Teachable Moment



By Mr. S (Brooklyn high school teacher)

After the grand jury decision was released on the Mike Brown case and following the protests that have taken place in New York, a few of the teachers decided we have to do something. Actually the decision to do something about racism began a few years ago when teaching my criminal law class a young lady broke down and began crying about how she was stopped and frisked on a regular basis. From that moment until now we have been struggling with what we can do to try to bring some racial justice to our school, our city, our world.

This past Thursday, the day after the grand jury decision in the Garner case was announced, we decided to have an after-school discussion where our students were welcome to express their feeling on recent events in Staten Island, Ferguson, and their thoughts on race relations. I sent my principal an email Wednesday night asking to have this after-school discussion. He promptly answered back “let’s have a meeting in the morning.” The meeting went well, we set norms and created some questions we would use in facilitation. I did sense some hesitancy to have this after school from my administration, understandably so. They wanted to make sure it was handled in manner that would make all our children representing various view points feel safe. Carmen Farina had written a letter on Wednesday night to principals encouraging schools to have events like the one we were planning. That letter helped tremendously in allowing this event to take place as I was able to refer to it several times in our planning session. 

The principal asked me to make the announcement over the loudspeaker. We wanted to let our students know that teachers were having an open forum addressing this situation. I think the announcement  was really critical. It let the entire school community, from students to school aides to other teachers, know that we were doing something to address the great injustice that had just occurred. In fact one teacher said when the words “Mike Brown and Eric Garner” came over the loudspeakers, many students look puzzled. After my announcement was over, the students in Ms. C’s class asked what this was all about. She stopped her class and began to explain what had happened. She later told me it was the perfect teachable moment and could care less if she finished her lesson on Byzantine. This was much more important. A few English and Social Studies teachers preempted their lessons through-out the day to discuss the Brown and Garner decisions.

When 3:00 came we went up to the assigned room. I was going to facilitate along with my friend Mr. G, another social studies teacher who has been very involved with all of social justice initiatives at our school. Twenty-five students walked in, a diverse group, different genders, races, and grade. Surprisingly three other teachers, one paraprofessional, the assistant principal, and the principal came as well. We made sure to greet everyone and make the atmosphere as welcoming as possible. We explained we were holding this discussion in order to have a forum where you can express yourselves, because your voice counts. 

The discussion was extremely passionate, engaging, and as in any good class, I learned more from the students then they could ever learn from me. One student said she was upset that her parents were arguing with her because they did not believe either case was about race. Our African-American students explained why it was about race and some of the feelings they have in dealing with police. Some students discussed how economics played a role in this, that poor people are forced to do illegal actions in order to survive. Some of our students discussed how the justice system is not just at all. Many of students there were actually most upset that their classmates did not know what had happened. We discussed what positive steps we can take as a school community. The students said they need to be better informed and do more reading, some wanted to organize or at least attend protests, and they want to really focus our school on restorative justice. An initiative that me, the dean, the Black Student Union and their faculty advisor have been actively pursuing. 

All in all, I’m not sure if we changed anything, but hopefully at the very least we empowered our students that their voices matter. They were happy to have adults in the room listening to them and answering their questions. We need to have more discussions like this in our classes and outside of them too. 

6 thoughts on “Teachable Moment

  1. Very admirable initiative; I wonder how many similar events took place. I would certainlly discuss in my CR if students were interested. It is more complex than many realize.

  2. I think your afterschool discussion meeting was admirable. Students needed to voice their opinions, anger etc. When I taught at Beach Channel High School (now a closed school) we often had discussions about police disrespect to minorities especially teenagers. What I found scary was that many of my High School students stated that they would confront an officer if they disagreed with him or her in the street. I think it is very important that we let our students know that it is wrong for us to confront the police out in the street. After an incident is over, complaints should be made to the civilian complaint board. If the person or people are still not happy with the answers or results they receive, then report the complaint to the press. It is not worth getting injured or worse yet losing a life in order to resist abuse by police authorities. I think any discussions with students about these incidents has to include that. We also have to make clear that we don’t condone anyone who misuses their authority for any reason.

    1. Thanks Keith. I also believe it is important for schools to contact the NYPD community events dept. and see if it is possible to bring in police to discuss these issues with students in the school. The police in the school can discuss how they apprehend a person that is aggressive or appears to be resisting arrest. They then need to allow students to respectfully describe their own experiences with police and ask questions.

  3. Reblogged this on whatisarealeducation and commented:
    We, as educators, are obligated to have these discussions in our classrooms, not after school. I appreciate the forum after school, and I appreciate the treacherous waters you navigate, appeasing administrators, parents, etc., but I still think it needs to be said. These are the discussions that improve ourselves, our culture, and our democracy, and they should be at the forefront of what we spend our time on. Having them after school is a second best alternative. If this isn’t “core curriculum”, I don’t know what is.

    1. You are certainly correct about this Kathy. Lessons about improving our culture and democracy can certainly take place in our English and History classes.

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