Should teachers talk to their students about the Trayvon Martin controversy in Florida? As always with current events, it’s a sensitive question.
Jeffrey Carpenter and Scott Weathers at Education Week say yes; it’s a teachable moment. (Subscription barrier)
Teaching for Change has an (obviously politicized, since it’s Teaching for Change) list of suggestions about how to discuss the issue with young children.
But perhaps one should just talk — as a teacher was fired in Michigan for, it seems, running a fundraiser with her students for Trayvon Martin’s family.
I think that teachers discuss it, but only as a sort of concrete springboard for more abstract issues. They should probably avoid talking specifically about the details of the controversy unless they’re going to do at least several hours of serious research into the various alleged facts of the case and the various ways the narratives have shifted since their inception. Is Zimmerman white? That’s a complex question. Was Trayvon shot for wearing a hoodie? It’s not clear the hoodie had anything at all to do with anything; Zimmerman only mentioned the hoodie after he explained to the operator why the man was suspicious, in response to a question about what the man was wearing. Was Zimmerman injured? Did he mutter “coons” or “cold”? At the very least, teachers should be aware that these are questions, and not facts.
There’s also the question of understanding the legal issues. I’ve personally seen two teachers discuss the matter with their students in the last few weeks. While both teachers were well-intentioned, intelligent, and quite up-front about their own biases in the case, and handled themselves admirably insofar as they were discussing delicate, politically charged issues, they both fell victim to a simple lack of legal understanding. They didn’t really understand the burdens that police face in making an arrest and their knowledge of the facts was very clearly limited to one or two sources that they’d read. It’s not that the teachers were really doing anything wrong — like I said, they tried very hard to present the issue fairly and to make clear their own presumptions– but they just didn’t really know what it was they didn’t know. And that’s treacherous ground for an educator.
I’m not saying that teachers need to be lawyers. That’s clearly asking too much; I am a lawyer, and I’m not at all sure I’d want to talk to a high school class about this case because there’s so much I just don’t understand about what’s going on. If I did talk to a high school class about this, it would be primarily to flag issues and explain what I (and, by way of the lesson, the students) simply don’t know. But even if I’m being overcautious, if the teachers aren’t going to take the time to understand, for example, that “Stand Your Ground” laws probably have nothing to do with the case, then I think they really should just avoid talking about it in anything except the most general of terms.
The Martin-Zimmerman situation is, fundamentally, a legal issue right now. (Or it should be, if we want to avoid simply defaulting to mob rule.) That means that the applicability of various statutes and burdens and presumptions really, really, matters. The law really matters. If you want to discuss the situation in detail with your students, if you want to make it a teachable moment and not just an opportunity to inflame passions, then you either need to do the hard work of gathering the often conflicting allegations and bits of evidence and understand what’s going on with the law, or you need to accept the limitations of your knowledge, make them explicit, and only speak more generally about society’s racial tensions, the sorts of problems that face minority youth (which are real; I know from my own experience), the way that the law protects us from mob rule, and other related issues.