As the Trayvon Martin case dominates the media, race, violence, justice, tolerance and other issues are likely to come up in the classrooms. As teachers, it is imperative that these issues are capitalized as wonderful teaching moments; teaching moments in which students can become thoughtful, independent thinkers and move toward being a contributor to society.
“The Martin case easily connects to history, literature, civics, and government curricula. For example, compare and contrast the case with the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, or the murder of Emmett Till,” Educators Jeffrey P. Carpenter and Scott Weathers wrote in a commentary for Education Week. “But even if there is no clear curricular connection, isn’t there room in a year or semester-long curriculum to spend at least 30 minutes talking with students about events that are being hotly discussed outside the school?”
However, when bringing sensitive, polarizing subjects such as this into the classroom, it is important to remain neutral and find a balance between being an activist and being a teacher.
A prime example of this issue has come with Brooke Harris, a Michigan teacher who was recently fired after a lesson involving the Trayvon Martin case.
In the case of Harris, after having her students work on a writing assignment in her journalism class where her students were asked to write an editorial on Trayvon Martin, her students wanted to do more.
Her students were moved into activism after studying about the case, wanting to have a fundraiser for Martin’s family. Harris was supportive of this and went to administration to see if her students could have this fundraiser. At this point, Harris was suspended two days later and subsequently fired, with administration stating that she should be a teacher and not an activist.
With Harris’ case, only her side of the story is being told, as school administrators will not discuss personnel matters. So one can only speculate as to whether she was unfairly fired. However, there may have been certain steps taken to prevent this issue from happening.
First and foremost, whenever students bring up participating in potential activism efforts, consequences need to be explained. Too often students feel that if they are participating in a good cause nothing bad can happen to them or those around them. That is just not the case.
Students need to know that there are consequences to protests, petitions and demonstrations that include school suspensions, people losing their jobs and even physical violence.
Second, as a teacher, it is important to support your students, but it is also important to maintain a level of detachment from the situation as well. With Harris, administrators may have perceived her level of involvement to be greater than it should have been, and it got her in trouble. When dealing with student activism, work with administration to determine the level of teacher involvement that is appropriate. This will allow teachers to teach and support students while maintaining a level of professionalism and propriety.
If Harris’ account of what happened is accurate, she may only be guilty of getting too involved with her students, probably not a fire-able offense. And administration has set a bad precedent, telling students that it isn’t okay to speak out.
That should never be the case.
By finding that balance between activism and teaching, students can greatly receive an enriching educational experience; an experience in which they can learn to think for themselves, form opinions, act on their beliefs and solve problems.
Daniel Duerden is a writer and content editor for 360 Education Solutions