Chicago kids are required to learn about police torture. So how’s it being taught?

Chalkbeat partnered with WBEZ’s Curious City to answer a question about “Reparations Won,” a mandated history curriculum for CPS middle and high schoolers. The question came from Laurie Odell, who has a granddaughter in eighth grade and was wondering how the curriculum rollout is going. We spoke with one teacher to assess what the curriculum looks like in the classroom, but this isn’t the end of the story. We’re hoping to hear from students and teachers across Chicago about their experiences with this curriculum. Find our joint survey with Curious City at the bottom of this article.  

William Weaver felt like he knew most of his 10th grade students pretty well — until the first talking circle he held for them to discuss their views on police, the start to a four-week unit on Chicago’s history of police torture. 

One student broke down. The discussion had brought up old wounds: her father had been killed by a police officer but, until that moment, Weaver had no idea. 

“It was a very intimate experience,” said Weaver, a U.S. history teacher now at Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago’s Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood. “Oh, that is why she is so quiet. I think it was a healing experience for her.” 

In the years Weaver has been teaching the Reparations Won curriculum, he’s had scores of students share about their relationships with police, and think through ways they can become more civically engaged. 

The curriculum, mandated for public schools citywide, was one part of a package of reforms demanded by the movement against police torture in Chicago. On May 6, 2015 Chicago City Council passed the Reparations Ordinance, which included cash payments, free college education, and a range of social services to 57 living survivors of police torture, as well as a formal apology from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a mandate to teach the broader public about the torture.

Much like the nature of the ordinance itself, the curriculum — which Chicago requires in seventh or eighth grade and tenth grade classrooms — goes beyond just teaching about history. Teachers can request a survivor of police torture to come and speak to students through Chicago Torture Justice Center, a support center created under the ordinance. And along with talking circles, or discussion groups, the curriculum prompts students to reimagine what public safety could look like, perhaps without police.

That has made Weaver, and other Chicago teachers, excited to use the curriculum to address broader questions of policing and race that are ever-present in the news, and their students’ lives, in the present. 

But it’s also made some educators reluctant to teach the curriculum for fear of backlash from parents or students developing an anti-police sentiment. 

Chicago Public Schools surveyed school principals and department chairs through its Aspen virtual grading system in the spring of 2018, by asking them to enter a pass or fail grade based on whether or not students have taken the course. According to that survey, more than 90% of district-run schools required to teach the curriculum did — but the data was self-reported and only show school-level responses, which do not indicate whether the material was taught in every classroom, or how thoroughly teachers presented lessons. 

The district also did not provide more recent data, though a spokesperson there said it routinely asks principals for feedback and trains teachers on how to teach the lessons. For its part, the Chicago Torture Justice Center said it had sent out a survey in collaboration with the Chicago Teachers Union, but in part due to a low response rate, could not say how widely the lessons are adopted. The organization estimates that it receives about 75 requests per year to provide speakers across a universe of hundreds of classrooms.

Chalkbeat Chicago and Curious City caught up with Weaver, who was one of the educators to pilot the curriculum in its first year, and who has trained other educators, to talk about his experience teaching about reparations in Chicago. 

Why do you think it is important to teach the Reparations Won curriculum in CPS?

Weaver: It’s a definite history lesson on how Chicago operates. I think it centers less on police and more on community activism. That’s what people don’t understand. And it definitely teaches our students what they can do. Many of our students had interactions with police and this is a way for them to understand their own empowerment and how to handle situations when they come across police. I would say that over the years it has gotten our students more civically engaged — now there is a push to get SROs [school resource officers] out of our schools. 

While the curriculum is mandatory, I worry that some teachers are reluctant to teach it. People feel like the curriculum demonizes the police, which is not the case. This curriculum has been politicized.

What is your favorite part of teaching the curriculum?

Weaver: The curriculum tells the stories of the survivors, what they went through and how they came out of it. Students become more engaged when they hear actual real life stories of people that are in their communities and have gone through things like this. Another part is inviting those survivors out to a school to talk to students. That has been the best part of my experience.

When I invited Darryl Cannon [a torture survivor] to come out, they [the students] are surprised by the experience, that he is still here, that he is still talking to people about it. He is very emotional when he speaks, that is even more empowering because here is a man who is still years and years later impacted by what happened to him as a young man. A lot of (students) can identify with what he went through, a lot of them feel like he is a hero in a way. I have a male student who would have such a hard exterior and just seeing him go up to Mr. Cannon at the end and have a conversation with him, talking with him about this experience — he had never talked in class like that before.

What is the most challenging part of teaching the curriculum?

Weaver: Just the social emotional aspect — really, really paying attention and being reflective on how students are receiving the information. A lot of it can be triggering. I will probably never do this again, but I once showed a deposition of one of the cops in Jon Burge’s camp [several officers engaged in police torture under the command of Burge]. A student had to step out of the room because he got physically ill from watching the cop give his deposition.

How does it relate to the bigger questions about policing in this moment, and the way those issues make their way into your classroom?

Weaver: We talk about racism. We talk about the difference between institutionalized and individual racism. We talk about banking, housing, healthcare and all these things that impact communities of color. They see the connections with all these systems and how they need to change in order to help us to live our lives better. They [the students] definitely get a better understanding of the communities they live in, and they feel more empowered to do something about it. They say: I can’t wait to vote, or they start doing things within the school to kind of move the needle a little bit. 

What resources or supports would help you, and other educators, feel most supported in discussing policing and race in your classroom?

Weaver: The main thing I hope for is that teachers other than me, white teachers, are embracing this curriculum and teaching it to their own students, especially in white communities that need to know this history. They need to know why Black communities around the country are apprehensive about policing and why there are so many movements to get this changed. 

We want to hear from you. If you’re a Chicago Public Schools student or teacher, a police torture survivor or someone affiliated with the curriculum in any way, please take five minutes and fill out our survey. Was this curriculum taught at your school? How was taught?  Was it not taught — and you wish it was? Your answers will help us understand the impact this curriculum is having across the city.