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Archive for August, 2014

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Yesterday, I wrote about my plan to discuss race and specifically Michael Brown and Ferguson in my classroom today.

We began with a “think, pair, share” activity. I asked the students why it’s uncomfortable to talk about race. Their answers:

  • “Political correctness makes us feel like we’re walking on eggshells.”
  • “Someone might take offense when no offense was intended.”
  • “It’s awkward to talk about race with or around different races.”
  • “There is still a lot of anger about slavery.”

I then asked them what color they see when they hear or read the word “race.” The students who called out answered “black.” I asked them if they think of white people as having a race. One white student shared that she doesn’t think of herself as being part of a race until she really thinks about it. White, for many of my students, represents the absence of race.

I shared with them the exchange I had the previous night at dinner. We were eating out with another couple. I brought up the Ferguson issue, and the man – a good friend – said, “I heard that he has a rap sheet a mile long.” I had not read that anywhere, and I’ve been keeping up with the story. I asked him where he read or heard that. He couldn’t remember. When I returned home, I researched the question and discovered that Michael Brown had no prior history of arrests. I asked the students to consider why this man’s first comment about Ferguson was an indictment of Brown. Why didn’t he start with questions first?

We then as a class read Charles Blow’s article: Michael Brown and Black Men.

I had posted eight NYT Pick comments to the article around the room and asked the students to take post-it notes and sharpies and to ask questions of each comment. No dialogue, no commentary, no statements. Today, we would only wonder and ask.

Here are some of their questions:

The first NYT comment was by Paul who states, “Tell the black kids to stop doing things they should not be doing, and not to resist police questioning and arrest when they are confronted for doing it. Or is that too much to ask?”

  • What evidence proves he was doing anything wrong or that he resisted?
  • What if the police are wrong? Does Paul think police are always right?
  • What race is “Paul”? And what does “Paul” do for a living?
  • Don’t white kids do things they shouldn’t be doing? Are they less likely to receive punishment?
  • Is there a different way to word this without coming across as harsh?
  • Why doesn’t he tell cops to stop shooting unarmed people?
  • Is he referring to the Michael Brown case or all black kids in general?
  • Why are the police not viewed positively by the youth?
  • Is civil obedience the best way to attain equality and safety?
  • Where is Paul getting his facts?

The second NYT comment was by NeverLift who argues, “This isn’t a school issue. It’s a family support issue. Behavior is learned at home. If it is not, the school is helpless.”

  • How could the community work together to better raise the children?
  • Why is it when a white person does something the news says, ‘Oh they have a mental issue” or some excuse but when a black person does something they’re automatically bad and have criminal backgrounds?
  • How come parents have become way more lenient?
  • Students are at school more than they are home, so why is this a family issue and not a school issue?
  • What evidence shows behavior is learned at home?
  • Couldn’t the issue be both a school and home problem?
  • If not from their parents, where else can youth learn to face the music and not use discrimination as a cop out?
  • Is discrimination a family support issue?
  • What if a little rebellion/disobedience is good? Don’t we live in a country that encourages individualism?
  • What if it’s the authority that’s the problem, not the kids?

The third NYT comment was by “Billy from Brooklyn” who states, “The obvious solution is to completely integrate the police departments…Whites will howl when the police force becomes half-white and half-black, half-male and half-female…There will no longer be this issue.”

  • Why is the solution “obvious”? If it was “obvious,” wouldn’t it have already be solved?
  • Could police brutality be eliminated by just limiting the type of weapons and riot gear used?
  • How would mixing solve the problem if not just make tensions worse through a government controlled “understanding” program?
  • What is really running through the mind of a solo police officer when he pulls someone over?
  • Are people more comfortable with their own race?
  • Why does Billy assume that “whites would howl”?

