Student Well-Being

How to Address Race and Police Violence: Advice for Educators, Part I

By Kate Stoltzfus — September 23, 2016 4 min read
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Another string of recent fatal police shootings of two black men and a teenager in Charlotte, N.C.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Columbus, Ohio, have sparked ongoing protests across the country. Educators are once again unpacking the news with their students, but many are likely wondering how best to lead conversations about continued unrest over bias, race, and alleged or confirmed police violence.

These topics in the classroom are not new. After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014—what some point to as the reopening of a national conversation about racial violence and policing in the United States—reading lists and curriculum resources began to emerge for parents and teachers. Some of them, such as #FergusonSyllabus, #CharlestonSyllabus, and #KidLitForJustice, were online crowdsourcing efforts by professors. Education Week’s coverage offered a list of discussion resources about racism and policing to address students’ questions and fears and understand what students of color may be feeling, as well as its Beyond Bias package that takes a closer look at discrimination in schools.

BookMarks invited several professors, activists, and authors who have written books or resources for teaching about race in the classroom to offer some guidance to K-12 educators about how make sense of the range of available materials. What should educators keep in mind when engaging students in topics of race and police violence? Their email responses included encouraging educators to listen, to embrace discomfort, and to offer students an open space to grapple with the complex climate at hand. Look for more advice in Part II of this blog post on Monday.

Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history at Georgetown University, creator of #FergusonSyllabus, and author of South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (Duke University Press, 2015)

“If educators believe that they can wait until they know their students better, or when time frees up in a month or on the last day of class to talk about the impact of police shootings on our country, then they are missing the opportunity to help students understand the value of an education. If you have resources and tools that work, share them with your colleagues who want to do something but are too afraid, too untenured, or too grief-stricken to start the conversation.

At the end of the day, don’t assume your students have thoughtful people to talk to about what is happening in our nation. They are hungry for a conversation, and our job is to feed their minds. Don’t be afraid of conflict and discomfort. Instead, think about all the elements that make a classroom work—leadership, compassion, and insight. When I talk to students about incidences of police violence, I often focus on helping students understand the origins of our nation’s current struggle.”

Recommended resources: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and Monique Morris’s Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (BookMarks talked to Morris about Pushout in a Q&A earlier this year.)

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, middle grade author, contributor to The Brown Bookshelf, and senior vice president of community and member relations at We Need Diverse Books

“Listen when your students speak to you, and when they speak to each other. Take time to reflect on your own thoughts and emotions around these issues before you engage with your students, and as conversations continue. Work ‘small'; it’s impossible to try to ‘cover’ all of the complexities surrounding this country’s past and present challenges around race and justice in one activity or class discussion.

There’s been a lot of joking lately about education and ‘safe spaces,’ but I think it’s important that we recognize that students from marginalized groups who are already traumatized can often be further harmed by an environment where they feel forced to speak, to be a representative for an entire group, or silenced because of fear of a conversation getting ‘out of control.’ Offer a diverse array of literature that tells our complex stories—books are a powerful tool to help all of us better interact with one another and become more receptive to new ideas, and can facilitate discussion of ‘tough topics’ with young people in powerful ways.

I believe strongly that part of our responsibility as educators is to offer students the tools to manage the complexity and pain of our lives. Teaching and learning regarding empathy, critical literacy, and thoughtful citizenship are essential to education. It’s truly a matter of life and death.”

Recommended Resources: The Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility has excellent lesson plans and classroom tools on its website; How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds With Inquiry by Sara K. Ahmed and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels (Heinemann, 2014); and For A Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action by Katherine and Randy Bomer (Heinemann, 2001)

The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Photo credit: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.