Friday, July 19, 2013


Teaching Trayvon

The Hairpin reached out to a handful of teachers across the country with a tough question (though no more difficult than any other question America's teachers face in a given work day): How would you teach the Trayvon Martin case, and George Zimmerman's acquittal? What is there to say, and what is there to be learned? Their very thoughtful answers follow.

An English teacher in Alabama:

In a place like Alabama, this case is tricky to even discuss in the classroom. I would be willing to talk to my students about it if they want to, but I would be hesitant to "teach" it—especially because I teach literature. However, I often use real news stories or events from history to connect with the literature that they study in my classroom. I encourage my students to make connections to self, other texts, and the world while reading.

This story could connect with Richard Wright's Black Boy in the way Trayvon was viewed as an "other." Richard is often singled out in that book and assumed to be doing something bad. In reality, he does do some bad things, but he's mostly just a kid. Kids do bad things and learn from them.

I also think it would be a good topic for a free write. We do these in my class after the bell rings. I could ask the kids something like this: "Think of a time when you felt like you or another person fell victim to a great injustice. Explain the situation. Why did it happen? How did it make you feel? Did it change your view of the world? If so, how did it change? What would have taken place in your perfect world to make the situation right?" After they write, I ask them to share with someone. Then I open the floor to those who would like to share with the whole class.

Another way to approach it could talk about vigilantes. Think about the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird when the mob comes to the courthouse for Tom. Also many of Faulkner's short stories discuss mobs out for justice.

I could ask students: Have you ever felt so "in the right" that you took matters into your own hands? If you haven't, what kind of situation might motivate you to act rather than ask for help? Explain the situation. What kinds of consequences might you/ did you face if/ when you do/ did it? What if you were wrong about the situation?

The thing is, I see Trayvon Martins everyday. They are in my classrooms and in my neighborhood. I worry about young black men and their prospects in a world where a man is able to kill one without being convicted of something. Even if it isn't as simple as that, kids will see it that way. Rednecks are holding their heads a little higher and tapping the guns on their holsters eager for a stand your ground moment. That is what scares me most. I try to teach for social justice in a state where the poor are carrying the biggest tax burdens and often the victims of injustice. Poverty motivates some people to try harder, a small group to resort to criminal activity, a large portion just try to make it and live under the radar, and it leads some to give up. I try to encourage kids to do the most with their gifts and live life with integrity. Stories like this makes work more difficult because it makes kids lose hope.

Cathy Grasso, a high school teacher in the South Bay area of Los Angeles:

When the Trayvon case began my students were asking about it, and about what I thought. In general I try to let students talk about this kind of stuff without interfering with my views. Which is mostly what I did, at that time.

At this point I think I would bring it up as a current event. I would ask them what they know about the case. I would ask them if they understand why Zimmerman was found not guilty (lack of evidence that it wasn't self defense). I would spend a good deal of time explaining that. Then I would ask, if they disagree with the verdict, what are their ideas to change the way cases like this are handled.

I would also use guiding questions, like why did Zimmerman follow Trayvon in the first place—how are first impressions important? Do you judge people by what you see? How has that maybe been damaging or harmful to others in the past? And perhaps I would make a few Juries and give them the evidence and see what they conclude.

I would also want to do a brief bit on how the messages and images on Trayvon's phone influenced America. I think it would be interesting for them to talk about how his reputation was tarnished by stuff he had on his phone.

A high school college counselor in California:

Stories like this makes work more difficult because it makes kids lose hope.
I think the Trayvon Martin case is a really important thing to talk to students about. Keep in mind I'm not a teacher—I'm a college counselor, so I wouldn't actually be leading discussions or planning a curriculum on something like this. But for my school particularly, which is very open about issues related to race, I have heard some of our black students talking about how they really look at the world differently when they're out and about (and particularly as it relates to law enforcement) and trying to impress upon our white students why this is.

I think it's so important to open up a dialogue about why this has touched a nerve with so many people. I think it's because it just seems so unjust and incomprehensible to most that an unarmed teenager could be killed and his attacker get away with it – and I think it'd be interesting for students to look at the laws in Florida and see WHY the jury made this decision. It may be unjust, but WHY was it made? And maybe it's the law that's the problem in this case? And what can we do to change that?

