“Teaching” the Baltimore Uprising

baltimore-protestersBy Nick McDaniels – I’ve missed a few regular blog posts.  To my tens of regular readers, sorry.

To my students though, who got more unadulterated attention during this time period, you’re welcome. It would be a neglect of my educational blogger duty to be this blog’s only contributor from Baltimore and not comment on how I handled the Baltimore uprising (what you may know from the media as #BaltimoreRiots) as a teacher.

The truth is: I didn’t handle it. I didn’t teach it. I didn’t “seize” a teachable moment. I made myself a part of the experience on exactly the same level as my students. I gave them space to express themselves. They gave me space to express myself. I listened. They listened. And we didn’t have to wait for schools to reopen for that.

The day after the uprising, when schools were closed, I spent most of the day calling, texting, and emailing students, checking on their well-being, on their emotions, on their opinions. This wasn’t my idea, of course. After many students contacted me to check on my family, I was inspired to reach out to the others I had not heard from. As usual, I do my best work as a teacher when I take cues from my students.

On the day schools reopened, I structured space and time for students to talk about their experiences during the uprising, about the Freddie Gray’s death, about the protests, about police. And I learned an incredible amount. Teenagers, as I’ve come to know, are extremely sophisticated and complex. They often have more insight to offer in challenging situations than adults. If only we would get out of their way.

Many teachers I know wisely scrapped their lesson plan to do the same thing. The importance of school being open for students to have a place to share is undeniable. Students were impacted by the events in varying degrees, and students showed a great deal of respect in understanding the opinions and situations of others. Older students led discussions with younger students. Teachers organized panel-discussions. All of this helped students process an incredibly divisive set of events, from Freddie Gray’s arrest to the announcement of charges against six officers.

But this is not over. Our government arrested protesters and instituted a curfew. The National Guard patrolled our streets. The officers still await trial. None of this is over. So what do we do from here as teachers? We have given students safe space to express themselves. How can we help students move this discussion forward?

We need to give the students the language and tools to help push solutions forward. We need to help students understand the issues. Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Assembly. Habeas Corpus. Use of Force. Criminal Procedure. We need to continue to give students space to express themselves and give them the language with which to do so, because it is our young people who will be charged with fixing our system that has allowed and perpetuated systemic injustice.

Our best work, particularly as teachers, is to get out of their way while they go about this work.

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