I applaud the San Diego school board’s decision this summer to promote student discussion about Trayvon Martin in middle and high schools. More districts and schools should follow.
As an educator, I know that students need space to voice their opinions. Yet I also know that people often feel uneasy about such dialogues, especially ones with racial overtones. Some may wonder whether schools have the capacity to hold these kinds of tough conversations.
The questions around promoting contentious conversations are messy. We raise schools up as institutions for democracy, even when they have historically fallen short of this ideal when it comes to persistent social ills, such as segregation, student dropout rates, poverty, and school violence. Given this context, many may ask whether schools are proper forums for dialogue on social issues.
Taking these concerns into account, I have come to some firm conclusions.
First, silence is not neutrality. If schools stand silent while whole communities suffer, rage, and protest, then they close themselves off from important democratic topics and leave students underprepared for an increasingly diverse America. Even worse, this position sends the message that the experiences and perceptions of certain groups and students are not important.
For example, ethnographic and interview data from a 2012 study I conducted among 11 black and Latino male teenagers in Boston revealed that many male students cope by talking about their concerns on race and social topics. Yet these kinds of conversations almost always happen with other teens outside of classrooms, reflecting how much male students trusted—or did not trust—their teachers and peers in school. Some male teenagers said, in fact, that they believed their teachers had lower expectations of them because of their race or would negatively judge them if they discussed racial concerns.
As an educator, I know that students need space to voice their opinions. Yet I also know that people often feel uneasy about such dialogues."
This isn’t optimal. Instead, schools should endeavor to be relevant and inclusive of students’ daily lives. Educators and students alike benefit when schools open dialogue on contemporary issues of race and justice. To do this, schools should be deliberative in broaching difficult issues with students, in age-appropriate ways. They should focus on opening up discussions to multiple points of view.
The San Diego district is doing this by carving out space for students to discuss how the social issues surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal on a murder charge in the case are relevant to their lives. A school in the Bronx or the Midwest could approach this conversation differently.
But despite these differences, racial topics are relevant for all students, not just students of color. Although we all view the world through our own experiences, no experience is necessarily more or less authoritative than the next. White teachers need to facilitate these conversations in their classrooms as much as teachers of color do. Second, students who are able to shift positions and imagine how someone else interprets a social issue gain a more complete understanding of an issue from multiple sides.
Dialogue on the Martin case can refine these skills. Drawing from the San Diego plan, students can consider the social factors and assumptions that contributed to George Zimmerman’s decision to approach Trayvon Martin in the first place. Students can also attempt to imagine the 17-year-old’s reaction to Zimmerman and to share how they react to adults in power, including teachers and police officers.
These scenarios invite middle and high school students of all colors and backgrounds to develop the empathic skills that are key to democracy.
If we want future generations to practice democracy better than we do, we must teach them how to participate in open dialogues. They should have the social skills to listen to and reflect on the experience of others—to let another person’s story stand, instead of stifling it.
This is where schools can play a role, and this is what democracy is all about.
A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2013 edition of Education Week as Silence Is Not Neutrality