"This makes youth of color feel threatened in our own communities because even eye contact w/an officer could mean death #EricGarner"-TG 8th
"I don't feel anything. It's a misfortune he died, but things like this happen all the time, which is pretty sad to say. #EricGarner"-MG 7th
These are just a few tweets from seventh- and eighth-graders who were doing more than expressing their views on the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others: They were completing a classroom assignment.
Last week, Chicago middle school teacher Xian Barrett had his students insert their voices into conversations about these cases by creating a special activity: After reviewing and discussing the details of each case in class, tweet about them. He then shared these tweets on his own Twitter feed (while maintaining students’ anonymity).
Barrett recently shared with Teaching Tolerance his inspiration for the project and the most meaningful takeaways for him and his students.
What inspired you to document your students’ thoughts on #Ferguson and #EricGarner, and why through Twitter?
Personally, what drives me on the violence issue is that I’ve had to bury too many students. It’s seven now from my classes, but there have been a lot more young people lost from the communities I’ve taught in. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a teacher. They should be putting us in the ground 40 years from now, not vice versa.
But that’s not all. When I did peace circles with my high school students, they would describe being stopped by police 10, 15, 20 times over three-month periods. At the same time, they were terrified of the violence in the neighborhood. I mean, I just heard shots down the block as I’m typing this. …
… I’m angry like much of America about the #EricGarner and #MikeBrown cases, but this has been happening forever. It’s part of the same culture that had police working with white supremacist groups to lynch and terrorize people of color for most of our nation’s history. I teach that history, and now that mainstream America is finally discussing these issues more, I want my students to be part of that discussion. How can we hope to address deep institutional criminalization of black and brown youth if we don’t respect them to lead these discussions?
I want to make sure [my students] are thinking deeply and using their voices. I think long-form writing is still important—we will do several longer papers this year—but I want them to get used to using platforms for power, not just to get a grade for a class.
What was the classroom context for this project? Was it an assignment?
Yes, we studied the background details. It’s important to acknowledge the nuances and the differing perspectives.
In all this work, I try to refrain from sharing my perspective until after they share theirs. In this latest project, some of the students (as you can see in the tweets, it was just a couple) were very sympathetic to the officers. But most were not—as has been my experience in the three settings I’ve taught at in Chicago. Even those with relatives in law enforcement tended to focus on the need for all police to act ethically and de-escalate violence so their colleagues could be safer rather than justifying deadly force.
After reviewing the facts (and the details, like how a grand jury works, etc.), they spoke in groups and then individually wrote their tweets.
How do you teach about Twitter?
It is definitely a teaching tool. I think most of the youth can see that an essay they write gets seen by one or maybe 30 people if you do peer sharing, but a tweet can be seen by thousands. That motivates them. We talk about what makes a good tweet in the same way we discuss what a good persuasive essay looks like. We have looked at other tweets on the hashtags where organizers are using them to rally people and run on-the-ground logistics. But it’s still something we are developing. We’ll see where they want to take it.
As of now, I do a lot of modeling. As you can see, only a few of my students got parental permission and tweeted their own tweets [@OldSpiceManny, @SebasOrtiz17 and @Tiristaran]. [T]he logistics are difficult—especially with the younger voices.
What were your goals for this activity? What were you hoping the result(s) would be?
I want them to be able to analyze difficult situations and have big takeaways. The youth who linked Emmett Till to Michael Brown or Eric Garner in a short thoughtful sentence are already making the deep connections that transform the study of history from a trivial pursuit to work that transforms the present and future.
That said, there’s going to be a wide spectrum, but I saw growth in all of the students, including those with big obstacles in their normal schooling. They in particular engaged far beyond my expectations. I think it’s worth remembering that, in addition to race, the students with disabilities are far more likely to run into trouble with the police, so I’m very hopeful that they’ll find this work useful.
What have you learned from this experience, as a teacher?
There’s a weird dynamic these days where everyone talks about “having high standards” and what they mean is that you attack the young people if they don’t conform to very narrowly defined standards. I find it to be particularly damaging to youth of color—many of whom aren’t likely to want to conform to standards defined by affluent white communities [and pushed] onto them. I learned that if you break down those high expectations from “Hit this test score” to “Dream some stuff that you are passionate about and make it real,” they do a lot better.
I said that losing a student to violence is the worst thing that can happen to a teacher and it’s true; it’s absolutely awful.
That said, I think probably the worst thing that a teacher can do is to be complicit with the forces hurting and killing our students. I can’t say that I am able to avoid that entirely—we are all complicit in some way—but through projects like this one, I firmly believe that my students teach me to support them better in their struggles for justice in this unjust society.
Editor's note: For more resources on similar topics, visit our Web package Teaching About Ferguson: Race and Racism in the United States.