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Inclusive Education Is Under Attack — But These Teachers Aren’t Backing Down

The anti-racist educator behind “Woke Kindergarten” has received death threats but is not giving up the work.

Shortly after the San Francisco Chronicle published an op-ed that denounced an educational program called Woke Kindergarten, the right-wing echo chamber kicked into high gear.

Tiger Craven-Neeley, the author of the op-ed and a third-grade instructor at Glassbrook Elementary in Hayward, California, was incensed that the district had spent $250,000 on workshops and one-on-one mentoring for teachers run by Woke Kindergarten founder Akiea Gross. He deemed it a waste of taxpayer money. Although Craven-Neely was put on leave by the district in February for unspecified unprofessional conduct, Gross has been subjected to ongoing doxxing and harassment since the op-ed was circulated. What’s more, Woke Kindergarten’s contract with Glassbrook Elementary was abruptly terminated in February after a two-year run; it had originally been contracted for three years, beginning in 2022.

In addition, the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation, a four-year-old entity created to oppose “the woke culture that is destroying America,” has filed a complaint against the Hayward Unified School District with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and the Alameda County Office of Education, charging in the filing that it improperly spent federal funds on “left wing indoctrination rather than reading and math.”

The complaint has garnered many right-wing supporters, some of them long-standing groups in conservative circles and some of them more recently formed: Eagle Forum of California, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, For Kids and Country, the National Association of Scholars and Color Us United, among them. Right-wing press accounts have added to the conservative frenzy, linking Woke Kindergarten to the evergreen bugaboo of critical race theory (CRT). And Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) took to the floor of the House of Representatives to declare in February that Woke Kindergarten is “what is wrong with our education system.”

Mission of Inclusivity

Woke Kindergarden is the brainchild of Akiea Gross, a nonbinary educator who began teaching more than a decade ago. Gross has master’s degrees from Columbia University’s Teachers College and Touro University, and began the project on their Instagram page in 2016. “I’d created a teaching unit called ‘Everyday Heroes versus Superheroes Through a Lens of Black History and Resistance’ and wanted to share this resource with others,” Gross told Truthout. Their students, kindergarteners at Harlem Village Academies (HVA), had been using the curriculum and learning about the power of organizing when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. “They were upset,” Gross recalled, “and wanted to protest. That was the moment that Woke Kindergarten first entered my mind.”

Gross left HVA in 2018 and spent the next two years consulting. Then, in 2020, the pandemic hit. “Very quickly, schools closed and on-site early childhood programs crumbled. People were overwhelmed and did not know how to talk to their kids about the virus or about the death of George Floyd,” Gross said. “I am a responsive educator. I saw the need to create something so I made it. I also started developing 60-second videos and texts around race, racism and pronouns that affirmed every person’s humanity. Shortly thereafter I created the Woke Word of the Day.”

Gross’s Woke Word postings (on Instagram and widely reposted by others) went viral and simultaneously alerted them to backlash against their pedagogy. But despite being personally smeared, they kept going, with recorded read alouds of books like Saturday by Oge Mora and They, She, He — Easy as ABC by Maya and Matthew. As their reputation for inclusive education spread, they started to build workshops and gave talks at institutions including Harvard. “It was around this time, 2021, that the principal of Glassbrook Elementary reached out to me,” Gross said.

In short order, Gross agreed to do a series of workshops for staff — most of them online, but as pandemic restrictions were lifted, a few were done in person — on how best to meet the social and emotional needs of Glassbrook’s students. “Many of the kids were suffering from complex trauma,” Gross said. “Glassbrook is a bilingual Spanish-English school, but the students come from Afghanistan, Mexico and all over Central and South America. Many had experienced immigration detention and family separation on top of COVID. They were scared and scarred. The principal of the school recognized that the teachers and staff needed help in responding to their needs. I tailored programs to them. Workshops talked about the importance of classroom routines and rituals, and I also helped the teachers differentiate between rules and agreements. The idea was to create community agreements between students and staff and offer model read alouds to promote literacy and give the students new ways to understand the world.”

The focus, they told Truthout, was on increasing student agency.

Things went reasonably well, Gross said, until Craven-Neeley’s op-ed was published. Although some negative comments about Woke Kindergarten were articulated after the school’s principal went on medical leave in December 2023, Gross said that “by February, Tiger and a colleague of his on the district school board were conflating my contract with low test scores — something I was not hired to address.” Still, they said, “it was not until I spoke out about Israel’s genocide in Gaza that things really escalated.” At that point, Canary Mission, a database that targets students and educators involved in Palestinian advocacy, went after Gross. “I was doxxed, received death threats, and had to change my phone number,” they told Truthout. Then, on February 12, the district superintendent terminated Woke Kindergarten’s contract. No specific reason for the termination was provided.