Lindsey Hunter Lopez, a high school English teacher:

If I had been teaching an 11th grade English class (my usual gig) during George Zimmerman’s trial, students would no doubt want to discuss the verdict and share their feelings about Trayvon Martin’s death. However, as a teacher, I’m careful not to let my personal opinion be known when it comes to... well, anything touchy. Teachers know all too well that discussing touchy subjects can lead to disciplinary action, or even job loss. (Last year a teacher was fired for assisting with a student-led fundraiser for Trayvon Martin’s family.) Race, gun control, youth culture—there are many touchy issues involved when it comes to the death of this young man. Though it could be risky to bring this current event into the classroom, English teachers run into hard topics naturally; we teach literature, after all. How would one teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance, without addressing “the N-word,” and its historical (and current) context? Not very well.

So I’d welcome discussing Trayvon, and I’d do my best to facilitate in a neutral way. I might begin with a relevant journal prompt, linking the class reading to the tragic event. Then I’d open things up to the students, and ask if anyone would like to summarize the violent event and the subsequent trial. I’d clarify as necessary, and call for comments or questions. “Why does Trayvon Martin’s death seem to touch a nerve with the American public?” I might ask. “Now that the trial is over, why are people rioting?” Hopefully this student-centered approach would lead to the all-important “critical thinking” (a term often bandied about in education), as well as empowerment through expression.

Alex Robins, a middle school social studies teacher in San Francisco:

Every day, my students and I try to make some sense of why past events occurred, how they affected their surroundings (people, the environment, geographical conflicts, etc.), and how these effects influenced life going forward. This case and its verdict show different sides of the United States criminal justice system in action and prove how complicated a criminal trial can be with regard to public opinion, state and federal laws, and questions of race and class in American society.

The most important thing my students can learn from this process is to get their facts straight. In the age of the internet and opinion blogs, hearsay and innuendos tend to carry the day. The facts of the case and the laws of the land should rule. When students make an argument in a discussion or as part of a research paper, they have to back this argument up with concrete, clearly cited facts. This process is valuable for life in high school, college, and into adulthood. For this trial, the jurors were presented two separate stories with few definitive facts. Ultimately, they used the information provided by the trial and their own thoughts and opinions to solidify their verdict. This brings up the second thing for students to learn from this trial: being a juror or judge is incredibly difficult. No matter the outcome, someone is usually outraged.

It would be great to think that incidents like the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case are rare. However, similar crimes and trials occur constantly in this country with much less fanfare (in 2012, another 17-year-old Floridian was shot to death in his car for apparently playing hip hop music too loud; the defendant has pleaded not guilty and has used self-defense as his alibi). My students all have opinions and thoughts about this case and the issues it involves. I believe these opinions are valid and I want to honor them as best I can in the context of a classroom discussion. These students have had different experiences growing up in San Francisco as African-American, Latino, and Asian kids than I had in my sheltered, suburban life. I want to share my thoughts and show them the viability of their ideas and experiences.

As a class, we can focus on the facts of the case and why the debate itself is important. If we contextualize the incident, empathize with each actor, and fit these ideas into the bigger picture of criminal and social justice, we can hopefully improve on both the quality of our argument-making and the understanding of the problems that still exist within our society. Maybe then we can begin to make a difference in our communities and in our country.

Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.:

Teachers need to make room to discuss this case and allow students to ask questions. A 2nd grader might wonder why there was no punishment for a person who killed someone. An older student might express outrage at the verdict, or denial that race was an issue. How teachers talk about it will depend on the age and, sadly, race of their students. Students who have never experienced profiling or the presumption of guilt need to know that their expectation that the system works isn't shared by everyone. And students of color, whose parents have had "the talk" since they were little, and who live with the experience of being distrusted, need to know that someone understands. What's utterly important is to be willing to talk about injustice and the work that lies ahead, and to engage students in productive thinking about how their generation can effect change.

