Sep 23

We Need More Voices

A friend called me this morning. She’s an urban educator, and she wanted to know if I wanted to be a part of a group of urban educators who could make a statement about the most recent police shootings. And, I have to admit, while I am always willing to add my name, I also voiced the thought of “Another statement?” It didn’t feel like enough.

Except maybe this —

One of the reasons that I think it’s so important that I speak out on issues of racial injustice isn’t just because I teach students of color, it’s also because I teach white students. It is important that African-American students see me speak up on issues of racial injustice because I want them to know that I stand with them and care deeply for them and love them, especially now in this time of great pain. But it’s also important that white students see me speak out so that they can see that this issue is of critical importance to me as a white Jewish educator. It’s my hope that if I speak up, so can they. If white students can, in part because a diverse coalition of educators who care for them speak up, see that the issue of racial injustice in all its forms is not only a black issue, but is, instead, a powerfully human issue, then we can make progress.

So yes, absolutely count me in on statements by urban educators decrying the racial injustice and police brutality we are living through, but we need more.

It is my hope that, as urban educators speak out, we see more and more educators in predominantly white schools signing on and speaking out.

We need you.

We need you to teach students in the communities that are overwhelmingly white about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic article about economic injustice and racism, “The Case for Reparations.” We need you to show them the Guardian website, The Counted, so they can see that this year police have killed African-Americans at 2.5 times the rate of white Americans. We need you to show them the Harvard Implicit Bias test so that your students can confront their own implicit biases because one of the best ways to build a better world is to start with working to be the best version of ourselves and building out from there.

Educators in predominantly white schools – it’s not enough to leave the teaching of racial injustice to those who are teaching in schools that serve a majority of students of color. If we are to achieve the dream of America as a more perfect union, we need to help all our students understand that we all have a role to play in creating that.

And to do that, we need your voices too.

 

Aug 13

What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying? #MichaelBrown

[After the trial where the man who killed Jordan Davis was not found guilty of his murder, a group of amazing educators and education activists (I was lucky to be one of the folks involved) came together to create a teaching guide for talking about Jordan Davis’ killing and the trial that followed. Many of the resources — and equally as important, the frameworks for thinking about creating curriculum — are equally applicable for creating conversations and curriculum around talking about Mike Brown. And we need to talk about Mike Brown.]

When I heard that Mike Brown was shot – unarmed, multiple times – by a police officer, my thoughts immediately went to the many stories I have heard over the years from my students of color about their experiences with the police. Their stories are not monolithic, and I have students of color who are the sons and daughters of police officers who often bring a different lens to these conversations, but overwhelmingly, the conversations I have heard have spoken to a deep level of distrust and fear between students of color and the police.

With the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s death, with Michael Dunn not getting convicted of murder in Jordan Davis’ death and now with Mike Brown’s death, many of SLA’s students of color have come to the understandable conclusion that the systems of American justice – from the police to the courts – are not there for them. Clearly, there are too many statistics that support that conclusion.

And the reaction of the authorities in Ferguson, MO since Mike Brown was shot by a police officer despite being unarmed has looked more like a police state than anything I can remember in America in my lifetime. All over the country, students are on social media asking – what kind of country does this to its own citizens?

For me, both the shooting of Mike Brown the actions of the government to Mike Brown’s killing has made me think of my grandfather. My grandfather escaped Germany in the 1930s, because he saw the writing on the wall and saw that his country was no longer safe for him. When I was young, I remember my grandfather saying to me, “You must remember that you are a Jew before you are an American, because when Jews forget that, Jews die.”  And I think about the many parents and students of color who have talked to me about “the talk” — what to do if a young black man or woman are ever confronted by the police. And I think about how we live in a country where — especially if you cannot pass for white (which I, for example, can most often do) — the rules you live by are different. You are not simply American, you are a Hyphen-American, and for you, the rules are different and not as just. And, much like my grandfather said to me over thirty years ago, if you forget that fact, you can die.

So what do we do as educators? What is our role? For to pretend that this does not enter our classrooms, our schools, is to run the risk of allowing ourselves to be complicit in the system that left Mike Brown’s body in the street for hours. How we teach, how we frame this issue with students is incredibly difficult and complex, and so many of the resources, ideas and suggestions created after Jordan Davis’ killer was not convicted of murder are appropriate again. It is incredibly daunting to think about how we frame this issue in our classrooms, but that cannot be the reason for educators to shy away from it. And, if nothing else, now is a moment where educators need to listen deeply to students who need to express what they are feeling.

