When police fight
We fight back
We use our words
– Excerpt from a poem by a 7th grader
At the beginning of the year, when my students and I recapped the summer news, we talked about police brutality, but we didn’t delve to far into the issue. I wanted to build more schema, a deeper understanding of the systems that underlie racism and inequality in our country.
Then Terence Crutcher was shot and killed and my plans no longer mattered. We had to talk.
So, we did.
By this point, I’ve taught through enough heartbreak that I have a formula for days like this. We sit in a community circle. We start with a video, usually a song. On Wednesday, it was the haunting visuals and questioning version of “Where is the Love?” by Black Eyed Peas feat. The World.
Then we read a text, in this case, the heartbreaking words of Terence’s sister (“That big ‘bad dude,’ his life mattered.), and this CNN article.
I give them a few minutes to silently reflect and jot down their ideas, and then we talk.
If you teach middle school, and think that your students are too young, or that families or administrators might disapprove, or that they won’t understand, or think that you’re protecting them by not talking about it, you need to move past excuses. If you’re afraid of what they might say, or feel like you don’t know what to say, you need to overcome your fear. This isn’t about you. This is for them.
After reading the article, one student punched the ground. Many others started silently crying. Most read, reread the facts, scrawled on their papers, “Why did the police do that?”
My first question is, “What are you thinking/feeling after reading this?” By the end of the day, their responses, in their heartbreaking variety, have left me feeling numb.
I’m feeling sad and angry because the man was a father and was going to college.
I don’t know what to think after reading it.
This world is supposed to be peaceful and happy but I guess this will happen because the world is racist.
Why is he a ‘bad dude’?
Why would they judge someone?
I wanted to be a police officer, but now I’m embarrassed.
What I am thinking is that the world is cruel.
Why was the cop so afraid?
The police in my neighborhood are friendly and are part of the community. Why aren’t all police part of their communities?
Why would they do this, we’re all human beings the color DOES NOT MEAN NOTHING.
I’m thinking about my father and my cousins, because what if they leave one day and never come back?
Cops are here for us to trust them, not for us to be scared at them.
We go around two, three times. Students respond to one another, talk about family members they’ve lost, their experiences with racism. Sometimes they just stare at the ground, sigh, and pass the talking piece.
Then we move on to questions and, after warning them that I won’t be able to answer most of their questions, not the big ones, not the ones that matter, we share what we’re wondering. Other than clarifications, the most common two questions are, Why did this happen? And Why doesn’t anyone do anything?
Then we circle back to our opening question, “Where is the love?” That question, I say, is easy. The love is here, in our hearts, in our community, in how much we care in this moment. The real question is how can we, as individuals and a community, take a stand and show our love? How can we move from words and feelings to action and change?
We can show love by making sure the police wait until they actually see what’s going on and do what they have to do.
We can take small steps to make a difference by talking or making a speech about how we can show love.
We can show love and make a difference by letting people know what we believe in and we can all speak up. We can take a chance to become friends.
We can write letters to his family.
We can make a difference by being different and as we get older we can make a difference in the word.
We can show love by doing something small and meaningful for the family of Crutcher.
We can make a protest.
Bring justice, send love.
I give students a minute to reflect on how they’re feeling after this circle, and then we check-out. The first text we read this year was the wonderful children’s book Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena. I reread the page where, after getting off the bus and looking around the neighborhood, our young protagonist’s nana tells him, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt. . . you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”
My last prompt is to say the name of someone whom you love.
So, what’s next? The next day, multiple students told me they went home after school and cried. Parents called and told me they were glad we had the conversation. One student, who hadn’t said a word the entire time, said she felt better after realizing she wasn’t alone. Several students approached me and said they wanted to help, so we’re forming a student task force. Next week we’ll look over their classmates’ ideas and determine our next steps. I’d like to get parents involved and make it more of a community task force, so that we can move forward together.
My lesson was not perfect by any means — I wrote it Tuesday night and gave it on Wednesday — but it gave them facts to work with and an opportunity to share their questions, fears, and hopes. Regardless of what text you use, or what your hook is, the sharing is what actually matters. It’s cathartic, it’s cleansing, and it’s unifying.
I ran my class as a community circle — circle up, ground ourselves, and share around the circle so that every voice has an opportunity to be heard. I gave the kids a handout to reflect on, so that they’d have some think time in order to gather their thoughts, and so that I could gather my own thoughts.
You don’t know what to say? You don’t need to. You need to show that this is okay to talk about, that it’s okay to be angry and afraid, that they aren’t alone. You’re giving them the space to share, to clarify one another’s understandings; you’re not telling them how to think or feel.
If you have suggestions, questions, or different approaches, please share them. We all stumble through this together.
On Friday, we used some students’ ideas and wrote letters to Crutcher’s family. I’d like to close this with one of those letters.
I am writing this specifically to the child of Terence Crutcher. Please excuse me for my bad writing. I am a 7th grader. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to lose your father, I’m so sorry. Just remember, you are going to have to stay strong and be someone who will group up to lead, to be an hero, an achiever.
You can bring justice to your father, I can, we all can, and to everyone else in the world who has been killed because of police. I want to cry every time, but I don’t see that crying will change anything. The world needs a change.
I want to tell you how much I want to help you and support you. I believe in you as something amazing. I see everyone like that, but what police are doing is wrong. I want peace, love, freedom. I imagine you do as well, that’s why you have to push forward. Overall, I want to send you some love and help you the best I can. Please remember what I wrote, you deserve only good because what happened to you is not right. I hope you can get through this, I know you can.
Guest Post by: Dan Thalkar (@dthalkar)
Humanities Teacher in Los Angeles, CA