“Even when it is illegal to teach a particular subject, people do it, continuing a long tradition of fugitive pedagogy.”

Gross admits that the two months since being fired have been difficult. Nevertheless, they remain committed to continuing the work of Woke Kindergarten and promoting its mission of inclusivity.

They also take comfort in knowing that they are not alone and are, in fact, part of a long legacy of progressive anti-racist educators, many of whom also lost jobs due to their support of movements for justice.

Deborah Menkart, co-director of the Zinn Education Project (ZEP), told Truthout that she has great empathy for Gross and other teachers and librarians who have been fired since the anti-CRT and book ban campaigns began. At the same time, she stresses that despite the current political climate, “there continues to be a lot of good, honest, thoughtful and creative teaching going on in public schools. The repression is not universal,” she said, “even though in some places a single oppositional voice has had an outsized impact on what is taught.”

Addressing the Threat

The Zinn Education Project’s annual Teach Truth Day of Action, organized throughout the country by ZEP members, Menkart said, brings an increasing number of people together — educators, parents and community members — to learn about threats to public education and why it matters if curricula are restricted, books are banned and progressive dissent is silenced. The goal, of course, is to build grassroots opposition to right-wing attacks and support educators.

Cierra Kaler-Jones, executive director of Rethinking Schools, a nonprofit publisher and advocacy group dedicated to strengthened public education, told Truthout that community building is imperative in supporting people like Gross and creating a more hospitable climate for educators. “Bringing people together helps educators express solidarity for one another, share resources and strategize about what to do both inside the classroom and outside of it,” she said. “Community meetings can give people the tools to engage in strategic conversations about what is happening in different parts of the country and teaches them concrete skills, like how to give testimony at a school board meeting or write effective op-eds.”

Collegial engagement also offers participants a reminder to keep the long view in focus, Kaler-Jones said, especially during periods of repression. “What we are experiencing today in terms of backlash is not new. We learn from history that periods of racial progress in the U.S. have always been followed by periods of white supremacist fury. We saw it after Reconstruction, during the civil rights movement, in promotion of the war on drugs, and most recently in response to the social justice uprisings of 2020.”

Jesse Hagopian, co-editor of books including Black Lives Matter at School, agrees that historical knowledge is an essential element of successful community organizing and finds the Red Scare promulgated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy to be particularly instructive. “During the Red Scare, the right wing used a fabricated threat of communism to attack burgeoning movements for racial justice,” he told Truthout. “The right’s fear was not that communism would take over America. Instead, they saw that after World War II, the struggle for justice was winning important gains. Teachers were fighting for more Black history classes and unions were winning higher wages. McCarthyism was a way to undermine these movements.”

But, Hagopian added, McCarthyism fell apart when the youth-led civil rights movement pushed back. “When people come together, they find their courage,” he said. “Even when it is illegal to teach a particular subject, people do it, continuing a long tradition of fugitive pedagogy — the term was coined by Jarvis R. Givens — teaching what is outlawed even when it is viciously attacked. During slavery, people taught each other to read and write despite the fact that it was prohibited. Today we have Teaching for Black Lives groups all over the country. They’re teaching the truth even though attacks on social justice educators like Akiea Gross have escalated.”

This truth notwithstanding, Alan J. Singer, director of social studies education programs in the Department of Teaching, Literacy and Technology at Hofstra University and a blogger at Daily Kos, told Truthout that many of the aspiring educators he teaches nonetheless worry that they will become targets of right-wing campaigns.

“They are nervous about teaching anything controversial and are concerned about mandates requiring them to provide multiple perspectives for the students in their classes,” he said. “I make sure they understand that there are not multiple perspectives about genocide, slavery or racism. These things are always wrong. The multiple perspectives they need to provide should home in on why things that should never happen, happen. Slavery was bad, period. But let’s talk about why it existed and why it took so long to end.”

In addition, Singer said many of the aspiring educators whom he teaches anticipate self-censoring when they teach because they don’t want to be denounced by a school board or parents. “I help them see that the best defense is using different primary source documents which their students can evaluate and make sense of for themselves. I teach them to avoid documents filled with innuendo instead of facts. This enables them to become responsible teachers who encourage critical thinking.”

But even this is sometimes not enough. Since Woke Kindergarten’s dismissal by the Hayward School District, Gross has worked hard to continue creating educational materials that challenge racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. “My work is pro-humanity,” they say. “At my core, I believe children have the right to be free to live their lives. The tagline for Woke Kindergarten is ‘All power to the little people.’ Children are our North Star toward liberation. Their creativity, curiosity and rebelliousness can open possibilities for all of us. I do this work for them.”

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