And what I have learned in my time at SLA is that when I am struggling with hard questions myself, that those questions are the ones we can ask as a community. Perhaps now is a moment for educators to ask hard questions about our country. Some questions I’ve been asking myself, without great answers lately.

  • What happens to a society that seemingly has one set of rules for one race and another set of rules for everyone else?
  • What happens when too many people lose faith in the government’s ability / will / desire to actually keep people of color safe?
  • What happens when too many people feel that the dream is not accessible to them?
  • What is the role of the police in a civil society?
  • If a society becomes more militarized in the name of “safety” and “security,” is it any wonder that those who were already feeling the effects of disenfranchisement and racism would bear the brunt of the increasing militarization of its police force?
  • How do we get better than this?
  • How do we become a more just society?
  • How do we not lose hope?
  • How do we close the gap between the best ideals of America and the reality that we see around us every day?

I have had to say much the same thing before. I will keep saying it until I don’t have to say it anymore. Mike Brown’s death must serve to remind us that there is no such thing (to quote SLA teacher Pia Martin) as passive anti-racism. His death — and the police state that Ferguson, MO has become since his death — must remind us that institutional racism is the norm in this country and therefore we have to actively work to do better. This must remind us that we are nowhere near being the country we need to be for our citizens of color — and, therefore, for all of us.

Feb 17

Teaching About the Jordan Davis Murder

[This post represents the work of a group of educators and education activists who wanted to help educators  help students process the verdict in the Jordan Davis murder trial. Many of us wrote from our experiences both in and out of the classroom, and as such, many of us used “I” statements in talking about these ideas. The writers are Melinda Anderson, Joshua Block, Zac Chase, Alexa Dunn, Bill Fitzgerald, Matt Kay, Diana Laufenberg, me, Luz Maria Rojas, John Spencer, Mike Thayer, Jose Vilson and Audrey Watters. You can also link to the Google Doc or the whole thing as a PDF. Everything written below is collaborative. This document is Creative Commons – Share Alike. I only add that as educators, this is a way we can make the world just a little bit better – by talking, by trying, by teaching. There are many other ways our society has to address the issues that Jordan Davis’ murder demands we face. But as teachers, we have our classrooms. We can all can start there. — Chris]

As educators we believe that we have a responsibility to use our classrooms to help young people grapple with and address the messiness of the world around them. In collaborating on this, what we know to be true is that there is more than a single lesson plan here. The issues raised by the Jordan Davis murder trial touch deeply on issues of race, law, social justice, and any and all of these issues could be a course of study. What we hope to do is offer a number of ways for teachers and students to think about the case while knowing that no one way, no one day can possibly speak to all of the challenges this case represents.

What follows is an attempt to organize what was a 15-hour brainstorming session into a few organizing concepts – 1) things to consider as a teacher when tackling this subject, 2) ideas and resources around teaching about / toward the Jordan Davis murder verdict, and 3) some concrete lesson plans that teachers could use that examine the verdict from several different lenses.

General Thoughts About Teaching Toward The Jordan Davis Murder and Verdict:

