‘They know what they see’: Chicago educators reach out to students about racism, police brutality after George Floyd’s death

Demonstrators protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago on May 30, 2020. (Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images)

Dwayne Reed teaches fourth and fifth graders on Chicago’s West Side. After the death of George Floyd spurred protests throughout Chicago, he has been speaking to his students about police brutality.

To get them more comfortable with hard discussions about racism and policing, Reed starts the conversation with an open-ended question and tells his students that they can just listen, or  speak. 

Reed thinks that, at this moment, educators should guide the conversation but not lecture. 

“I have to be willing to let the conversation morph into whatever my scholars are desiring for it to morph into. It can’t just be ‘I’m gonna check all these marks off and, great, we had a great conversation about race.’”

Across Chicago, teachers seized on a moment that felt familiar: helping students cope with trauma and express feelings and thoughts amid national outrage over the killing of a black man by a white police officer. After the death of Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014, and the murder trial of Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke, the city encouraged teachers to help students process rage, sadness, and confusion but to “stay neutral.”

Not all educators participated then. With the country grappling with the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota, not all educators are participating now. But many, still running classes with two weeks left to go of school, are reaching out in their virtual meeting rooms to help their students.  

At Crane Medical Preparatory High School on the city’s Near West Side, Principal Fareeda Shabazz started sending out messages to her staff as protests were underway this weekend, following up again on Monday. She suggested her teachers set aside time at the start of their classes to discuss the killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the unrest gripping the neighborhoods where her students live. 

One of her student’s homes burned. She asked her staff to log on and listen. “We need to be present, we need to be available, we need to be accessible. Even if you don’t know what to say, show up and be present.”

Early in the week, schools chief Janice Jackson called on the city’s educators to initiate discussions about race and police brutality with students. On Monday evening, Chicago Public Schools published an 11-page guide, “Say Their Names,” about race, Black Lives Matter, and the impact of traumatic events on children. 

It appears to be among the most comprehensive toolkits assembled by a large school district.

“It’s important we have an open dialogue about race and its impact on this country, and we have never shied away from that as a school system,” Jackson said. “Our students are smart, they know what they see, they can draw their own conclusions, and teachers are suited to have those discussions.”

While several teachers told Chalkbeat they were suspending lessons to follow Jackson’s advice, they struggled with how to have sensitive discussions virtually. 

Some students said their teachers shied away from any discussion at all. 

“None of my teachers have been talking about the racial work that’s going on,” said Miracle Boyd, 18, a youth organizer with the group Good Kids Mad City and a senior at Sarah Goode STEM Academy in Ashburn in the city’s Southwest Side. “They say, Stay safe and stay out of the neighborhoods that are dangerous.”

Students like Boyd would like to see educators who haven’t yet used this moment to have frank discussions. 

“People are dying over racial issues and for teachers not to be talking about it, that’s sad,” she said. Boyd said she felt teachers have been reluctant to address racial conflict between some Latino and black students on her campus.

Still, several teachers told Chalkbeat they were using the death of George Floyd and the citywide protests to launch fruitful classroom discussions. They connected Floyd’s death with the murder of McDonald and other city-level issues, such as a contract between Chicago Public Schools and the city’s police department.

Charity Freeman, a computer science teacher at Lane Tech on the city’s North Side, sent a survey to her students to ask whether they feel anxious or protected by police officers. While a few students felt protected by police, a majority of her class responded that they felt anxious.

“It was a bit heartbreaking to hear from my students who associated police officers and policing with anxiety,” said Freeman, who said the context of the lesson stemmed from the possibility of her school having police officers on campus next year. “I wanted to find out from my students how they would feel in the event that is a real possibility.”

Some teachers said they leaned on their relationships with students that they cultivated pre-COVID and on open-ended questions that encouraged classes to relate their own experiences. 

Sabrina Anfossi Kareem teaches English at a Chicago charter. As a white educator, she said her instinct was to provide a space for her students to talk, and for her to listen.

“As a teacher, I’ve trained myself to be real confident and steadfast in what I know is right. But my foundational learning tells me my instincts are loaded,” she said. “It’s like the skill I developed in order to serve my students that if I’m not careful, leads me right back into my white bias and might end up hurting them. So, right now I’m trying to listen and read.”

Alexander Rolnick, a global politics teacher at Back of the Yards College Prep in Chicago, said he started his conversations with straightforward questions late last week: “What have you heard about what happened in Minneapolis? Did you hear about what happened in Central Park?” He showed the video of a white woman named Amy Cooper calling the police on Chris Cooper, a  black man, who was birdwatching in New York’s Central Park. Rolnick asked for students’ reactions. 

“For the most part, these are all students who have some context for police brutality,” he said, citing the district’s citywide sophomore curriculum that includes units on Chicago policing, including decades of torture inflicted under Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.

But those discussions can be challenging across the impersonal internet, after frustrations with remote learning, and in the fury of the moment. 

Essence-Jade Gatheright, a junior at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said this week tested the relationships between the school’s student body, which is predominantly black and Latino, and its educators, who are mostly white. 

She took part in a downtown Chicago protest on Saturday and later worked with friends to organize a community cleanup. On Sunday, she fell asleep to the sound of gunshots in her Englewood neighborhood. So she said she was taken aback Monday when an English teacher posted a new assignment without even mentioning the protests. 

“I think it’s extremely insensitive of you to assume that students’ priorities include school right now and to post work,” Gatheright shot back on Google Classroom. “I can’t even begin to express how traumatic these experiences feel for us.” 

The teacher then announced assignments that week would be optional. On the flip side, a physics teacher told students she would post no new lessons or assignments through the rest of the school year, and encouraged students to reach out for help. 

Jasmine Roach, 16, a student at Prosser Career Academy on Chicago’s West Side, said her teachers previously didn’t talk often about race with their classes, and remote learning made it even less likely students could connect with teachers — or even her own classmates. 

“They come to teach us, but they don’t always connect with us,” Roach said. 

Shabazz, the principal of Crane, said she had thought long and hard over the weekend about students who feel disenfranchised and how to reconnect them to school. 

“A lot of our families have experienced unemployment, some have been impacted by the virus itself, and then this — our students’ communities have been impacted by looting and the aftermath of protests. There’s no normal.” 

She came around to the idea of action. 

By midweek, she was planning a virtual student town hall and had tapped some teenage leaders to lead the discussion and recruit their peers. Teachers will be on hand to help steer the conversation. 

“Hopefully it will crystallize to a movement, where we can get young people to take action and have responsibility over what happens next” in elections, community organizing, or other spheres where young people can influence the outcome. “What can you do as a high school student to move these efforts forward so we can get unstuck?” 

The idea of expanding conversations beyond the classroom also stirred Alyssa Rodriguez, a social worker who splits her time between Wilma Rudolph Learning Center on the Near West Side and Rodolfo Lozano Bilingual & International Center in Wicker Park. She said she and other school staff spent Monday calling families from her schools to see how they could help.

“It’s high stress and high tension, but we are still hearing positive moments,” Rodriguez said, including one grandmother’s efforts to find her granddaughter birthday cupcakes despite closed stores. “I’m glad we decided to reach out to families instead of waiting.”

Mila Koumpilova contributed reporting.

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