Abe Cohen, a teacher at a transfer high school in the Bronx:

To preface, I've had a tough time writing this—the decision (and implications of that decision) came as a blow to me. The rest of this email is me trying to figure out an answer to the question. I seriously don't have a good answer, and addressing Trayvon is going to take a lot more thought and work than what's been done below. Like many, I am still trying to wrap my head the difficulties, and apparent complexities of the issues at hand. Decoding racial dynamics in this country just got a lot more complicated (or so I thought). My students' reactions, however, were much simpler: "No shit." They've been dealing with stop & frisk for years, and mayors/ police chiefs who have claimed that nonwhites aren't stopped enough.

As you may imagine, this is a particularly difficult issue to teach, and reifies the disturbing power dynamics of a mostly white teaching force working with mostly nonwhite students. Parents, for the most part, do not confront the same historical (and present) baggage that many teachers (including myself) must address when facilitating a conversation around race history in the US. Despite the levels of discomfort the topic brings up, there needs to be some interrogation of the topic. Ultimately, this is such an important and indicative decision that it needs to be addressed. It's probably important to note that, like many subjects, having students facilitate this discussion is far more powerful (and much less problematic) than teachers "teaching" the case. This is one of a handful of high-profile, nation-wide criminal cases that has existed in the Internet age. The prevalence of available primary source information, and the overwhelming amount of commentary that is immediately available, gives students unprecedented access to understanding and evaluating the decision. (Check the Wikipedia page for the case: at least the entire 911 call is there, among other sources). This case presents an excellent opportunity to control their own learning, and make evaluative judgements in a larger societal context.

Defining the extent to which I will discuss this with my students will probably be student-defined. Some will, rightfully, not want to talk about it; being confronted with the fact that Florida law allows people to hunt and kill black youth isn't particularly comforting. Requiring students to remind themselves of a particularly disturbing and very real element of race relations in the United States may not be an (white) educators' place. For me, after all, the distinction is philosophical; I probably will never have to deal with being confronted about being in a place I shouldn't, while my kids have already found plenty of ways to deal with it. The kind of maturity, rationality, and patience that youth need in such a situation is frightening.

For me, after all, the distinction is philosophical; I probably will never have to deal with being confronted about being in a place I shouldn't, while my kids have already found plenty of ways to deal with it.
Most commentary on the case has ignored or marginalized youth voice. Discussions around the subject have largely focused on the difficulties of being black in America, and have rarely confronted the associated difficulties of being young and black. In terms of school, and in much media, this case is particularly interesting in the canon of court law and US history: how will this case play into federal and state rights? What about McKlesky v. Kemp? How does it relate to the Civil Rights movement? Obama's election? The set of questions my students must ask and answer (for penalty of death) is different: how do I walk around outside? Should I go to other neighborhoods? How do I deal with strangers? Should I try to look less "suspicious"? If so, how? And what does that even mean?

Within the context of our current school system, it's important to note that teachers will probably need to make curricular sacrifices to address this; Trayvon won't be on any of the Regents tests, and will not be part of city, state or national curricula for years to come (if it is at all). Like many other educators, I face the problem of choosing what to cut to make room in the school year, in addition to molding discussions about Trayvon to meet standards.

Dr. Imani Perry, a Princeton professor and mother of two:

Have you ever seen a small plant that has a splint holding it up? Growers do that when the plant is precious, but the ground on which it sits isn’t quite right for that little green shoot to flourish. I think of raising children in the United States in similar fashion, especially when it comes to matters of race. The earth is parched, the winds are whipping. A boy not fully bloomed was chopped down dead and his killer walks on, weapon in hand. My two sons, bright, creative and kind African American boys, aged 7 and 9, both wept when they heard that George Zimmerman had been acquitted. They were afraid he, or others like him, might come for them next. I did not anticipate that their young lives would be as much defined by the tragedies of the murder and execution of Trayvon Martin and Troy Davis, as by the historic era of the first African American president. They already know the brutal truth of racial inequality, and that they are called to wage the battle against it, just as their forefathers and mothers.

It never occurred to me, their father, nor our extended family members to avoid talking to the boys about racism and bigotry. We were raised on race talk, and it is their inheritance too. I believe that if children are guided honestly through the reality of the world in which they live, it will help them build resilience.

