Tyre Nichols’ death in Memphis creates another tragic teaching moment for Facing History & Ourselves

Michele Phillips, a Memphis-based leader of the group, says ‘we’re sticking to our script’ on emphasizing lessons of history, but Tennessee law has had a ‘chilling effect’

Michele Phillips, executive director of Facing History & Ourselves for the Southeast, spoke with Chalkbeat on how instructors in Shelby County’s schools are using its curriculum to help youths grapple with Tyre Nichols’ slaying at the hands of Memphis police. (Facing History & Ourselves)

The nonprofit group Facing History & Ourselves, which operates in more than 100 countries, provides educators with curriculum and resources to help students understand the lessons of history to combat bigotry and hate. It has operated in Memphis since 1992, and has reached more than 121,000 students in that time.

It also guides educators in using current events to spawn thoughtful discussions, help students think critically about difficult issues, and understand that they have agency in shaping those issues.

One of the current events students are discussing is the death of Tyre Nichols. The 29-year-old skateboarder, photographer and FedEx worker died days after being brutalized by Memphis police officers during a traffic stop on Jan. 7. Five officers have been charged in his slaying, which sparked protests throughout the city and nation.

Michele Philips is executive director of Facing History & Ourselves’ Southeast region, and is based in Memphis. Philips spoke with Chalkbeat about the role Facing History & Ourselves instructors will play in helping Memphis students grapple with Nichols’ death.

The interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

How is Facing History & Ourselves taught in Shelby County schools?

Facing History & Ourselves is in 80% of the middle and high schools, and grades 6 to 12. It looks different in each school. We have a Facing History & Ourselves elective, in which students can get a semester credit for social studies. About 30 schools have that course. Then we have a lot of teachers in English and Language Arts to teach “To Kill A Mockingbird,” but use it to teach the history of lynching and mob mentality, as opposed to just the coming-of-age of Scout. 

Again, the purpose of Facing History & Ourselves is to use the lessons of history to confront bigotry and hate. We feel like that’s more important than ever now, and we’re sticking to our script.

I noticed on your website that you have a mini-lesson on the long, troubled history of law enforcement and Black people. One of the essential questions it presents is the challenge of teaching that history without stereotyping law enforcement. How does Tyre Nichols’ death complicate that?

It can complicate it, but we try to help students see each other’s total humanity. We help them recognize they can be agents of change through seeing each other’s humanity. I keep thinking about how our students today are going to be the community leaders, are going to be the police officers, the professionals, the decision makers of tomorrow. The practice of seeing each other’s total humanity starts with our students.

How would your instructors talk to students who are disillusioned and upset after seeing the Nichols video?

We don’t talk to them. We listen to them. We really let them sit with that, because the last thing we want to do is minimize their pain. Our teachers are really skilled at listening, and letting the students talk. We don’t want to say that it’ll be all right, because it may not be all right. I think our teachers have done that, not pushing a student who is angry or sad to talk about it, because they may not be ready to talk about it.

As you know, back in 2021 the Tennessee legislature passed a law restricting how lessons on race are taught. How is this affecting your instructors — especially when students are bound to have questions about race and police brutality in the wake of Nichols’ death?

I knew you were going to ask that. As you know, learning history is nuanced and complex, but it’s well within the ability of our students to understand with guidance from caring educators who are coached and trained on how to teach with empathy and accuracy.

That’s what we do. We have always been committed to teaching history with all of its honesty. The first thing that you do in a Facing History class is to teach the teachers how to build a safe and reflective classroom, so that the students get to learn each others’ stories, so that when you have a difficult conversation, we’re much more capable of being able to understand and hear each other.

What they teach is within the state standards of Tennessee. But I’m not going to tell you that it hasn’t had a chilling effect on some of our teachers. Some have been anxious and nervous. I’m not going to sugarcoat that.

How are your instructors working to tamp down that chilling effect, especially in this moment we’re in?

I think that our teachers are committed to slowing down and talking about (Nichols’ death) in a process that really humanizes the students, so they can reflect and have conversations. So far, we haven’t had a pushback.

There are ways to do this. Let me give you an example. In August, when we had the situation with the shooter (19-year-old Ezekiel Kelly was charged with killing three people in a citywide shooting spree), I went to Central High School and listened to Mary McIntosh’s Facing History & Ourselves class, and sat there and listened to her unpack the fear those kids had around that shooting that happened in August. She slowed it down, and got them to free-write it in a journal, just dump it all out, and gave them agency to be able to talk to each other.

Again, if you start with building that safe and reflective classroom, where every voice matters, that helps.

A 2021 study published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics found that inner-city high school students in Los Angeles who were exposed to high levels of police violence were more prone to struggle academically in school, or to drop out. Do those findings surprise you?

Unfortunately, no. I think the trauma that is happening to our young people, even seeing it over and over again, is trauma. We frequently work with our instructors on building a culture of care, because (violence) does have a ripple effect of them doing worse in school. 

Looking at the historical case studies of policing in this country is also helpful, because then you can see the legacies of where this comes from, and also see what we need to do. And what I keep coming back to is what we need to do will come from these students, because they’re going to be the future leaders.

One of the students I spoke with regarding Tyre Nichols’ death told me he was becoming desensitized to police brutality and that he almost sees it as inevitable. What can your instructors do to help youths understand that this doesn’t have to be the case?

I’m glad you asked that, because we don’t believe that history has to be inevitable, and that we’re doomed to repeat it. We believe history is made by human beings, and we don’t have to repeat that. Our slogan is “People Make Choices and Choices Make History,” and if we can get our students to see each others’ humanity, we don’t have to repeat that.

Bureau Chief Tonyaa Weathersbee oversees Chalkbeat Tennessee’s education coverage. Contact her at tweathersbee@chalkbeat.org.

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