5 Things You Can Do Now to Prepare to Address the Chauvin Trial in Your Classroom
By Kara Cisco
With the Derek Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd approaching, teachers in Minneapolis, as well as those across the United States, are wondering how to address the events of the next six weeks with their students. I don’t have all of the answers, but as a Civics and Ethnic Studies teacher who made it through 2020, courageous conversations and teachable moments have become my stock and trade, and I believe that these five suggestions may offer educators a good place to start:
1. Make your classroom a mindful space
Understand that our racial epistemologies (the way we learned what we know about race and racism) differ greatly based on our lived experiences, upbringing, and previously held beliefs. For this reason, conversation about the trial will produce different somatic responses for each student in ways that we can’t always predict. What for some students and adults may be articulated through clear thoughts and reflections may come forward in others through body aches, or through actions we associate with frustration or anger. This can’t be an excuse to avoid the conversation altogether, but it is a good reason to integrate mindful meditation or somatic practices into your classroom now (don’t wait until they are needed). Check out Resmaa Menakem’s Free Somatic Therapy eCourse if you aren’t sure where to start.
2. Establish a Discussion Protocol if you haven’t already
If you do not have a discussion protocol already in place, start now. It is far easier to develop and practice a discussion protocol that your students can always use during low stakes moments and you will thank yourself for putting time and effort into the protocol during higher stakes times. Your students will benefit from the psychological safety of a routine discussion protocol when it matters most. In my class, I use a protocol that is a Frankenstein-like combination of many well-known models: it’s part Paidea, part Socratic Seminar, with talking tokens, some accountable talk features and is anchored by the Courageous Conversations Compass. What you use doesn’t really matter, though, as long as it is consistent and comfortable for you and your students, and as long as you implement and practice it now, before you need it.
3. Practice using mindful inquiry to interrupt and disrupt
It is normal to be afraid that a classroom lesson or discussion may go sideways. That fear, while legitimate, should not prevent classroom discussions from taking place during this time period. These conversations are far too important to avoid, especially in the name of teacher comfort. Instead of fearing that a discussion may derail at some point, plan on it. Practice the mindful inquiry statements (“I notice…,” “I wonder…”) that we know are enormously impactful when it comes to addressing problematic statements made during discussions in a way that disrupts, interrupts, and promotes reflection. Know that in the heat of the moment, you are less likely to freeze up, become anxious, or lose your cool if you practice mindful inquiry as much as possible in low-stakes settings in both the classroom and in your personal life. Sooner or later, you will be amazed at how easy it is to respond to tense moments automatically thanks to all the noticing and wondering you’ve been doing in more mundane times.
4. Understand the difference between criticality and neutrality
Neutrality is a “both sides” approach to an issue that assumes that there are two dialectical viewpoints, and both are of merit. I would argue that there are very, very few issues that benefit from an authentically neutral approach in education, and the Derek Chauvin trial certainly isn’t one of them. The alternative to neutrality is criticality—an approach that invites students to examine complex, dynamic issues from myriad perspectives and come to their own understandings. Inherent in criticality is a liberation pedagogy that invites students to grow into thinkers, advocates, and leaders by developing their own critical consciousness. The “both sides” approach of neutrality promotes black and white thinking and creates a false binary that flattens complex issues. Criticality, on the other hand, reminds students that there are not two but innumerable perspectives to sort through and sources to explore.
5. Communicate that race matters
As teachers, we communicate that race matters in the curriculum we teach, the texts we read, and the pedagogical choices we make. We communicate race matters through the posters on our walls and the books in our libraries. We communicate race matters by the practices and policies we disrupt and in the expectations we hold for our students, our colleagues, and ourselves. Whether this looks like sharing your racial autobiography with your class, examining your own implicit biases, sharing stories of times you have disrupted or interrupted systemic racism, identifying your privilege, accepting feedback, decolonizing your curriculum, or simply reflecting on your own racial journey, the point is that students notice, they care, and all of this matters, so very much, at this particular moment more than ever.
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