And yet, they also need protection, they need our tender nurturing and splints to hold them up in the process of developing the fortitude to meet a cruel society. This care requires that we speak directly to them when tragedies occur, yet not allow them to be inundated with televisual media and round the clock chatter about the subject. We ought to use age appropriate language, placed in the context of our values, about how the world ought to be, and what we can do to contribute to that vision. We must expose them to the ways we build character and community, rather than allowing them to be overwhelmed by terror and sadness. They must know their inherent value and hear about it more than they hear about how they may be devalued.

My sons attended a rally with me after the Zimmerman verdict and I told them “See all these people here? We are part of a community that extends across this country and world, that fighting against injustice.” In that moment, I wanted to help them transform their individual fear and grief into a sense of collective purpose. And I think this practice is relevant for all children, not simply those from groups whom are subject to bigotry. Because while on the one hand I am training my sons to develop resilience in the face of the racial injustice they will encounter, I am also training them to approach the world with full recognition and appreciation of the wide spectrum of human beings, some of whom are quite different from them. They know they have an ethical responsibility to humanity, animal life, and nature; to care beyond their immediate experiences. We talk about gender and sexual orientation and disability and mental health along with race, ethnicity, and language. They are encouraged to be critical and analytical, to use those enormous imaginations to journey into the interior lives of others. Together we create gardens of possibility in the parched earth. If we grow the babies up right, they just might redeem us all.


Photo via werthmedia/flickr.

82 Comments / Post A Comment


It's really great to read these takes. Thank you.


Thank you for this! It's been a difficult thing to process, my go to response is rage, and I've been struggling with how to talk to my own child.


whelp crying at work


This is great, but just had to come down real quick for this: “Now that the trial is over, why are people rioting?"


Now I will read the rest.


@hallelujah Yeah I noticed that too and then I was like "well maybe there was a riot I didn't hear about?"

up cubed

@hallelujah: There was sort of a riot in Hollywood, but it seems like a few people used peaceful rallies as cover for stealing.


@hallelujah Clearly you don't live in Oakland.


@14223733@twitter A few broken windows and a couple arrests does not a riot make, amigo.

@14223733@twitter Protesting isn't the same as rioting.


@hallelujah To be fair, Oakland was pretty rough the last few days. I don't know that you'd call it a riot, but as just one example, literally every single car on my friend's block had its windows smashed. Quite a few businesses have been broken into. It's not good times over there.

I agree that overstating it is NOT helping the national temper at the moment, but some stuff is indeed happening.


@hallelujah I cannot believe you people are advocating rioting. Do you know who gets hurt during rioting? Regular people. In general, when an injustice is done, vengeance is done against the people who committed that injustice. Not the corner store where you by your milk, and not your neighbor with whom you talk about the weather in the mornings. I agree that the lack of a public reaction is troubling (or perhaps is just not being covered on the news) but seriously? Grow the Fuck Up. Clearly you people don't remember the LA Riots.

@kasa Nobody is advocating rioting. We are pointing out the difference between an actual riot (read: LA riots) and what is happening in Oakland.

People ARE going out and peacefully demonstrating. Things got a little hairy in Oakland. There were no riots, and we are all talking about a. the definition of a riot and b. that they are not happening. Nobody has said that the lack of rioting is a good thing. I'm not sure where you're getting "everybody go out and riot!" from the conversation above.


@kasa Wow, could your knee jerk ANY faster?

Niko Bellic

@hallelujah This is America. If you are on the street for any reason other than shopping or commuting, you are rioting.


@hallelujah: I guess you didn't see the "protestors" in LA torching cars, busting our car and store windows Huh. There were only 3 arrests b/c they all ran like rats in the light.


That makes me both proud and sad to be from and living in Alabama. "Rednecks are holding their heads a little higher and tapping the guns on their holsters eager for a stand your ground moment." Yikes. But I think that is true, at least to an extent.


@bevrockin Yeah, same. Proud and sad.


@bevrockin I live in Texas and rednecks abound. I've heard so many people praise GZ for having his carry license and not being afraid to use his gun, that gun laws are for this type of situation. As if TM broke into his home and was about to start stabbing his whole family or something.


Thank you for this. My own children are too young to need this discussion, but the contrast still hit me in the guts when Dr. Perry talked about her own sons crying as Zimmerman was acquitted. Like Cohen, my feelings are broader and more removed; my concern is I don't want this country to be a place where Zimmermans get acquitted, but or them it represents real and actual danger of a kind that my children will never face.


