basketball drills or at-home workouts. He worked independently to complete online math modules on Khan Academy, and my husband dedicated weeks to introducing Evan to Malcolm X, reading with him, and teaching him a culturally relevant curriculum of the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Thus, Evan’s racial socialization continued.
Evan’s introduction to Malcolm X was not easy—he is a struggling reader with poor study habits, he dislikes writing, and did not have the historical context for understanding the book. Equally important, Evan lacked a clear understanding of how his Black experience differs from the Black experience that both Malcolm X and my husband share as African American men. A former history teacher with a degree in sociology and Black studies, my husband embraced the challenge of filling the gaps for Evan. After several weeks of reading, writing assignments, and discussions, Evan finished the book and wrote his final essay. Exhausted and overworked with fifty’leven things to manage during the quarantine, my husband and I continued to press on with teaching Evan, caring for our toddler, and working from home.
A week or so after Evan completed the Autobiography of Malcolm X, George Floyd was brutally murdered by Derek Chauvin—a white, Minnesota police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he died. In the midst of a global pandemic—somehow life managed to stop for a second time. The racism, activism, and injustice that Evan had learned about during his reading of the Autobiography of Malcolm X were now unraveling before his eyes as the country erupted in protest. My husband and I had “the talk” with Evan about encounters with police. Like so many other Black families, we carefully teetered between explaining the harsh reality of his existence and cradling his youthful spirit and optimism.
Weeks later, we are still in the process of unpacking race, ethnicity, and our fight for human rights in the U.S. In our conversations with Evan we acknowledge race as an essential and shared experience between him and other Black children. We are intentional, however, to honor the uniqueness of the African American experience and the ways that Evan’s Latinidad makes his reality different. As we move forward in educating our Afro-Latinx children, we hope to continue to engage in a critical dialogue that builds their sense of pride and sparks agency in their hearts to work toward a better future for our people, all the while modeling excellence, advocacy, solidarity, and unity among all Black people. In our journey raising Afro-Latinx children in the era of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, we have learned some key lessons applicable to a wide variety of families who may not identify with our background as educators and researchers. Those lessons being:
Less is More
In our experience, it was both unrealistic and counterproductive to try and teach every subject offered at school at home. Thus, we’ve focused on two content areas—math and literacy. We outsource our child’s math work using free, online resources like Khan Academy—which offers tutorial videos and self-corrective practice modules differentiated by grade level. We focus our personal efforts on teaching reading and writing. As educators, we know that literacy is key and that strengthening a students’ fluency and reading comprehension, builds his capacity for learning other subjects independently. The point is for children to learn to read so that they can then read to learn on their own. Further, given our deep focus on just two subject areas, we typically spend no more than 3-4 hours “homeschooling” each day during the workweek.
Use Literacy to Teach Black History & Encourage Identity Exploration
U.S public school curriculum is ridden with revisionist history and narratives that belittle if not completely ignore the contributions of People of Color. We have taken this unprecedented time in history as an opportunity to teach our children about who they are and where they come from via our book selections. We started with the Autobiography of Malcolm X, our next text will be Paul Ortiz’s, An African American and Latinx History of the United States. Counter to how history is taught in U.S. schools, this book presents an intersectional history of the shared struggle for African American and Latinx human rights. Introducing children to history books, or books by Afro-Latinx authors like Junot Diaz, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Sulma Arzu-Brown that center visuals and narratives of Afro-Latinx people are a great way to teach them about their racial-ethnic background and encourage healthy identity exploration. We have also found this to be a great way to encourage critical dialogue at home, as well as an opportunity to share personal and family histories.
Prioritize Life Skills
School is not the only place where learning happens and “academic content” is not the only knowledge worth having. As both a way to collectively manage the household during quarantine while also building Evan’s independent living skills, we have dedicated time to teaching him basic cooking and cleaning. He also exercises daily. On a few occasions, we’ve even had him read through our monthly bills and go through the process of paying them. Our goal is to make sure he is learning the skills necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle well beyond his time in school.
Don’t Hesitate to Take Ownership of Your Child’s Learning Experience
As we prepare to move into the next academic school year, we are taking what we have learned over the past few months and using it to empower ourselves as guardians. We refuse to allow Evan’s academic progress to be stunted by haphazard curriculum designs in schools because we know that he is fully capable of achieving during this pandemic. While we still see the value of being enrolled in his current school, we will also continue to supplement his schoolwork with opportunities to build life skills, explore his identity as an Afro-Latino, and have discourse on the current state of being Black in America. At the same time, we plan to advocate for his learning needs and push his schoolteachers and administrators to see him and adequately serve him.
Elianny C. Edwards
Elianny C. Edwards is a Ph.D. student in the Human Development and Psychology Division at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. She is a certified K-6 teacher with an M.A in Education from UCLA and a B.A in Clinical Psychology and Child Development from Tufts University. Her research interests include school safety, psychosocial and academic outcomes for low-income Students of Color, and the role of race, class, gender and culture in teaching and learning. Elianny has over 10 years of professional experience in youth development, teaching, assessment, and developing curriculum in urban schools on both the east and west coast.
Earl J. Edwards
Earl J. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in the Urban School Division at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Earl has over ten years of professional experience in youth development and curriculum design. In addition to his expertise in curriculum development, Earl has founded and contributed to several youth development programs that support Black and Latino males across the country. Earl completed his Master’s Degree in Public School Leadership from Columbia University and received his B.A. in Sociology from Boston College. His research interests include structural racism in American public institutions and supporting youth experiencing homelessness.