What We're Saying When We Don't Talk to Students About Violence in Chicago

Chicago students witness many different acts of violence in their local communities. In just the past year, there have been 400 shootings involving people of color within the city of Chicago. As White teachers who did not grow up in the city of Chicago, we understand that we do not share the same lived experiences as many of our students. However, as urban educators, we are charged with actively participating in the preparation of our young people to critically analyze the violence they are exposed to and guide them toward becoming engaged citizens. A new grant from the U.S. Department of Education to Chicago Public Schools (CPS) presents a unique opportunity for our district to create the trainings educators need to do this well. As teachers, we cannot ignore systemic violence and racism. Neither can our students. Our students need an outlet to discuss these issues in a safe and supportive environment, but we worry that this is not happening in classrooms as readily as it should. In order for all educators to be able to conduct these conversations productively, teachers need expanded culturally responsive, professional development opportunities.

Giving Teachers the Tools They Need

We worry that many Chicago educators may be hesitant to discuss the recent racially charged violence in our country because they are lacking the tools to do so. At present, there is minimal training provided during teacher preparation or ongoing education about diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom. This is unfortunate because within CPS, half of classroom teachers are White, while more than 90 percent of students are of color. When educators do not have the same background or lived experience as their students, it can be difficult for teachers to create space for openness, honesty, and significant social-emotional learning while also being sensitive to stereotypes. Without diversity and inclusiveness training, educators may fear misstepping or offending students. This was especially true during the local conversations about the shooting of Laquan McDonald. As a middle school special educator working with predominantly Latino students, Ms. Pike witnessed the anger and frustration her students expressed after the police dashboard video was released. Her students, who already struggled with trusting police, expressed concerns such as, “Ms. Pike, why would we think we are safe? ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]  can take us or our parents away and the police can shoot us without getting in trouble.” While Chicago Public Schools sent educators a helpful lesson plan to address this topic, we clearly need additional resources and supports if we are going to continue this dialogue with students. Ultimately, we felt ill-equipped to engage in these issues with students, so we refrained from discussing them in deep and meaningful ways.

The Conversation We Need to Have

Our teaching toolkit needs to include more diversity and inclusive teaching practices, such as trainings on privilege and class and how they contribute to the systemic cycle of racism and violence in our cities. Culture plays a role in shaping the thinking process of groups and individuals, and we must understand the role our students’ culture plays in their understanding of social issues. This begins with a willingness to have conversations about race—a topic some still consider to be “taboo”—in the classroom. Once this critical dialogue is initiated, it becomes easier to discuss prevalent social issues from multiple perspectives, brainstorm solutions, and even take action. Our nation is at a tipping point and demands that urban educators be able to guide students to be harbingers of change. We must begin to use diversity and inclusive teaching practices to facilitate conversations about social justice. Eldridge Cleaver, African American writer and political activist, said, “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you're going to be part of the problem.” If we are not able to engage our students in reflective and honest dialogue about these issues, we will fail to prepare them to be engaged citizens with the potential to positively affect their communities. As administrators and teacher leaders begin this school year, they should consider this gap in many teachers’ toolkits. We suggest that every principal dedicate professional development time to develop teachers' capacities to discuss issues of equity and social justice in the classroom. Principals should partner with social justice non-profits and higher education institutions’ multiculturalism programs to engage speakers and provide additional trainings, support and resources. Failing to do so can lead to hard silences around issues that affect our students, leaving them without the tools to analyze the systemic issues of diversity, equity, and justice that impact their daily lives.
Eliza Bryant
Eliza Bryant teaches special education to 10th-grade students in English class at Roberto Clemente Community Academy in Chicago. She teaches inclusion and self-contained classes, and she is also the 10th-grade team lead. Eliza has been teaching for four years and is a member of Educators 4 Excellence-Chicago.

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