@iceberg also, Mr Iceberg DID NOT BELIEVE ME when I told him that the way this started was that the police let Zimmerman go and weren't going to charge him with anything until they were pressured. Like, vehemently argued with me that they charged him but it's just that you don't go straight to jail. Like to the point where I started to think maybe I was crazy.

RK Fire

@iceberg Yeah, this case kind of hit me at a time in my relationship where my husband and I sometimes joke, sometimes seriously talk about having kids.

It made me truly realize that any future child of mine was going to be seen and treated as Black. I knew that before because I grew up around Baltimore, grew up around many other biracial and multiracial kids, and I'm not an idiot. That being said, while there were some things I'd idly consider (hair texture? will my mom make asinine comments about how "dark" their complexion are?") I never really thought about any hypothetical child being confronted by a man with a gun just because you're wearing a hoodie at night or something else equally innocuous.

Judith Slutler

@RK Fire I really feel you on this. Kids are like... farther in the future for me, but yeah.

RK Fire

@Judith Slutler No one has mentioned this either, but I think the fact that Zimmerman is my age really does it for me too. I know that our plenty of people in my age cohort who are prejudiced, that we all operate in this cultural morass of racist messages and some of it tends to stick with us, but the entire time there's been a naive part of me that's been like "aren't we supposed to be better than this? isn't this supposed to be something that the future generations of kids shouldn't have to worry about?"

apparently not?


@iceberg I keep hearing people complain that this was news, you know what I'm talking about. "This white kid was shot by a black man, it's not on the cover of the paper." Etc. And I want to shake them. It's all news, yes, and it's all tragic. But GZ wasn't arrested, he wasn't taken to the station for questioning. He shot another unarmed person and the police did NOTHING. That is why it became so newsworthy, so quickly.


@iceberg @RebeccaKW I was also surprised when I found out that GZ was 29. It struck a weird nerve.


@cocokins @iceberg I'm curious if any of you have seen the 'current picture' of TM. My boss keeps insisting that the photo of TM that we see (such as on the poster shown in this article) is very old and that TM was actually a 'large, bull-necked black man, not a kid.' According to him, the media slipped up once and showed his current picture instead of the old one they are using to rally supporters for TM. (He uses this description as part of his justification for why GZ should have shot him). I am just curious if anyone else has seen this picture, as I find it odd that it's never been posted anywhere, not by the defense, not by Fox News, etc.

RK Fire

@RebeccaKW Is it like the picture in this Ta Nahesi Coates blog post? I didn't even know if tgus picture was posted around the internet and chain emails, the greatest purveryor of quality news.

Edited to add: the only kicker is that the guy in the picture doesn't even strike me as large or "bull-necked." As referenced below, my husband is 6'4" and 250lbs, ymmv, etc.

Man, re. your boss' description of Martin--welp, this makes me really nervous if my husband is ever going to be shot one day because he fits the description, and is ergo, will be perceived as a threat just by being outside at night. I know your boss is probably not the only person who feels similarly..


@RK Fire I'm not sure. I'm wondering, though, if something similar was shown and was mislabeled at TM. He said he only saw it once, and then 'the liberal media realized their mistake' and quit showing it. I just can't imagine those on the side of GZ would not post pictures of TM if he looked so different than the one being used everywhere.
I work with several people who feel this way, and like some things they also say about Obama, I think so much of it has to do with them wanting to say "because he's black" only they know they can't, so they latch on to any little thing.


I'm wondering, though, if something similar was shown and was mislabeled at TM. He said he only saw it once..underground racing

I'm really disappointed that this didn't include a law professor, i.e. someone who is responsible for teaching future prosecutors and defense attorneys, someone who knows about the legal intricacies of how incarceration rates are impacted by the performance and decisions of attorneys (both for the government and the accused), someone who has likely worked within, for, and against these systems of injustice, someone who is teaching statutory analysis and legislation drafting, and who may have represented people like George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin in a way that have made them think critically about how they teach law.

