This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Dozens of cities in the United States erupted last week as protesters reacted to the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Those initial protests, which included some looting and destruction of property, evolved into largely peaceful and diverse protests against systemic and institutional racism that spread not only to cities and small towns in every state, but also around the world.
Teachers across Philadelphia have now brought the conversation to their virtual classrooms. Many have allowed students to express their feelings and debate about the protests and rioting. Others have tried to turn the occasion into a learning opportunity, contextualizing recent events within other historical movements.
The Notebook spoke to several teachers and students about the discussions they’re having in the wake of Floyd killing and subsequent protests. Here’s what they had to say:
Teachers facilitate conversations
Sitting on Kristine Morrow’s desk is a quote from the author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. Morrow says the words have come to guide much of her teaching on race in her African American history class at Central High School:
“There are years that ask questions, and years that answer them.”
After police killed Floyd on May 25 and protests began across the country, Morrow started her class last Monday by telling students that she didn’t have the answers.
“I asked them why they think this happened,” Morrow said. “They were all very upset, very angry, and there was a real sense of hopelessness around this state-sanctioned violence.”
To contextualize the killing and the protests and to help students make some sense of it, Morrow began rooting through a trove of historical examples to show her students. She told them about white rioters in 1921 destroying a prosperous black neighborhood called Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She wanted to “show them that state-sanctioned violence against African Americans has had a long, long history in this country,” she said.
She also drew a parallel between the present-day protests and the urban riots of 1967 and 1968 that engulfed many cities, including Philadelphia. She said these were “very much an expression of fury about poverty and economic injustice.”
“I wanted them to get the whole complex picture, sort of fleshing out what that concept of systemic racism really means,” Morrow said. “We looked at different aspects of society… ‘Does it exist in the education system?’ And they said ‘Well, of course.’”
Ethan Tannen, a math teacher at Masterman High School, said conversations about racial injustices are badly needed in class, especially with such a diverse group of students who have different experiences with racism.
Tannen doesn’t normally see students on Mondays — since the coronavirus pandemic hit and classes were moved online, his students only have class with him twice a week. But after seeing the Philadelphia protests on the news, he had to make sure his students were OK.
Tannen scheduled an optional video meeting for his students on Monday, where students could voice their opinions about recent events. About 25 students joined in.
“A lot of students expressed their frustration,” Tannen said. “Some supported the looting, but it’s a tough conversation because … a lot of students belong to families that have small businesses or [have] family or friends in the police force.”
In his class discussions, Tannen follows the four agreements for courageous conversation laid out in an essay by author Glenn E. Singleton and educator Cyndie Hays: stay engaged, expect to experience discomfort, speak your truth, and expect and accept nonclosure. The second point is especially important for white students, Tannen said, who don’t understand what it’s like to experience the police violence that minorities are subjected to.
Students of color who have had ugly run-ins with the police make up a large portion of Debra Shick’s class at the Charter High School for Architecture & Design. Shick teaches a social justice curriculum in her English class for her juniors and seniors, and over the many years she’s been a teacher, she has heard some horror stories from her students.
“This is nothing new to me,” Shick said, referring to the killing of George Floyd. “My students tell me, ‘We already know this, we experience it every day.”
One former student told Shick about the time he was stopped on the street by police. The officer pinned him to the ground and began to search him without warning.
“He told me, ‘that boot hurts,’” Shick said.
During one of Shick’s discussions about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, another student said “Well, what about black-on-black crime?” When Shick asked him to elaborate, he began to cry.
“He told me that his uncle had been shot and killed,” Shick said.
Shick tries to prompt discussions in her class that empower students of color and raise awareness about the oppression they face in everyday society. Recently, she had her students read an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that talked about institutional racism and why black people were protesting nationwide. They’re currently reading There There, a novel about the struggles of Native Americans in Oakland, California.
