talking it out

Memphis teachers share how they foster conversations about social justice in the classroom all year long

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Freedom School teacher Lozie Guy (right) walks his class through an exercise where they build their own family trees during the summer learning program at Frayser Achievement Elementary School in Memphis.

The killings in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas this week have brought conversations about race and policing to the forefront of national conversation.

But for educators and students in Memphis, where about 70 percent of people identify as a person of color and 27 percent of people live in poverty, discussions about race, violence, and justice are part of everyday life.

Here’s what five Memphis educators had to say about sparking thoughtful conversations about social justice within their classrooms. (The interviews have been edited and condensed.)

 Blake Barber, fifth grade teacher at Frayser Achievement Elementary School

Last year we talked about Tamir Rice because he is so close to their age and yet was seen as a dangerous threat by the police. In our classroom we have four corners of the class representing different emotions. Red is angry, blue is sad, green is calm and yellow is for happy. And, of course, all of them were in either red or blue and as their teacher I allowed them to articulate why they felt that.

My kids don’t get to be 10-year-olds, people look at them and see 21-year-olds. My role as a teacher is helping them form their own identity. And to do that, I’m making sure my fiction books have black protagonists. And making sure my nonfiction books have more than just slavery. African-American history is so much richer. All so they can form their own black identity. Part of that is making sure I’m well read and searching for elementary books with people of color to add to my classroom library.

Blake Barber
Blake Barber (Photo by Katie Barber)

One day a student told me he felt worthless and didn’t have what it takes to do well in school. When Black Lives Matter came out, it wasn’t just about police. It’s about an entire history of society telling them they don’t matter. Society is saying it loud enough that a 10-year-old student is picking up on that narrative.

I can go home at the end of the night and not have to deal with what they have to. As a teacher I’m asking, “How can I deal with my whiteness so I can help them deal with how society sees their blackness?”

Jade Anderson, first grade teacher at the Memphis Business Academy

It’s a coincidence that we have been reading a book about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and have been teaching the kids about segregation. In the midst of that, I first asked the students about the things they’ve been reading on the news, and then asked them what does that look like to them.

Since the majority of my students are African American, I asked if they feel like they are less than white people. Even today, do you feel that way? And they said yes. I explained to them why that isn’t the truth, and talked about why they are important. I wanted to instill in them how beautiful, strong, and powerful they are.

Jordan Mann, school operations manager and former algebra teacher at Hillcrest High School

I think we need to give our students a safe space to process what’s happening, especially because a lot of what’s happening is obviously racially motivated. And there needs to be a healthy way of expressing that frustration. Aggressive retaliation is not the answer.

I would always make a point of asking the students how they are feeling about what’s going on. Students too often aren’t given a space to process and express emotions about certain things. If they don’t, because they’re young, they’ll act out.

At first it’s often very difficult because maybe they’re not comfortable doing that especially with me, since I don’t have the same background. But over time as I keep asking and caring, they open up and we can talk about it. Teachers have a huge role to play in helping students process their emotions in a mature way.

Erin Magliozzi, math teacher at the Memphis Business Academy

One of the things that I was really kind of stumped on at the beginning of the summer is, “How do I make math relevant to my students’ lives and how do I make it relevant to what’s going on in the world?”

Some of the other teachers have been talking about the public housing issues and using that data to teach their math lessons. It allows them to be able to talk about how math is reflected in public housing issues. It’s not just about the content and numbers, but how you can actually use these skills to combat the issues that our students are facing every day.

We are always asked, “What’s the bigger picture that you’re trying to help connect your students to?” Whether or not it’s in the lesson plan, we can always make those connections and help our students make those connections, to set the stage for safe, empowering conversations of how we can combat these issues outside of the classroom.

Jocquell Rodgers, Green Dot Tennessee leadership, former teacher and Memphis native

Jocquell Rodgers
Jocquell Rodgers

Yesterday, my husband and I were walking in the park recently and there were these little kids maybe 5 to 9-year-olds. And they said to my husband who is real big and tall and they said, “Hey, police!” We didn’t turn around but we were the only ones in the park. My husband turned around and the child said, “F*** the police.” That really goes back to what is going in the community. We really have to spend some time talking to our children about the role of the police. Even though there have been some negative things happening in the community, the police are there to protect and serve. I really do believe that. There’s some bad teachers. There are bad people wherever you go. But I believe most police officers are there for the greater good.

Every day for 30 minutes, our middle school students have “advisory” where we normally do character development. And when tragedy strikes, that is a time we can talk about it.

In our high schools, teachers engage with students on current events through the text they are studying. We connect “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson with social justice issues going on today. We help our students understand social justice.