  • Many teachers are a little uncomfortable, maybe even afraid, to have these conversations, but that’s exactly why we need to have them. Importantly, these conversations also need to happen among the adults in the building as well. Many of the ideas in this post could also be used for professional development sessions with the adults.
  • Pay attention to the context of your classroom. If it is a predominately white classroom, please don’t use the minority student as the “expert informant” whose job it is to “tell it like it is.” That’s a whole lot of pressure to put on a kid. On the same note, if you teach in a school where students are mostly African-American (or students of color in general), share how you feel about it, how it makes you angry and sad. Then give them space to talk about it.
  • Give students the permission to process in a way that represents who they are. Some kids want to talk about it. Some want to listen. Some want to blog about it. I’ve had some kids sketch their ideas out in word bubbles or in art while we try to make sense out of the tragedy. Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers
  • I would caution teachers that some kids (including African-Americans) might not feel as crushed by it as they do. Some students have normalized injustice. Some students have seen things that we can’t fathom and it’s hard for them that their own stories of injustice were never deemed “newsworthy.” Some students are just not that interested in the moment in an even that feels “far away” from them. Kids don’t want to feel emotionally manipulated by any adult – especially a teacher. (very important to remember, well said)
  • I think it helps sometimes to make the distinction ahead of time that discomfort doesn’t mean “unsafe.” It might not be a comfortable conversation, but hopefully it will be a safe, trusted environment. I know that I’ve had to go over this concept when talking about racial injustice in immigration policy.
  • On issues that have significant emotional impact, I like to start the class with the opportunity for personal reflection and thought-gathering before getting into group discussion. One process I used was to open the class with a background reading, and give students blank index cards. After they have read the background piece, they write one adjective describing their thoughts on the piece. Then, the cards get collected and displayed in a publicly visible space. This process creates the room for people to all get familiarity with the issue, along with some time to collect thoughts/emotions before starting discussions.
  • Keep developmental level of kids in mind. The way I talked with my older son (3rd grade) is different from how I’ll talk to 8th graders.
  • Plan the lesson, not as scripted, because you cannot script this conversation, but be aware that just having an open-ended conversation with kids may unintentionally create the space where kids don’t feel safe or o.k. to have the conversation. Small group discussions, writing prompts, time for reflections, and the setting of norms for these conversations can help to create a place where kids feel safe to have what will quite possibly be a very uncomfortable conversation.
  • I think it’s important to say that we will not “solve” this problem in an hour-long class, and we have to be thoughtful about owning that upfront.
  • That said, it is important to really be aware of time when dealing with topics like this. it isn’t fair to kids to get so caught up in the conversation as to lose track of time and then just “dismiss” the kids when class is over without giving students the opportunity to have some closure on the conversation you are having, even if many of us are at a place where we have don’t closure on what actually happened.

Ideas and Resources For Teaching The Jordan Davis Murder Verdict:

One Possible Lesson Plan: Target Age – Grades 7-12

Warm up: What is Justice? Provide examples. What is injustice? Provide examples. Discuss.  Collect examples on the board or digitally.

Provide students with scenarios that allow them to take a stand on whether something was just or unjust. Suggestions – students can jot down their thoughts first and then use the ‘stand on a line’ or ‘opinion continuum’ activity for students to indicate where they fall on the just, unjust spectrum with each of the scenarios.

Scenario 1: A family is forcibly interned (confined for political or military reasons) for 2 years because they are American citizens of Japanese descent and the government decided they were dangerous. (Reference)

Just or Unjust.  Explain your thoughts.

Scenario 2: Homeowners lost their homes in order to make room for a General Motors plant to be built.  They were fairly compensated by the government for the cost of their property but were not given a choice to sell or not sell.  (Reference)

Just or Unjust.  Explain your thoughts.

Scenario 3: 16-year-old drives while drunk and kills 4 people. He receives probation and no jail time for the crime.  (Reference)

Just or Unjust.  Explain your thoughts.

Scenario 4: Children are removed from their homes and taken to boarding schools where they are taught that their native language is bad and must learn English, take ‘western’ names and adopt western customs in order to fit into American culture better. (Reference)

Just or Unjust.  Explain your thoughts.

Scenario 5: A man was released from death row after 15 years when DNA evidence was used to clear him of wrong-doing in the murder of his cousin. (Reference)

Just or Unjust.  Explain your thoughts.

Then introduce the basic facts of the Jordan Davis case, including information on Stand Your Ground and self-defense – ask students to write down questions as they hear the facts of the case.  Allow time for question and answer time.

Have students develop statements about how justice and injustice relate to this case.

Play/read different perspectives of people after the verdict.  Discuss the emotions and frustration felt by many Americans as a result of the verdict.