The fourth NYT comment was by Linda who shares, “I’ll never forget having ‘the conversation’ with my 16-year old son about what to do if a white police officer stops him. He said, ‘Mom, if I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I have to worry? I’ll just tell him that.’ I said, ‘No, baby, please, just don’t say anything. Just be quiet and do what you’re told and get it over with. That way there won’t be a misunderstanding.’ I cried for a week.

  • How can a black youth differentiate from authority to trust and not to trust?
  • Why should this be a problem if he didn’t do anything? Don’t respect and honesty go a long way?
  • What about white people and black cops?
  • Do white parents have “the conversation” with their kids?
  • Why do minorities have to deal with giving their kids speeches on how to approach people who are here to protect us?
  • Doesn’t he have the right to say something? If so, would it come down to how it is delivered?
  • Why would a mother encourage lying down and not standing up for what’s right?
  • A student’s follow up to the question above: Is she afraid she’ll be dead wrong?

The fifth NYT comment by Victor asks whether racism is too facile an explanation. “What happens in white homes, white churches, white schools, offices and social institutions that somehow creates and reinforces the notion that we are not only some strange ‘other,” but an ‘other’ that must be subordinated and controlled by all levers of power in our culture, including the use of force and even deadly force…Can it be changed? Can white folks change?”

  • Why does it take the death of a young black male for society to question racial tension and police brutality?
  • Are whites to blame for fulfilling the self-perpetuating cycle of racism?’
  • Why can’t all people see this as a real problem?
  • Why should blacks be denied freedom in order to not be judged by white superiors?
  • Why is it often assumed that racism was the only reason? What if the “victim” wasn’t actually a victim?
  • “Can white folks change?” Really?? When will people stop lumping white folks together and realize that only a small fraction of the population is a problem?
  • A student’s follow up to the question above: Is this true for black folks too? Do they get lumped together?

The sixth NYT comment by Brian asks, “What if the police viewed part of their job was to help kids get to age 18 with an education? What if kids were viewed as an opportunity and not a threat? Would that break the cycle of tragedy?”

  • Would the police treat the protesters differently if it wasn’t about the police?
  • What is it like to be a police officer? How much do they get paid?
  • How would we, as a country, regulate who was able to become a police officer then?
  • How do we change the police’s mindset then?
  • Are the police a robo-cop teacher hybrid?
  • Should police be made to stop things before they happen?
  • How could police possibly help kids make it through school?
  • Why are kids treated as wild horses that need to be broken in order to become a part of society?
  • What caused law enforcement to feel the need to escalate so drastically in the first place?

The seventh NYT comment was by Willow who states, “Yes, white kids are also sometimes unjustly shot by the police. Yes, a militarized and undertrained police force that has forgotten that its primary role is to serve the public is a danger to white people as well as black people. But the numbers in Blow’s article tell the story. And let’s remember that Clive Bundy’s white followers were allowed to point rifles at federal officers, who backed off to avoid an incident…”

  • Did the police force become more militarized after 9-11?
  • Why do the police think the only way to help a population is to control violence?
  • Why have the police not taken up a philosophy similar to preventative medicine?
  • How did the police system become so unjust?
  • What would have happened if Clive Bundy had been black?
  • Do I understand the history of violence against black men?

The last NYT comment was by Valerie who comments, “This piece by Mr. Blow has brought out many questions and criticisms directed at the Black community: comment after comment by readers who are pointing to Black-on-Black crime statistics, who wonder why young Blacks don’t go to the library instead of joining street gangs, who believe that blacks have a victim mentality, and that if the fathers would just stay home and help raise their children … and so on … Education on many levels is probably a critical part of any solution.”

  • Why is it that everyone looks to education to right all the problems?
  • Why do Americans feel they have no moral responsibility to help fellow citizens achieve the “pursuit of happiness”?
  • What could educators do differently to solve the problem?
  • There are poor blacks and poor whites. In some ways they are living the same life. But if both were convicted, why do we jump to claiming the black one guilty?
  • Why doesn’t the system make it easier for black children to succeed?
  • How might we make education every American’s (black or white) first priority?
  • Why are they not taught that joining a gang is not a good choice?
  • What if the victim is not a victim?
  • Why do people assume blacks are the only ones who pull the victim card?
  • What does it look like to pull the victor card?

