Teachers, stop what you are doing and take some time to talk with your students about the Trayvon Martin case. We know you have a lot of content to cover. Accountability pressures lurk in the back of your mind. But this is a moment when you need to make time to discuss an issue with your students that is important to them and to our society.
The Martin case easily connects to history, literature, civics, and government curricula. For example, compare and contrast the case with the events of To Kill A Mockingbird, or the murder of Emmett Till. But even if there is no clear curricular connection, isn’t there room in a year or semester-long curriculum to spend at least 30 minutes talking with students about events that are being hotly discussed outside the school?
Yes, the Trayvon Martin case is controversial. Discussing the fatal shooting of this 17-year-old African-American youth in Sanford, Fla., could bring up emotions and conflicts that are not easily resolved. And many of the facts of the case are indeed still uncertain. We have heard of teachers avoiding the topic because it is too contentious.
Teachers can push students to move beyond gut reactions and facilitate a fuller analysis of the case."
However, the nature of the case is precisely why it needs to be talked about in classrooms. It encapsulates so many elements of our society that teenagers want and need to discuss: race, justice, law enforcement, the media, and the kind of country we want the United States to be. There is no better place than the classroom to tackle such weighty topics. Saying nothing about such an important case is not being neutral; rather, it is avoiding the responsibility to model thoughtful engagement with current events and society.
Although you may want to avoid an awkward classroom moment, your students cannot avoid this story. Teens are talking about Trayvon Martin outside of the classroom; the case is all over the news, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. Students hear about walkouts in the schools around Miami, the news of neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman’s previous arrest, and the impending decision from a special prosecutor on whether to bring charges against him. They’ve also heard about Trayvon Martin’s school suspensions.
If teachers welcome students’ questions and comments about the case into their classrooms, those conversations could possibly be more productive than those that are taking place outside their classrooms. Students will be more likely to hear a wide range of perspectives than if they were only to discuss the case with friends who are often of the same race or social class. Teachers can push students to move beyond gut reactions and facilitate a more thoughtful analysis.
When teenagers are thinking and talking about serious societal matters, teachers need to capitalize on these moments. Too often, school can feel stale and irrelevant to students in spite of the fact that students are hungry to talk about issues of race and social justice. It should not be too hard to spark classroom dialogue, particularly about the Martin case. It’s more likely to be a challenge to get the students to stop talking.
Do you wonder if teenagers can have a mature discussion on this charged topic? We know of educators teaching 6th graders who have been impressed by the seriousness and sophistication of their students in addressing the case. In fact, discussion of the Martin case is likely to engage many of the students who do not typically embrace standard curriculum or classroom activities. The same student overheard describing To Kill a Mockingbird as “lame” a few weeks ago might have felt differently if a classroom discussion had helped him to see the similarities or differences between the Martin case and Harper Lee’s story.
Instead of worrying about what could go wrong with such a dialogue, teachers need to seize upon the opportunity the case presents. Teenagers want to hear how the adults in their lives are thinking about the events in their world. And they may need teachers to help guide these complex discussions. Teachers may be able to model some of the moderation and even-handedness that are often absent from the rhetoric of politicians and media pundits.
Talking about contemporary issues, such as the Martin case, means having to sort through new information and misinformation. This is a good thing; the evolving nature of this particular story provides an opportunity to teach about nuance and complexity. Recent developments such as the police-surveillance video that may indicate whether Zimmerman was injured by Martin prior to the shooting or NBC’s admission that it selectively edited the audio of Zimmerman’s 911 call in a way that heightened perceptions that the shooting was racially motivated have made the story far more complicated than it first appeared to be. For teenagers, it is a worthwhile lesson to discuss morally ambiguous issues that are in the headlines, rather than only debating historical topics for which we have the wisdom of dispassionate hindsight.
Both of us have experienced the power of detours from the curriculum to discuss contemporary issues or current events. Last school year, after a districtwide showing of “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary film about the burden of stress placed upon high school students, an English teacher allowed several days of discussion to take place in Scott Weathers’ class. It was clear that the issue resonated with many students—the dialogue was relevant and heated. In contrast to other class discussions that didn’t provoke as much thought or diverse participation, the topic of teen stress and the film proved popular. After the discussions, students wrote letters to their district superintendent offering solutions to the problems the film raised. Because of the immediacy of the issue, most of the letters were articulate and passionate, and the students took the assigment more seriously than their typical English-class writing assignments. This year, unfortunately, Scott has not had the opportunity to depart from the standard curriculum to discuss the Trayvon Martin case.
During his K-12 teaching career, Jeffrey P. Carpenter found that his occasional departures from the curriculum to address contemporary issues resulted in powerful learning experiences. For example, on Sept. 12, 2001, his lesson plans for his English classes went out the window, and instead he focused three days of teaching and discussion on the Middle East, the Palestine-Israel conflict, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and al-Qaida. It was not easy teaching. Some students had relatives living in Washington, where the Pentagon had been targeted, and others were worried about the prospect that our country would be going to war. All of that still would have been the case even if class time had not been spent discussing the events of the previous day. Students were upset by the tragedy unfolding around them, but they also wanted to talk and learn about it.
Teachers, your students will thank you if you can put aside a lesson plan or two and talk about the Trayvon Martin case or other controversial news events with them. Curriculum and standards are important, but so is responding to world events and contemporary issues that spark students’ interests. Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragedy. Let us avoid further tragedy by engaging our students in discussion about the world in which they are growing up. Perhaps these discussions can motivate some of our youths to contribute to building a better vision of our society, one in which a young life is not so sadly wasted.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Talk With Your Students About Trayvon Martin