Equity & Diversity Opinion

Students as Change Agents in a Burning Baltimore

By Contributing Blogger — September 23, 2015 4 min read
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This post is by Ashley Williams, a teaching assistant on the 5th grade team at Southwest Baltimore Charter School.

There are images. Brown boys stand on the hood of a ruined police car. A woman faces a line of armored officers, her arms held high, palms exposed. Flames consume a van as a man saunters down the street. There are sounds too. The grinding of tires, spitting gravel as police cars rush through the city and the blare of sirens. The smack of a bat hammers though glass. The press of people nurtures its own noise, the rise and fall of breath, the rustle of fabric, and all those feet, scurrying, running, strolling, stomping.

Last spring a riot (or an uprising) swept through Baltimore City, sparked by the photograph of Freddie Gray’s arrest. Baltimorean youth, the children who roared in a blaze through the streets, have been blamed for it. Others blame the socioeconomic conditions, bred and cultivated by a hegemonic white patriarchy. There are some who say the residents of Baltimore are at fault because they lack moral fortitude. Time and the scholarship of historians will forge an opinion on the source that set the city alight. I imagine that in years to come, the protests popping up across our country will be told in a different narrative, much in the same way that protests of the Civil Rights Movement evolved from stories of open rebellion reported by media at the time. Now, flip the page in any standard school textbook about civil rights “riots” and the story is about concerned citizens seeking justice.

Five months later, as another school year commences, the federal troops have dispersed, but the event is still very much with our students. The students laughing in our hallways walk by the burned buildings on their way to school. It’s likely they know peers who participated. Some may have known Freddie Gray, or his mother, or his cousin. As teachers at Southwest Baltimore Charter School who care about our students’ emotional health as well as their intellectual achievement, this is the web of circumstance that we must untangle.

Although complicated, the events that erupted in our city last spring are an opportunity to deepen our students’ learning. When my team sat down to create a history unit for the fifth grade students of Southwest Baltimore Charter School, we decided right away that we would explore the Civil Rights era through the lens of the children who marched and protested at lunch counters, who rode buses through the night. Still, we wondered whether this subject would challenge our students to become change agents in the world.

Could we make it relevant and new enough to inspire our students? What kind of change could students make? But remembering all those scenes of children running, screaming, bleeding, and wrecking in our own home of Baltimore, the hook of our study bobbed to the surface of the conversation. What if we presented the images of children in the streets during the 1960s beside the images of millennial children screaming in the streets?

The images and the events that caused them are not the same. But their similarities present an opportunity for closely examining strategies, techniques and types of change. Students’ interest in the events that transpired in our city is already present. Connecting it to our topic of study for the trimester, we not only maximize student engagement, we make the Civil Rights movement a relevant and urgent matter of discussion.

The similarities between the images jumpstarts an enlightening dialogue about how power is gained and used by everyday citizens. We’ll teach the events that led up to the Civil Rights movement and allow our students to contemplate whether the techniques of the movement were successful in changing American society. The similarities are also challenging, raising the level of rigor in the classroom: Sameness in imagery does not equate to sameness in context. Are the causes of the riot/uprising in Baltimore the same as what caused the political fervor in the streets in the 1960s? If the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in America, was the explosion in Baltimore last spring warranted? As our students sift through the history, making connections between the events of the past and what happened in our home last spring, the learning will deepen and the stakes will rise.

When we hold up the people involved in the Civil Rights Movement as agents of change and then we also allow our students to determine whether the folks involved in the riots (or uprising) were also agents of change, we empower them. If they were involved or someone they knew was involved, were they agents of change too? They get to decide for themselves. They also get to contemplate their own agency. Recognizing that both the participants of the Civil Rights Movement and the riot/uprising in Baltimore were ordinary American citizens, our students will understand their own power. And in time, they’ll be able to name for themselves the event that happened in their city, that it was either an uprising or a riot or neither, depending on the evidence that they use to support their claim. By describing for themselves what happened, our students will demonstrate their agency. The textbooks and the teachers and the television will no longer have power to color the stories because our students will possess the necessary critical thinking skills to arrive at their own conclusions.

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