‘Moments like now are why we teach’: Educators tackle tough conversations about race and violence — this time virtually

Feature Image: A protester outside of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn holds a sign after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer who was kneeling on his neck. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

Reema Amin, Caroline Bauman, and Stephanie Wang, Chalkbeat

‘Moments like now are why we teach’: Educators tackle tough conversations about race and violence — this time virtually was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here: ckbe.at/newsletters.

Reading about Brown v. Board of Education over Google Meet. Holding one-on-one Zooms with students struggling with their emotions. Planning lessons on criminal justice reform for the fall — both in-person and remote, in case school buildings don’t reopen.

Educators across the U.S. already adapting to remote teaching due to the coronavirus pandemic now find themselves facing another challenge: supporting, educating, and engaging students during waves of protest and unrest. The outrage stemming from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other recent police killings of black citizens has led to demonstrations, violent clashes with police, and curfews in numerous cities.

Navigating discussions about race relations, police brutality, and systemic racism can be challenging for teachers even during normal times. But grappling with these topics during a pandemic, when school communities can’t learn together in person, is even more difficult.

Students who may have been willing to share fears for their safety in person might not open up over a classwide Zoom. Teachers who previously picked up on students’ emotions while watching them in hallways now have no window into their frames of mind. Some students may not even have reliable internet access to join live instruction.

Still, many educators know that it’s during these challenging moments that they are needed the most.

“For many schools that serve predominantly black and brown low-income communities, moments like now are why we teach,” said Leslie-Bernard Joseph, chief executive officer at Coney Island Preparatory charter schools in Brooklyn.

Chalkbeat spoke with educators across the country about how they are trying to meet the needs of their students, faculty, and parents during this challenging time. Their answers reveal struggle and frustration but also ingenuity and compassion. If you’d like to join the conversation, tell us how your school community is handling this moment.

Robert Michelin, principal of Gotham Professional Arts Academy.

As protests continued late into Friday and Saturday nights across the country and the five boroughs, Principal Robert Michelin lesson planned. He and faculty stayed up until midnight both days, planning the next two weeks of school at Gotham Professional Arts Academy: check-ins with students, a town hall, compiling historical texts and video clips about race, and a Day of Action on June 12.

“For some reason, George Floyd’s murder is hitting me really, really hard,” Michelin said. “And I think part of it is because I’ve never been in a position where this has happened and I have almost 200 babies. And it’s this moment where you have to decide whether or not you want to keep their rose-colored glasses on or you want to share the truth. … We have to give them something that gives them some power back.”

Protests have taken place in all five boroughs of New York City over the past few days, some leading to violent confrontations with police and hundreds of arrests.

Gotham is part of the city’s Performance Standards Consortium, a group of more than 30 schools that graduates students based on projects and portfolios. Last week, Michelin held an emergency faculty meeting after a freshman student, during a Zoom class discussion, typed in the chat box, “What if gotham presented a zoom call to protest about racism?”

On June 12, the school will host a “Day of Action” on Zoom and invite other consortium schools to attend. Students will spend the next two weeks designing activism projects to share that day, which could include music playlists, art work, or even Zoom-coordinated performance art. The final product will be up to students.

“The beauty of this and the value of this is that we’re still committing to our values as a school, which is, we don’t want to tell students how to demonstrate their mastery,” he said.

On Monday, teachers will check in on students, some of whom are also processing the trauma of losing relatives to the coronavirus, Michelin said. The school will also host a town hall where staffers will talk about the news and the history of police brutality. Students will break into subgroups to talk about how they’re feeling. And if students feel prepared to watch, the school will show the video of Floyd’s death.

“They need to understand that sometimes it’s better not to look away so they can actually hold on to the feeling, that raw feeling, so they can turn those feelings into actions,” Michelin said, adding the school will offer links to news coverage if students don’t want to watch the video.

Michelin is hoping that this helps fill in some of the gaps for students who want to participate in protests but can’t.

“I think the fear of being out in the streets is really real because they’re not trying to contract the virus,” Michelin said.

