By: Stephanie Rivera
I’m writing this post today because of the recent murder of Walter Scott. We have another publicized case of a black man being shot in the back by a police officer.
*Warning: Graphic, unedited footage
During my student-teaching internship with 7th grade middle school students last fall, the cases of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones came forward. Interning at a school with a population predominantly made up of students of color, I knew I could not continue with business as usual.
To continue my lesson on the Middle Ages would be ignoring the fact that my students’ lives mattered. I was unwilling to buy in to the idea that middle school students are “too young” to understand, or “too immature” to have a real discussion. How could my students not understand? From what my students were willing to share with me earlier on in the school year, they already experienced what it meant to live in a society filled with injustices. Even before these cases, my students had experienced the lack of proclaimed justice in our “justice” system. They saw its impact on their own families, their friends, and their community.
To act on the notion that young people can’t understand the very issues that affect them is to disregard their lives completely. Our students come into the classroom with their own experiences and their own perceptions of the world–we should never, ever disregard them. Rather, we should provide our students the space to discuss these issues where they feel supported and heard; a space that validates their emotions and allows them to work through their understandings, opinions, fears, and confusions.
Through the process of class discussions and reading news articles from various sources with different opinions, there was one day in particular that still sticks with me.
During a closing for one of our activities, I asked my students to share their idea of what a just society looks like:
As they were shouting out their ideas, I saw one of my students–who is often very outspoken about his opinions–with is head down.
I walked over to him and asked if he was alright.
“Yea, I’m fine.”
“Do you want to share your thoughts?”
“Miss Rivera, I can’t. The world is so corrupt that I can’t even imagine a world that is just. How can I have hope when people who look like me keep getting killed and their murderers go free?”
I couldn’t argue with him. Year after year, month after month, every. 28. hours, someone who looks like my students is murdered at the hands of the police.
I wrote down what he said on our board. His view of the world was valid, and I had to acknowledge that.
No longer student-teaching, I can’t help but wonder how my students are continuing to conceptualize the world. Even though I tried my best to instill hope in my students–pointing to the protests, organizers, and miraculous changes we have seen throughout history–I can’t say that was enough. What weight do my words carry in a world that keeps telling them that their lives don’t matter?
Some of my peers, teachers, and others say such discussions are not appropriate for the classroom. Whether it is because they believe young people are unable to understand these issues, or because they think it’s “too political.”
This stretches into the larger discussion of trainings I wish we had within our teacher education programs. Fortunately, I had the chance to see conversations facilitated by community organizers who were trained to talk about these issues prior to my lesson. This allowed me to transfer what I learned from these discussions into the classroom. Still, my discussion was not perfect (although I question if any discussion about police brutality can ever be “perfect”). Not everyone has access to such learning opportunities though. From talking with some of my peers, many want to have these discussions in the classroom but are unsure how to start. They fear its controversial nature, as well as the uncertainty of how to appropriately respond to students who may be triggered by such discussions. Their concerns illustrate perfectly why this issue needs to be addressed prior to teaching.
The murders of Walter Scott, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sean Bell, Jordan Davis, and so many others should not simply be perceived as “political issues.” These are tragedies that influence how our students make sense of the world, as well as their ability to focus, learn, and create meaning in the classroom. I am not advocating for children to take on a specific opinion, or for any type of indoctrination. I am calling for students to have a chance to recognize that what impacts them outside the classroom deserves to be heard inside the classroom.
* * * *
For resources on how to teach about such issues in the classroom, please see:
- Ferguson Syllabus
- Following Ferguson: Teaching the Crisis in the Classroom || Colorlines
- How to Teach Beyond Ferguson || EduTopia
- My Contribution to #FergusonSyllabus || The Jose Vilson
- Preparing to Discuss Michael Brown in the Classroom || DC Schools
- Teaching #FergusonResources
Stephanie is in her final year of graduate school at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education pursuing her M.Ed in Social Studies Education. She is a member of her school’s Urban Teaching Fellows Program and contributed the chapter, Being A Future Teacher in the Midst of the Movement in Jesse Hagopian’s book, More Than A Score. You can follow her on Twitter @stephrhonda.