Talking about Trayvon

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.


  1. Obi-Wandreas says:

    As with anything, if a teacher is going to discuss it, they should ensure that they actually know what they are talking about. In this case, I would restrict conversation to mentioning how little we know, what burden there is on police, and how many contradictions there are in reported stories. Perhaps discuss how many people seem to be using the tragedy for their own ends.

    Of course, since I teach math, I wouldn’t discuss it at all. If I did, however, there wouldn’t be much to say at this point.

  2. I was once scolded by J. Jerome Harris during his fairly brief tenure as superintendent of the Atlanta City schools.

    For the last 6 or 7 years of grad school (Ph.D. in Art History – long, slow, drawn-out process) I taught Latin part time at Grady High School. One day J. Jerome Harris walks into my classroom. He asked the students a couple of (inoffensive) questions, then he notices that my standard issue Lesson Plan book is NOT on my desk as it should be. I catch holy hell for being unprepared. I don’t think I said anything back at all.

    When he left, I asked the students what chapter we had been covering last week. They said “Eight” (or whatever). I asked what chapter we were on this week. They said “Nine.”

    I said, “That’s my lesson plan. You’re welcome to read the chapter title that gives the NAMES of the grammatical forms covered in this chapter in case you wonder whether I know what we’re doing.”

    I know that was good education-school lesson planning, but there you go – hire an A.B.D. in medieval art who has a B.A. in Latin and you’re going to get some resistance to filling out boxes in a big spiral bound book of NCR forms detailing how he’s going to teach the ablative absolute to kinaesthetic learners.

  3. Supersub says:

    First off, before anyone even begins to discuss the case, they should know what the “teachable” part of teachable moment is…what are they teaching?
    I referenced it in a high school science class… after hearing students discussing it at the beginning of class and all were sure Zimmerman was guilty, I asked them what they knew and what they heard/saw experts (the police and witnesses) state. They realized their mistake, especially once I explained the possible consequences if Zimmerman was guilty.
    Since we’ve had lots of issues with rumors and drama recently, I was able to relate it to that, and finally, back to science and the necessity of checking sources and listening to experts and not to reporters or celebrities.
    I could see this being discussed in a criminal science or modern media class as the law and the coverage of the case directly pertains to the classes. Perhaps upper-level (college) sociology or racial studies classes could discuss the public reactions.
    Can’t see much else, and definitely not something that should be discussed with elementary kids (and probably not even middle school kids). The teacher fired for the proposed fundraiser was in the wrong for trying to get middle schoolers involved in the case.

    • Ponderosa says:

      This is exactly the sort of thing my high school Spanish teacher would have latched on to for whole class mastication. He wanted to talk about everything…except Spanish.

      I think teachers should honor the sacred liberal arts curriculum by keeping media buzz out of our classrooms. Kids will be dining on that mental junk food for the rest of their lives. We should give kids something timeless and substantial while we have a chance.

  4. I’m considering discussing the case in my sophomore English class, but focusing more on the aftermath: the reactions, the fears and accusations, the perceptions on all sides come from somewhere. There are regional and national legacies that are shaping the event as it embeds itself in our national awareness and slowly takes a place in our history. I’m not saying we can totally understand the event in the moment – some distance and perspective are helpful. I’m not planning to analyze the evidence in this case, nor would I suggest we put anyone on trial based on what we know from the outside. But as we’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird and learning about the legacies of slavery and racism and bias, and the attitudes and behaviors that help us improve as a society, this does seem like a very teachable moment. If literature about race and justice in American can’t be applied to a situation where students are thinking and talking about race and justice in America, then we have a big problem arguing for the relevance of literature in modern life.

    • You could probably do several weeks on analysis of news articles from various sources and the facts (readily available from multiple sources) that they slant or omit entirely.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Mr. Cohen, I suggest the following subject: A registered democrat, a hispanic, got in a fight with a black guy, who was killed.
    Why did this get all the ink? The number of whites killed by blacks is substantially higher than the reverse–and this guy wasn’t even white–and that doesn’t get any ink.
    Perhaps you could, when you finish Mockingbird, get Bonfire of The Vanities.
    You might want to line up all the protests, marches, sermons on what is known as the Knoxville Horror and compare them to the current situation. Then search for reasons about the difference.
    Hell. Who am I kidding?

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      LOL. Yeah, not gonna happen, but I really like the juxtaposition of Mockingbird with Bonfire. Where we were vs. where we are.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Then there’s “The Oxbow Incident”. Lots of literature Mr. Cohen could find. I believe it was made into a movie.

  6. Lightly Seasoned says:

    If I were teaching AP Lang this year, I’d look at the visual rhetoric. You can’t really “try” the case in the classroom without all the facts, but you can look at how the arguments are being presented by the different stake-holders.

    But, I’m just teaching AP Lit this year, so we’re analyzing the slut-shaming of Desdemona instead and trying to determine if certain parties are as good at it as Iago.

  7. We didn’t spend much time discussing it, but it was worthwhile and easy to tie to the standards in my class.

    It still seems like there’s new information coming out about the case every five minutes, so I’m not sure when those hours of research should occur.

    The safest bet is to avoid jumping to conclusions and rather talk about the truths found in the case – such as racial tension still exists – and ask questions rather than give answers. What has the hoodie come to represent? Why are some people forming judgements before they have the facts? Are you forming judgements before you have the facts? Do you think it would make a difference if the races were reversed – if Trayvon Martin was Hispanic, and George Zimmerman was Black?

    I also had the students write down their answers before we discussed anything, and they were only allowed to share what they had written. I thought maybe it would keep them more rational rather than passionate.

    It would be a mistake to avoid talking about this though. We don’t live in a vacuum, and neither do our students. But your right, talk is probably as far as it should go, and we should avoid dwelling on it. Starting a “George Zimmerman Defense Fund” or “Justice for Trayvon Fund” would probably only fan judgmental flames – rather than promote understanding in the light of a tragedy.

  8. Man, I’d never mention this to my students. Easy way to get in trouble or fired.

  9. On the other hand, the discussion going on here is a teachable moment for the folks studying to be be teachers.
    And if we’re going to compare it to anything, how about Front Page?

  10. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    As a teacher, I love discussing historic and current events with my students…however….I would rather wait until after the Martin case has been adjudicated in court, by those who will review the only thing that counts–the evidence. We already have the mass media, including opinion columnists, pundits, bloggers, race hucksters and assorted blowhards pontificating their speculations and needlessly whipping up hostility on both sides. As a teacher actually interested in teaching, not indoctrinating, students, I would certainly review the 5th and 14th Amendments of our Constitution, guaranteeing due process for the accused.

  11. ‘Teachable moment’ = opportunity to propagandize.

  12. Mark Roulo says:

    “As an educator I have to wonder if there really is anything teachable about this subject.

    How about discussing the manipulation and influence of the media instead?”

    I think you answered your own wonder 🙂

    “How the folks reporting stories don’t always get things right (and sometimes get them spectacularly wrong)” is the conversation my wife had with our child. He already knew that Wikipedia was a good starting point, but should not be trusted blindly. Now he’s starting to get this about other media/news sources …

  13. BadaBing says:

    How about the subtext of this: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin”?

    • SuperSub says:

      I think the subtext of that is “hey, remember to vote for me in November.”

      • Imagine a white president saying the same thing about the youthful white victim of a black perpetrator. There are plenty to choose from. Here’s one: “If I had a son, he would look like Christopher Newsom.”