New York City educators are no strangers to the effects of racism, police violence, and poverty. But how to help students make sense of social injustice is often far from obvious.
So as America grapples this week with how to have conversations in the face of racism and violence, we checked in with teachers, parents, students, and school leaders across the city about how they approach those discussions.
School integration can lead the way to better race relations
Jamaal Bowman, principal of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School in the Bronx
The country’s history of racism and policing of communities of color should be baked into the curriculum, argues Bowman. But school integration and more teacher training to handle the experiences students bring into the classroom are also key.
“Many teachers, principals, and school personnel are not trained to have these discussions. The focus on academic achievement without the social/emotional components of learning is the reason for this lack of preparedness,” Bowman said. “If schools were integrated and different races learned together, schools can be the spaces to transform race relations for generations to come.”
Real-world discussions have a place in the classroom
Kalen Wheeler, guidance counselor at Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School
It’s worth carving out some class time to have conversations about hot-button issues like race and policing, Wheeler said. She added that educators of color might feel a greater pull to make time for those discussion, even when that means putting their normal lessons on pause.
“If the teacher is obsessed with Common Core and getting students prepped for a test, they think there’s no time for this,” Wheeler said. “Or is the teacher going to stop whatever they’re on at the moment and prioritize this? I think in part that comes back to the importance of having people of color as educators.”
Talk alone won’t fix the problem
Tamika Johnson, parent of a 17-year-old at Boys and Girls High School and two students at P.S. 308 in Brooklyn
Some people are less confident that conversation can help solve these problems. Although she’s experienced police mistreatment, Johnson said she doesn’t plan to have long talks with her children about how to approach officers, nor does she think school discussions about the issue are likely to be productive.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of conversations they have with students [if] you can never guarantee what their interactions with the police will be,” she said. “We’ve seen people shot when they’re complying.”
The fight for fairness can start in schools
Antoinette King, former student at High School for Public Service, and youth organizer at the Urban Youth Collaborative
To have effective discussions about race, schools must first acknowledge the inequities that exist within their walls, said King, who graduated this June. When conversations about injustice do happen, they should be intentional.
“If we want to start the conversation, schools have to end the racist policies they have in place, like metal detectors and the constant police presence.”
Creating safe spaces takes time
Jason Feldman, incoming teacher at Urban Assembly Maker Academy in Manhattan
Teachers can’t create safe spaces for difficult discussions the day after a troubling event, Feldman said. Instead, they must begin before that by developing strong relationship with students, so that they feel comfortable talking about how these issues affect their lives in and out of school.
“Once you establish a relationship of trust and non-judgment, you can open up these conversations,” Feldman said. “You can walk into any public school and students will tell you who they can talk to about their lives. You can’t just say, “OK, well let’s talk about this.” That starts with admins and policy makers, and rethinking what schools are supposed to look like.”
Students need tools to interpret current events
Malik Lewis, assistant principal at West Brooklyn Community High School
Whether it’s the latest Kanye West music video or the police shooting of a black person, Lewis said that students today learn the news and react to it through social media. So Lewis encourages his teachers to bring in those online artifacts — say a satirical meme about racism posted on Twitter — and help students analyze them like any other document: What symbols do they use? Who is their intended audience? What biases do they reflect?
The goal is to show students how to apply skills and concepts they learn in school — literary analysis, historical context, critical thinking — to current events, not to interpret those events for them.
“I think educators should be sensitive to not telling students how to feel or how to react to these types of situations,” he said. “Instead, focus on helping them have the tools to understand it themselves and express their thoughts.”
Systemic problems demand systemic solutions
Hebh Jamal, student organizer, and Sarah Camiscoli, teacher and co-director, IntegrateNYC4Me
As a Muslim teenager who has watched police officers keep tabs on her mosque, Jamal said there is “100 percent distrust” between her community and the police. It is even worse for some of her black peers, she said, who post messages online about how to safely interact with officers when they are stopped — “step-by-step instructions on how to avoid death,” as she put it.
She believes the problem goes beyond individual police officers or even the criminal-justice system. That is one reason she joined IntegrateNYC4Me, a student-led advocacy group that promotes school integration and high-quality schools for all students.
“The education system is also complicit in the oppression of African Americans in this country,” she said. “If you attack this systematically, you can start to make a change.”
Camiscoli, who teaches at Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, agreed that the problem is more systemic than individual. She pointed out that some safety agents at her school act as mentors and counselors for her students. The issue is the city and school-system policies that shape their work, she said.
“I’ve never heard a young person say, ‘I don’t want school safety agents,’” she said. “But I have heard young people say, ‘I don’t want metal detectors. I don’t want to be arrested and cuffed’” in school.