How Do You Teach Students About Freddie Gray?

Children in Baltimore

What to tell them? Children gather in front of the Baltimore Police Department Western District station during a protest against the death of Freddie Gray, on April 23, 2015.

Photo by Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters,Fotoware/ColorFactory

Baltimore shut down its public schools Tuesday after a Monday evening in which largely peaceful protests over the death of Freddie Gray gave way to looting and angry clashes with police. The decision—made “because of ongoing cleanup in some neighborhoods, lack of transportation … and most important, the need for district staff to plan and make arrangements to ensure the safety of students and staff at school for the remainder of the week,” the school system said—quickly came under criticism. Close to 85 percent of the district’s predominantly black and Latino students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a meal potentially unavailable to them when schools shut down. The closure also forced kids in the state’s lowest-performing district to lose a day of instruction, and access to many familiar, trusted adults in a time of crisis.

These are significant concerns, but my worries aren’t confined to schools’ inability to attend to students’ academic and safety needs. When it comes to talking openly to students about race, racism, and inequity, schools are also falling short. That’s true not just in Baltimore, but in cities and towns across the country; it’s true not just in times of crisis, but every day. Schools could play a central role in helping students process and channel volatile emotions and tensions that arise in times of unrest, perhaps before they morph into violence. But too often, both metaphorically and literally, they shut the conversation down.

Most “teachers have not had any substantive conversations about race and inequality, even though the conditions in their schools are shaped by those qualities,” says Marcia Chatelain, an assistant professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University who put together a list of classroom resources for teachers following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. Some public schools send teachers to costly, ongoing training on how to discuss issues of race in the classroom, some host their own one-off workshops, and others don’t do anything at all. Chatelain has worked with classroom teachers who express deep confusion and fear over how and whether to teach students about race.

There are several reasons for this reluctance. The pressures of standardized testing often discourage educators from devoting class time to topics that are misperceived as extracurricular and disjointed from academic content, according to Nicholas McDaniels, who teaches English and criminal and constitutional law at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, known locally as Mervo, in Northeast Baltimore. The school is 96 percent black.

And professional development dealing with social justice is rarely integrated into traditional teacher training programs, says Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, the education division of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Instead, interested teachers and administrators often have to seek out the training on their own.

Moreover, most teachers are white, and they sometimes shy away from frank and robust conversations about race—at times mistakenly assuming those should be handled by teachers of color. Often they are simply too uncomfortable to speak up. In 2012, following the death of Trayvon Martin, I worked as a high school English teacher in central Oahu, in Hawaii. No mention was made of his death or the protests that were organized in more than 100 cities nationwide in staff meetings at my school, where I was one of two black teachers at the time. I struggled as a novice teacher to figure out how to talk with my students about what was happening, and I worried that other classes weren’t talking about it at all.

Teaching about race in the typical, lecture-style American classroom becomes a challenge because it requires teachers to be listeners much more than talkers. This week in Baltimore, McDaniels spent much of Tuesday emailing with his concerned students about the drama unfolding in their neighborhoods.

McDaniels says his students were eager to talk about this week’s events, and needed help processing them. The looting and fires in their neighborhoods rattled some. Others were upset that the city’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a black woman, had referred to protesters as “thugs” (for which she later apologized). Some said they were scared. Yet McDaniels says teachers hesitate to tackle issues of social justice in the classroom, not only because those conversations can be hard, but because of the pressures they feel to prepare students for standardized testing, which happened to be scheduled for this week at his school. (The testing was eventually postponed.)

When dialogue does happen, it can’t always be scripted. Baltimore City Public Schools, which has been active this week when it comes to discussing race and racism, reopened on Wednesday. The district dispatched social workers, psychologists, and other mental health workers to campuses as a resource for students. Teachers were encouraged to use district-issued resources on teaching conflict and social justice. Sample lesson plans covered everything from dealing with emotions like anger and fear (for the youngest students) to analyzing protest music and comparing news coverage. But at Mervo, McDaniels says administrators encouraged teachers to scrap the provided plans in favor of genuine, student-led conversations about how they felt.

But the standard in schools nationwide is still too often to ignore these conversations. Old fantasies of “post-racial,” colorblind classrooms still exist in many places—despite race’s animating, sometimes tempestuous role in our national conversation. Schools can, and should, play a central role in breaking down that illusion. And clearly they need some help to do so. Several small but growing initiatives are beginning to fill the gap.

Schools closed in Ferguson last August, as the city erupted in protest in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown. Concerned that teachers would enter classrooms unprepared to help them process the unrest that surrounded them, Chatelain created the #FergusonSyllabus hashtag, a crowdsourced list of classroom resources that teachers could employ while talking about Brown’s death. The list includes everything from James Baldwin’s seminal essay “A Talk to Teachers, which exhorts teachers to help schoolchildren confront the social conditions that undergird every aspect of their lives, to ideas for teaching white students, in particular, about Ferguson’s import.

José Vilson, an eighth-grade math teacher at New York City’s I.S. 52, is a founding member of a collective of teachers of color known online as #EduColor. The group, made up of about 50 teachers from across the country, hopes to get more teachers thinking and talking about race and other topics related to social justice.

#EduColor engages teachers from across the country online in monthly Twitter chats and will launch a website and newsletter next month. This month’s chat was on classroom code-switching, or alternating between two or more languages or dialects, an issue of particular importance this year; public school students are now predominately children of color, while their teachers remain overwhelmingly white.

“We’re trying to develop classrooms where students can feel safe walking in and more educators that can be responsive to the people walking into them,” says Vilson.

In Baltimore, social justice issues such as police brutality are neither new nor particularly surprising. The city has paid out about $5.7 million in brutality lawsuits since 2011 alone. McDaniels’ students and their families have experienced these shocks firsthand for years. Proximity to trauma alone, though, does not mean students don’t want—or need—to talk about it. And when McDaniels provided a safe space Wednesday for them to openly address the issues gripping their city, the kids spoke in volumes.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Freddie Gray’s death.