This past week, the Lillian E. Smith (LES) Center hosted “The Civil Rights Movement in Northeast Georgia,” an inaugural professional development opportunity for P-12 educators throughout Georgia and the surrounding states. I’ve had a couple of days to reflect on the program, and today I want to share some of my thoughts. This will not be a detailed discussion of what the participants did; rather, it will be a sort of self reflection on why programs such as this are important, especially during this moment. You can read about the program at Piedmont’s website as well.

When I worked at the Ernest Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, I did similar programs. I did two week-long P-12 programs where participants read and discussed Gaines’ work. These events went alright, but they did not, at least to me, spark the engagement that occurred this past week. Along with those events, I did a four-week NEH Summer Institute for university educators which focused on Gaines’ work and connections to others writers and South Louisiana. That event sparked engaging conversations and connections that have lasted for years.

I mention those programs at the Gaines Center because each was different. The first P-12 program was similar to “The Civil Rights Movement in Northeast Georgia,” internally funded and constructed. However, it was really a spur of the moment program whereas I planned the LES program months in advance. I am always the pessimist. It’s my nature, and as a pessimist, I constantly fear the worst. Inevitably, the worst always seems to happen too at some point. For this program, it happened the first day when we had to shuffle around the schedule because one of the facilitators came down with food poisoning.

Unlike the Gaines programs, the LES Center has space for participants to stay and work. They stay on the ground where Smith lived, where she ran Laurel Falls Camp. They inhabit that space. For “The Civil Rights Movement in Northeast Georgia,” participants spent the week at the center, staying in bunkhouses and essentially living together for the entirety of the program. They cooked together, hiked together, and formed connections. I wasn’t there for all of this because the program itself ran from about eight in the morning to four in the afternoon then I would need to head home for family responsibilities. However, this connection, which occurs in programs such as this, was extremely important.

Participants heard from a wide-range of facilitators such as Dr. Jacqueline Jones Royster, Dr. Dywanna Smith, Marie Cochran, Audrey Davenport, Rebecca Brantley, Dr. Rebecca Godwin, Dr. Julia Schmitz, and Ife Williams. They engaged in everything from history and literature to science and art during the week, thinking about how to incorporate each of these disciplines into their own classrooms and pedagogy. Most importantly, though, they found connections in the eye of an ever-growing storm against educators in the classroom.

I could write about the presentations that the facilitators provided, and you will hear about those over the next few months because I will have episodes with some of the participants for “Dope with Lime,” the LES Center’s podcast. However, what I will take away from this week is the impact that the program had on the participants themselves and the encouragement it gave them as they prepare for the upcoming school year and beyond. This impact didn’t hit me till the last day when participants presented what they took away from the program and how they planned to incorporate what they learned into their own pedagogy.

Over the course of the week, all of the participants spoke of the issues facing them as educators in the classroom, notably legislation such as “divisive concept” bills and incidents from their own careers. Some participants spoke about taking a sabbatical from teaching because of all of this and more. They spoke openly about burnout and about seeing others leave the profession. They spoke about feeling like the only person in their school or district speaking up in the classroom, in meetings, or elsewhere on issues that impact students and the community.

As we sat around on the final day and shared reflections from the week, two participants who had decided to take a break from teaching, spoke about rethinking their decisions. They talked about the exhaustion, the burnout, and the overwhelming pressure, but they also said that this week caused them to rethink their decision and return to the classroom. One of these teachers spoke about being part of the LGBTQ community and the importance of students seeing and hearing from him in the classroom. He had decided to take a few years off, but at the end of the week, he talked about a desire to return to the classroom to be there for his students and community in the classroom.

At the every end, the final participant had us all engage in an activity. We had to make something like a brainstorming cloud chart, with ourselves in the center. Each of the spokes off of the cloud had to be something that represents part of our identity. For me, I included things such as “husband,” “parent,” “white,” “Christian,” “scholar,” and on and on. Once we did that, we had to pair up with someone. He would ask us a question, and we would have a minute to think about our answer. Next, the first person in the pair would speak for two minutes, responded to that prompt, and the second person would listen. Then, the roles would switch. We were able to do three turns, and he asked us these questions: “Which identity best identifies you?”, “Which identity has given you privilege or advantage?”, and “Which identity has caused you issues in your life?” (I am not sure if those are the exact ways he asked the questions, but you can find them soon in the Google Doc below.)

Following this exercise, we spoke about our experiences. One participant, who just completed student teaching and is preparing to go into her own classroom this fall, talked about how much this week meant to her. Addressing, I believe, the last question, she told the group about feeling apprehensive at first during the week because she was the only Black participant. She spoke about being the only, or one of the only, Black teachers at her school. She spoke about this and remaining quiet because she did not feel like she could speak. She talked about these things and a lot more, but she concluded by saying that this week made her feel heard and welcomed. It inspired her and made her ready to head into the classroom in the fall.

A lot more happened during last week, but that final day hit me. It reminded me that amidst my pessimism and my thoughts of a program that would fail tremendously that people needed a space to escape, to rejuvenate, and to connect. The program provided that space, and it provided a place and a beginning of connections and networks of support that will carry over the years and decades to come, growing and growing, connecting people together to continue on the legacy of Lillian E. Smith, John Lewis, Pauli Murray, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many, many, more.

I plan to write some more about the program soon, but I will leave it there for now. We have started a Google Doc for the program, and we will be populating the document in the coming weeks with materials that we discussed and more. You can view the document here. If you are interested in learning more about ways to support this educator program or to participate in the future, follow the LES Center on Twitter @les_center or email us at lescenter@piedmont.edu.

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