At Lawndale Community Academy on the west side of Chicago, Michael Bryant teaches middle school math and science but slips in a daily current events lesson. His students often say they don’t read or watch the news, but he tells them it’s important to know what’s happening around them and around the world. He wants to get them thinking.

On Monday, Bryant plans to post articles about the looting and destruction that spiraled out of some protests over the weekend and open up the topic for discussion: “Do you think this is right?”

He guides them through how to have respectful debates, how to identify when articles take different viewpoints, and how to evaluate facts without jumping to conclusions. He’s proud of them for asking questions, such as why former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin wasn’t immediately arrested for Floyd’s death, or why the other officers involved haven’t faced charges.

Talking about current events also lets Bryant, who is black, open up a bigger dialogue about systemic racism and police brutality with his students, who are all African American. Reading about the coronavirus outbreak, for example, led to conversations about the disproportionate health care issues that African Americans face.

“I feel it is my responsibility to inform the students of what’s going on and how this education is going to help them better themselves,” Bryant said. “Education changes a lot of things. Look at the community we live in, health care, jobs. A lot of this stuff is going on because people are frustrated.”

Last week marked the final week of the school year in Denver. At Manual High School, located in the historic heart of black Denver, those final days of remote learning time revolved around giving students time to make up missed work, with no time to introduce new material.

But that didn’t mean that school leaders were not already working on how to incorporate frank discussions about policing, race relations, and racism into classes next fall.

William Anderson, social studies teacher at Manual High School.

William Anderson, who heads the social studies department, described “heavy discussions” among the social studies and humanities teachers he works with — all of them black men.

“Do we teach our students that the police are a terrorizing, occupying force within our communities?” Anderson said. “Do we teach them about what the police should be? Do we teach them about the origins of the police? Do we urge them to be the police?”

That last question provoked a range of thought, he said, from “hell no” to the idea of graduating an entire class from the police academy to reform the institution from within.

“Where we left off was being able to create a space for the conversation,” said Anderson, 37.

With so much uncertainty about what school will look like in the fall — Denver, like many school districts, is contemplating a mix of in-person and remote learning — Anderson said he is urging teachers to avoid dwelling on logistical questions.

“This is the time to be dialed into the content we want to teach. Use this time not to worry about whether it’s remote or not, in class or not … Screw all of that. Don’t worry about any of that ‘til we are in August.”

He said he’s confident that teachers can teach these tough issues regardless of what school looks like, in part because remote learning will no longer be new or different after the last two-plus months.

“Yes, 100%, these kinds of conversations can take place,” he said. “It’s just going to be slightly different. If anything, it might allow us a broader and bigger opportunity to have these kinds of conversations.”

Leaders at Coney Island Preparatory charter schools — where 74% of students are black and Hispanic and where nearly 83% of students are from low-income families — view this as a pivotal teaching moment. The network has an elementary, middle, and high school that together serve about 1,000 students.

“This is what we’re preparing our students for and so we have a responsibility to help our kids process this moment,” Joseph said.

Leslie-Bernard Joseph, chief executive officer at Coney Island Preparatory charter schools.

The Brooklyn school is first focusing on staff. This week, the school will host several optional group discussions for teachers about the recent turmoil. There are specific discussions planned for educators who are black, Asian, white, and specifically, white women. (White teachers make up 44% of the staff, while 31% are black, 6% are Asian, and nearly 6% are Hispanic, according to data Joseph provided.)

“I think there’s a desire from leaders of color within our organization to both protect our own mental sanity and our kids,” Joseph said. “I think there is a desire from white leaders in our organization to do more, personally reflect on whether they are the ‘Amy Coopers’ of the world,” he added, referring to the white woman who gained infamy for calling 911 on a black birdwatcher who asked her to follow Central Park rules and leash her dog.

Leaders at the school are creating lessons focused on recent events for student advisory periods and sent tips to teachers for weaving recent news into their daily lessons. This includes anti-racist guidance for teachers that suggests books and articles to read, television series to watch, and social media sources to follow. Teachers were also sent information how to teach about racism, race, and police violence from the group Teaching Tolerance.