We really try to work with student and teacher mindsets. We have a different responsibility in school now. Our responsibility is to educate children not just academically but socially. And emotionally we have a greater service to children than we did when I started teaching in 1998. We didn’t live in a digitally open society. We didn’t have this greater awareness of what was happening in the rest of the world unless you watched the news. And children didn’t watch the news. So it was like you were on your own island. But now, everything is right here in your face and you can’t get away from it. It is so important that we have conversations with our employees, with our children. We have a responsibility to teach social relations including with the police. It’s both processing what’s going on in the world and how to respond. Teachers need to be able to build that kind of relationship where students will talk with them about it.

Chalkbeat reporters Caroline Bauman and Grace Tatter contributed to this story.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.

How I Teach

He wasn’t much of a cook, but this French teacher has a winning recipe for teaching his native tongue

PHOTO: Simon Pearson/Creative Commons

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Arnaud Garcia, a French teacher at Loveland High School in the Thompson School District, never thought he’d go into teaching. He tried law school, then a restaurant job. Neither stuck.

He came around to education after discovering the joy of teaching French to his own child. He’s a fan of costumes, props and colorful decorations — anything to liven up the learning experience.

His teaching mantra is, “If it isn’t engaging, why do it?”

Garcia won the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language 2017 New Educator award, which recognizes educators in their first five years of teaching.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

When I was younger, I wasn’t a very good student (C at best) and I used to think that you had to be crazy to become a teacher. I came to the U.S. in 2003. I studied law earlier in France, and I really didn’t like it. But being the first of my family to ever go to college, I felt like I had to choose a career that would make my parents proud.

In the U.S., I started to work in a restaurant because people assumed that, as a native of France, I knew how to cook (which couldn’t be further from the truth in my case). Also, I wanted to practice speaking in English. When I had my first child, I started to teach him French. It was great to hear him saying words in French. It was like we were talking in a private code that only we could understand. I liked it so much I decided I could teach other children.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is colorful. I have posters that I change each time we start a new unit: words, verbs, numbers, gargoyles, stuffed animals, and Eiffel Towers everywhere. I also have a huge bin of clothes and props that we use daily for stories. I want it to be a safe place for my students where they feel comfortable. I want them to feel that it is THEIR classroom. It may look unorganized for some, but I (kind of) know where everything is when I need it.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My ink stamps! Each time students participate, they get a a stamp (and I have a ton of different ones) and my students really want to get their stamps. I better not forget it, otherwise I’m in trouble! At the end of a week when I collect their papers with all the stamps, I know who participated and who may need some more help.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my favorite lessons to teach is during the daily life and chores unit. We look at a series of pictures of kids’ bedrooms from all over the world, and for a lot of my students, it is an eye-opener. I feel like it is very important to design lessons that encourage language use as well as expand the worldview of a learner. For me it is important that they become better citizens of the world, so it is necessary for them to realize that the world is vast, diverse and different from what they know.

On a lighter note, I love when it is time to bring my breakout boxes! I love designing puzzles in order to open the locks and open the box. Sometimes there are boxes inside of boxes and other times I hide different boxes in my classroom. For example, a breakout game that I have seen done was about Marie-Antoinette and Versailles. Students had to decipher clues in French in order to to discover “her last secret.” Not only does it promote deeper thinking, but it also uses all four levels of depth of knowledge. It prepares students for teamwork and collaboration, and they learn to work under pressure, challenging them to persevere.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
At the beginning of the semester, we come up all together with a silent sign or gesture if a student does not understand. Since I teach in French, it is crucial that they understand what is going on. I stop, and I explain again, we go over it again, we practice, we use our whiteboard and we play with the words or the grammatical structure until they get it.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I am hilarious (or most likely, students are making fun of my English, and my accent in general), so I don’t have that problem (too often). I also have several huge boxes of props and clothes and I love using them to tell a story in order to implement the vocabulary or grammar structure that I want them to know. I include the students so they feel like they are part of the story, and that it is their story. Usually, if the students see that I am having fun teaching, they are with me.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I think building relationships is primordial in our job. I have a great sense of pride when students staying in my class, even if they don’t need it to graduate. You see them grow as a student and a person, and it is one of my favorite parts of the job. I don’t have to know everything about their life, but they have to know that I care about them. We have an activity: the star of the week, where we learn about one student’s life. It is a great way to learn that one of your student is an artist or has a secret talent.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
During my first couple of years teaching, one parent seemed to not understand a word I said, finally telling me: “Thank God you’re teaching French and not English!” I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

Another time, I had a single mom who didn’t speak much English coming for a parent-teacher conference. Her daughter was one of the best students in my class, so I praised her in Spanglish and French. The mother started to cry, thanking me for my kind words. Again, I wasn’t sure what to say.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Comic books! I love Marvel comic books! They helped me learn English and I still read them every week.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Our job is a service, not servitude — from my mentor, Toni Theisen, the district’s World Languages curriculum representative. It is very important to balance our professional and private lives. Teaching asks so much of us, that it’s easy to constantly work. I have five classes to prepare for — at all levels — so it would be easy for me to not have a social life and be completely burned out. But I need to have “me” time when I go home and I disconnect completely from school.