Discussing race in the classroom

My 7th graders have begun the year with a focus on narrative writing as a way of easing them into the writing process.  They have a much easier time writing about themselves as opposed to argumentative writing where they have to formulate a thesis and support it with reasons and textual evidence.  As a teacher, I much prefer to start the year with narrative because it gives the kids a chance to feel successful early in regards to their writing, and let’s be honest, most 12 and 13-year-olds are not going to be found picketing outside of schools demanding that MORE writing be implemented into the curriculum.

On Thursday of this week, I used a StoryCorps episode called “Traffic Stop” to show my students that even though the story is spoken, it still contains all the major elements of a powerful narrative: entertaining beginning, critical character, setting, suspense, conflict, resolution and theme.  In this episode, Alex Landau speaks about his experience in 2009 of being severely beaten by several white cops in a suburb of Denver, Colorado.  The reason that Landau was beaten to within an inch of his life: he asked the policemen if they had a warrant.  Landau, who grew up with his adoptive white parents, said that this incident completely changed his perspective on how the world viewed him, and needless to say, it certainly left him fractured both inside and out.

TRAFFIC_Title_Card-636x358After we listened to Alex’s story, I had each of my classes identify all of the narrative elements in his story.  When we got to “resolution”, a hand shot up and a student said, “There kind of wasn’t a resolution.”

I’m a white teacher working in a middle school with a student body that is just 12% white.  I’m reminded of this fact every day when I look out at my students and see only one, two or none that look like me.  In all four of my classes that day, students pointed out that while Alex Landau’s story certainly had a strong theme, it didn’t have a resolution.  I asked my students if they thought the police would have reacted in the same manner if I had been in Landau’s shoes, to which they quickly replied in unison with a resounding “No!!!”.  I asked my students if they thought that was fair, and again my question was hammered back with another “No!!!”.  I told them that I agreed with them, and that it wasn’t fair, and that I hated that for them.

We then moved on to examine a model narrative written by an 8th grader in California called “The Racist Warehouse“.  The story is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl who is shopping for a new dryer with her mother in a completely white neighborhood.  They are discriminated against by the employees from the moment they enter the store as they are constantly being followed and monitored.  When the mother actually makes her purchase, they end up having to wait for nearly an hour before the dryer is finally loaded up onto their U-Haul.  They watch multiple groups of white customers get their purchases ahead of them, even though the narrator’s mother bought her item well in advance of these people.

My students KNEW what it felt like to be followed around a store or mall by employees or security guards.  They asked me if it had ever happened to me.  They wanted to know what I would do if I was in that situation: would I be mad?  Would I get an attitude after 55 minutes of waiting as the girl’s mother in the story had?

I told my classes that of course I would be angry, and that I’d probably write a strongly worded email to the company and demand some sort of compensation for the inconvenience.  I told them, though, that I had never been treated like that as a customer, and a girl in the back said, “Cause you white”.  I nodded in agreement.

The discussions we had that day in all of my classes were powerful, especially considering we were just a week removed from the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I want my students to feel like our classroom is a safe place where we can talk about race and social injustices.  I hate it that some of them have already experienced overt racism similar to the girl from California, and I’m heartbroken when I think about my students’ futures because I know that at some point many of them are going to be treated unjustly as they become young adults simply because of the color of their skin.  As a white male, I have no idea what that feels like.  As much as I try to connect with my students throughout the year and build relationships, the best I can do when it comes to matters of race is to empathize with them because I’ll never know that kind of discrimination.

Coincidentally, the theme from my classes on Thursday found its way into my cross country practice that afternoon.  My team typically runs in the woods across the street from the school, and I always have the kids wait until everyone gets done with the run so that we can all cross the road together.  Sometimes I have to jog back a bit to encourage some of the less talented runners to push themselves all the way to the finish.  As the last couple of runners and I joined everyone else at the road on Thursday, I noticed that my principal was among them.  Apparently a woman had driven by my team and immediately called the school to report potential gang activity happening across the street, and my principal was just coming out to confirm what she already suspected: that it was just my cross country team, which is mostly comprised of African-American and Latino students, doing exactly what they were instructed to do by their coach.

 

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