One of the challenges staff will face, he said, is explaining to students how they can safely advocate for change “when we know there is a danger and that they’re at risk just by virtue of being black or brown.”

The other challenge is tailoring lessons for students in different grades. Talking about systemic racism looks different with their high school students, who have read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” versus chatting with second graders, he said.

“Our kids know they are entering a world that is deeply unfair, deeply inequitable and the generations before have failed them,” he said. “While our kids are excited about the opportunities ahead of them to go to college, they’re also deeply skeptical.”

It didn’t take long for Katherine Palmer to hear from a worried student. She was logging into Google Meet Thursday morning to teach language arts and math to her fourth grade class in Trenton, N.J., when a student asked, “Did you see the news?”

Katherine Palmer, fourth grade teacher in New Jersey.

Palmer asked her class for time to prepare. She came ready during live instruction on Friday, armed with several articles about Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ruled state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. She hopes her students would read them and see the power of one person speaking up about injustice and enlisting others to create lasting change.

The conversation ran two and a half hours, covering the Black Lives Matter movement and running into their math lesson. But for Palmer, that was OK.

“From a teacher standpoint, the goal is not to teach and say this is how you have to do it, but show this is one way to do something,” she said. “If I could teach the kids nothing else from this moment, that’s what I want.”

As a white educator teaching mostly students of color, Palmer was glad her students asked her to talk through the violence they were seeing, particularly during remote learning. But she said the fact that they’ve been meeting virtually for several months made the conversations less awkward than they might have been.

“I don’t know if we could have had that dialogue if we weren’t seeing each other’s faces, live over Google, every day for the past weeks,” she said. “I feel some may be less likely to say something online moving forward than if we were meeting in person, but I want to keep the dialogue open to see what happens.”

For Sabrina Anfossi Kareem, one-on-one conversations with her students at a Chicago charter school are happening through email, a platform called Remind, and over the phone. But the high school English teacher began that relationship building in person months ago in the classroom.

“Students are being honest with me only because we spent time at the beginning of the year going over that I want honesty, to see the student’s humanity, and then develop that relationship over time,” she said, adding she worries about building that closeness if schools start remotely next year.

Sabrina Anfossi Kareem, high school teacher in Chicago.

Kareem reached out to her black students in recent days to ask, “How are you holding up? Do you need an ear?” And the answer from some was yes — but they wanted to talk more than they needed a lecture. “I’m not talking a lot during these conversations,” she said.

Aside from listening to students, Kareem believes she needs to use what she hears to influence change at her school. This includes ensuring administrators know black students don’t always feel their concerns are heard, as well as advocating for high-quality anti-bias and anti-racism training.

“I don’t want to attend another peace circle led by an untrained adult who thinks they’re being restorative when they’re really harming everyone in the room with their lack of self-awareness or ability,” she said. “There are plenty of quality organizations doing this work. Schools should not be spending out the nose for instructional or testing products while ‘making it up as they go’ when it comes to [anti-bias and anti-racism] work.”

Classes are out at Westerville North High School in Ohio, but history teacher John Sands is still thinking about how he and other white teachers should approach educating students about events like Floyd’s death and its aftermath.

Sands and his students grapple with these tragedies in a contemporary world issues class at his suburban Columbus school, which is predominantly white with a growing black student population. He said he is sensitive to the issues that come from a white teacher tackling these topics in classes with black students. “I always tell my kids, I’m the white middle-class guy … that to many of them represents a lot of what’s wrong,” he said.

In the class, Sands and students discuss identity, read the works of Malcolm X and James Baldwin, then eventually work up to discussing systemic racism and its role in their lives.

Some students choose to open up about experiences from their lives, making racism tangible and personal and not just an abstract concept for classmates. “It’s much more powerful when it comes from their friends and their classmates,” he said.

Sands and English teacher Cat Stathulis are launching the schools’ first African-American studies program in the fall. He hasn’t started considering how he’d have these discussions remotely, but his instinct is that discussion board posts won’t be enough. “I think I would want to be live with everybody, in some format, to have the discussion,” he said.

Carrie Melago and Eric Gorski contributed to this report.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.