Talk about action steps… if one wanted to speak out against or DO something … what are options.  Brainstorm and then teachers shares ones not mentioned. Such as:

  • Register to Vote – Encourage Parents to Register to Vote
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Discussions with parents/family
  • Use social media to bring about awareness amongst peers
  • Keep up to date with current events and issues of social justice
  • Be aware of local issues of injustice
  • Lead a school wide day on issues of social justice
  • Start a youth group to discuss issues of social justice and bring awareness

Resources to continue the conversation:

Another Potential Lesson Plan: Target Age – 7th – 12th Grade:

I think lesson plans that bring up pertinent questions that help kids wrestle with the subject are most useful. Especially I would like the lesson plan to help kids see that Jordan Davis is emblematic of what happens in schools via zero tolerance and black males disproportionately affected by suspensions/expulsions. When does an innocent high school student become “intimidating,” “threatening” or “suspicious”? That’s why “Stand Your Ground” laws are so flawed – because its underpinning is that bodily harm or death is justified if the person feels intimidated or threatened – people can feel threatened if they are scared or paranoid about their safety. How does “intimidating,” “threatening” or “suspicious” look in their classrooms, their schools, in their daily interactions outside school – by exploring from their own experiences, that to me as a parent would be most valuable. My son has said that he notices people judge him and his friends by their appearance, depending on how he’s dressed. It makes him feel self-conscious. Maybe explore those concepts:

Journal Entry:

Have you ever had a moment where you felt that someone judged you because of your perceived race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation and/or manner of dress? How did that make you feel? Or have  you ever judged someone based on those perceived attributes?

Discussion:

In small groups, have students discuss their personal reactions to the journal entry for several moments. Then ask groups to share out with the class what they discussed.

Transition / Class discussion prompt:

  • What are your concerns when people make judgements based on those perceived attributes?

Activity:

Have students read the New York Times article on the Jordan Davis case:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/us/florida-killing-over-loud-music.html

In small groups, have students take on the following questions and then share out:

  • Why did Michael Dunn see Jordan Davis as a threat?
  • Why did Michael Dunn feel threatened by someone sitting in a car, listening to loud music?
  • Why do these kind of thoughts surface in people’s heads when they see a black person?
  • Would things have been different if Jordan Davis was a white kid sitting in his car, listening to loud music? Why or why not?

Big Questions:

  • What does it mean when institutional decisions (for example, court cases, school policies, employment opportunities, housing) are influenced by this kind of pre-judging / stereotyping?
  • How does it affect us if we believe a decision was made because of the way someone perceived us due to our perceived race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and/or manner of dress?
  • What does it mean when laws or policies like “Stand Your Ground” or school suspension policies have a disproportionate negative impact on people of color more than whites?

Summary:

  • What can be done to help people be better informed about those they see as “others” based on the perceived identifiers above?
  • What needs to happen to make sure that laws and policies do not reinforce existing inequality in our country and in our communities?
  • What can we do as a community to begin and support that work?

Potential Lesson Plan: Target Age – 7th – 12th Grade

The goal of this lesson plan is to give students the chance to talk about the trial, about their feelings about it, and then do meaningful, real work that allows them to address the problems they see in the trial / the law.

Do now:

Read one of three articles about the trial:

Give students blank index cards. After they have read the background piece, students write one adjective describing their thoughts on the piece. Then, the cards get collected and displayed in a publicly visible space. This process creates the room for people to all get familiarity with the issue, along with some time to collect thoughts/emotions before starting discussions.

Discussion:

  • What do you think of the verdict? Was justice served? Why or why not?

Short write – Potential Topics:

  • What is the relationship between the way I feel about this personally and what I can do as a person in America?
  • How is what happened to Jordan Davis relevant to me?
  • How does this compare to my world? My experiences? What does it say about America? My city? My state?

Activity:

In small groups, come up with an action plan about what can be done to make a more just society / country / community. Some potential activities include:

  • Blog post about “What should society / can we as a community do after the Jordan Davis murder trial?” – maybe even an open-ended blog post with several options (a brainstorm of blog topics crowd-sourced in small groups)
  • A letter to Jordan Davis’ parents
  • A letter to local politicians
  • An Op-Ed for the local newspaper
  • A meeting with local law enforcement to discuss concerns around the case.
  • Given that the Jordan Davis murder verdict is not something isolated, it would also be good to brainstorm with students about any plans/interest for ongoing involvement/activism.

Summary:

  • How do we deal with a tragedy and work to make change?
  • How do we act in the public good when we are angry, sad, frustrated, hurt, scared?
  • How do we do it as a community and not just as individuals who feel all of the above emotions?

Final thought: Thank the kids for being willing to engage in the conversation. And tell them you love them. And mean it.