Today was powerful. The room was silent. Students were moving from comment to comment, posting notes at every turn.

We’re delaying conclusions right now. Tonight, they are going to choose one question and begin brainstorming where and how they might find answers.

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Michael-Brown-Protest-Police

School started last Wednesday. Since I only teach seniors, I had planned on helping them brainstorm, review, and revise their college essays for a week. Although we’ve already made some progress in that area, we’re taking a break from the application process to discuss Ferguson and Michael Brown.

I asked my students on day one what they needed from me to be successful this year. Their responses all had a similar refrain: they want me personally to be fair, interesting, compassionate, and passionate; they want what we read, discuss, and write about to be relevant. I also asked them what they needed from themselves. Interestingly, their expectations for themselves dovetail with their expectations of me. We had a great discussion of what it will mean to support one another.

To hold up my end of the bargain, I need to pivot from my intended plan. They want to talk about Ferguson.

I’ve spent a good part of this weekend thinking about how we should go about doing that.

I watched Jay Smooth’s Ted Talk “How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Discussing Race.”

I re-watched the Daily Show clip of correspondents’ Samantha Bee and Jessica Williams “The ‘R’ Word.”

I read articles and blog posts of educators grappling with this story:

I asked two black colleagues for advice. Not because I expect their experience to represent the whole, but because I admire and respect them as educators and wanted to hear their perspectives.

In the end, I think I have a plan.

Our school’s primary norm is “Start With Questions.” The wisdom in that imperative was fully brought home to me by reading Warren Berger’s excellent book “A More Beautiful Question.”

Here are the facts. I teach in a private school in Atlanta attended by students who are predominantly upper class and white. There are no black students in either of my AP English classes. There are only a few in my British Literature classes.

I began the process by asking myself a question: “Why do I want to talk about race in my classroom?” The answer is simple: because I’m a teacher. I want my students to see themselves as active players in the continually unfolding drama of life – as playwrights, directors, actors, and spectators. I don’t want them to plant their feet in one spot and claim that place and perspective for all time. Instead, I want them to remain agile in both mind and body, eager to empathize with others, willing to share their outlook, inclined to view the world through multiple vantage points, and intent on imagining what role they can play to make the world a better place to live.

I then wondered how they would answer the question, “Why is it difficult to talk about race?” That is a good starting point for me. I plan to let them engage in a think, pair, share activity that focuses on that question.

I realize not everyone will have the same set of facts to work from regarding the Ferguson story, and I don’t think I want to ask what they understand the facts to be. Facts are statements. I want them only to inquire.

To that end, I’m going to give them Charles Blow’s editorial “Michael Brown and Black Men.” There were 762 comments to the article before the comment section was closed. Of those the New York Times highlighted 52. The New York Times describes their picks as “a selection of comments that represent a range of views and are judged the most interesting and thoughtful. In some cases, NYT Picks may be selected to highlight comments from a particular region, or readers with first-hand knowledge of an issue.”

I plan to post six of those comments on large white sheets in my room, give each student a Sharpie, and ask them only to respond with questions. No dialogue, commentary, or opinion. Just questions. They can also ask questions of peers’ questions. But no declarative sentences.

For this initial foray into the topic, we’ll discuss the value of starting with questions.

Although I recognize that this is not necessarily the message students have been receiving all their lives, I want them to consider how wondering might be more valuable than knowing.

From here, I’ll assess the temperature of the discussion, whether we are ready to dive deeper, whether we are willing to employ our inquisitive spirits, and what our next step should be.

“The word ‘why’ not only taught me to ask, but also to think. And thinking has never hurt anyone. On the contrary, it does us all a world of good.” – Anne Frank

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