Alexandra Avelin, an English teacher at Masterman who also had her students read the Los Angeles Times op-ed, said she wants real-world events to inform her teaching. After Floyd was killed and protests erupted in Philadelphia, she tried to springboard off of her 7th graders’ research projects to teach students about institutional racism and police brutality. One student was doing research on the Ahmaud Arbery case. Another researched the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 had on black communities.
“I wanted to give them context with stuff they have learned so they can make sense of what’s going on now,” Avelin said.
But helping students make sense of recent events doesn’t necessarily mean facilitating debates or arguments.
“I didn’t feel like now was the time to debate pros and cons of looting or removing a statue,” Avelin said. “For the people who are passionate I think that’s probably going to be too raw.”
Despite Avelin’s efforts, she said the discussion materials didn’t have a lot of “bounce.” She partly attributes that to class being online and engagement being way down from where it was in the classroom pre-pandemic.
Tannen offered another possibility: “I get the sense that some students are hesitant to speak because they don’t want to say something that comes across as racist or insensitive.”
Students voice their opinions
Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of Floyd and the protests that followed, students around the country are taking part in class discussions they’ve never had before. In many cases, they’re taking a hiatus from their normal lessons and focusing mostly on current events.
“We’ve never held these conversations in class before,” said Annetta Yuwono, a sophomore at Masterman. “We’ve definitely learned a lot about … the other protests that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement and black power movement in our African American history class, but that’s about it.”
No one is happy about what’s happening in the world right now, Yuwono said, but recent events have allowed a lot of students to release pent-up political frustration or simply to speak their minds as they’ve never been able to before.
Yuwono is all for the protests because she thinks police brutality is a rampant problem in this country, especially for communities of color.
“If these policemen can just kill innocent people … then no one’s safe,” she said.
But she opposes the property destruction because it harms vulnerable people in the oppressed communities.
“I watched a video yesterday showing an African American man reacting to the destruction of his business and honestly, it’s terrible,” Yuwono said.
A Science Leadership Academy student who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons attended the protests over the first weekend of demonstrations and said that based on what she saw, much of the rioting and looting was done by white people. A white woman tried to argue with police, and a white man hopped on top of the police car and began stomping on it, she said.
“While I don’t see those incidents as a huge deal on their own, they made me weary because almost all of the people doing this were white. In my opinion, it is not the job of an ally to be the main attraction,” the anonymous student said. “I do not condone the destruction or looting of small businesses or poorer neighborhoods, however … rioting gets heard before peaceful protests do, so I get it. Personally, I will not participate in that, [but] I also do not shame people of color who do.”
Nayanna Fluellen, a sophomore at Central High School, echoed that point.
“I understand that people are angry. I’m angry, too, because I’m a part of the black community and I’m tired of the same situation happening to us,” Fluellen said. “But burning and looting is only going to hurt my community more because some black people used to work in those businesses.”
Fluellen said that her classmates respected her opinion even though many of them disagreed.
“A lot of people in my class do support the riots, because they feel angered towards how police are constantly treating the black community poorly.”
A Central student took a poll of her classmates asking how many of them supported the rioting. Thirteen students voted in favor of the rioting, and three students opposed it.
A Washington Post-Schar School poll released Tuesday showed that 74% of the respondents support the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death and 69% agreed that Floyd’s killing exposed a bigger problem in law enforcement.
These numbers stand in contrast to how Americans have responded in the past. On the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a Gallup poll found that 75% of black respondents and 79% of whites believed the violence to be unjustified, even though just as many respondents opposed the not-guilty verdict for the officers who beat Rodney King.
“In African American history class, we [brought] up Rodney King’s situation and the 1992 riots to show how history is repeating itself,” Fluellen said.
Philadelphia police have killed two unarmed black men in the last five years, according to a database kept by the Washington Post. Since the unrest began, dozens of businesses in Philadelphia were looted or destroyed, most in the first two days.
“Bottom line is that buildings can be fixed, but dead bodies cannot be resurrected,” the SLA student said.