I am disappointed in the jury, and I'm disappointed by how cavalier the defense attorney was, but I am really REALLY angry at the prosecutor who brought charges that are rarely ever successful in a one-to-one situation. She does a great job of locking up people of color for far less heinous crimes and she couldn't manage to get a conviction when there was a dead teenager in the street? That is a shame, and that is what needs to be talked about in classrooms full of law students. That needs to be taught to students who will be filling those shoes in the courtroom, and I really think that the contribution of a teacher who teaches law would have been a really excellent addition.

Judith Slutler

@S. Elizabeth Thanks for this perspective. I've really appreciated hearing from people in law about the case.

@Judith Slutler It's so frustrating, I don't work in criminal law (IP REPRESENT). I just graduated and I'm going into IP with a firm that only does IP* so what I know about criminal law, I learned from school and BarBri and crim law friends. So I know general rules, I know how burdens of proof work, I know about the legal basis for Stand Your Ground, but ... yeah, I don't have the perspective of someone who represents the Zimmermans and Martins of the world every day. But a number of my professors did, and one of them was actually a prosecutor in Florida whose work there is the reason he's a very social justice oriented law professor. He talked about young black men being held awaiting trial -- not convicted of any crime -- being made to do landscaping work, and thinking "yes, this is a plantation, actually." That's been what I've been thinking about through this case; not about dead teenagers or hoodies, but incarceration rates and prosecutorial (in)discretion.

*to the nasty dude commenter who wished me "good luck on my 'career,'" about 2 years ago I say: Please suck a bag of smashed assholes.


@S. Elizabeth

are you talking about choosing to the bring the murder 2 charge? i don't know these legal intricacies like you do, but isn't that less the prosecutor's fault than the fact that we live in a society where a murder 2 conviction (or manslaughter) for a black teenage victim doesn't seem possible?

sincere question, by the way.

@Pheen Yes, the murder 2/"depraved mind" charge.


@Pheen A manslaughter conviction seemed completely reasonable to me. Not a lawyer, but I did read up on the definitions and it seemed like murder was a reach and actually weakened the possibility that the jury would find for manslaughter, because they were pushing so hard to prove murder. Murder is really hard to prove under the circumstances we're talking about, and the lawyers I know say that the biggest mistake the prosecution made was not simply going for the maximum sentence on manslaughter. But hey, S. Elizabeth, tell me if I'm wrong, Lady with a Law Degree.

@Linette Pushing for max sentence on manslaughter would have been way way way better. Murder 2 just seemed like overkill, and there was such an unlikelihood of it being successful.


@S. Elizabeth Not a lawyer, but I share your thoughts. I honestly don't believe GZ wanted to murder anyone and find no fault that he wasn't convicted of such. But I am 100% certain he should have been convicted of manslaughter.

fondue with cheddar

This was wonderful. It's a crazy world, and it's really great to know there are teachers like these.


This was all great, but I thought Dr. Perry's contribution was especially moving/important. Thank you.

Passion Fruit

@missupright Yes, totally. Dr. Perry's response made ME feel calm and grounded; I'm glad it was shared.


This is amazing, it made me cry. And here I thought *I* had difficulties just sitting around hoping my dad didn't bring it up at family dinner. Also, the thought of those two little boys viewing the decision as an existential threat is positively KILLING ME.

Judith Slutler

And, Obama just said a thing. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/07/obama-trayvon-could-have-been-me/277960/


@Judith Slutler god I love him. clarification though, is he FOR racial profiling? because that's what that bit sounded like even though it seems to run counter to everything else in the speech.

Judith Slutler

@iceberg I don't know what legislature he's talking about in Illinois, but it sounds like anti-profiling legislature to me? not sure.


@iceberg Well, he wants the head of the NYPD to replace Janet Napolitano, so ...


I found this interesting to read, but I disagree with some of the teachers interviewed. Since I work in post-secondary education, my job is obviously different, and I am in a union, which means that I have a certain amount of protection. My sister teaches in a high school, as do many family members, and I realize that it can be very difficult for high school teachers to express unpopular opinions.

That said, the best thing I ever learned from my supervisor, who teaches courses on race, colonialism, and literature, is that when we are discussing grave injustices, the best thing to do is to acknowledge that there are things that are deeply wrong. Just say it. It is somewhat biased, I guess, but neutrality is rarely neutral; rather, it serves the status quo in which a black kid can be gunned down quite legally because someone doesn't like the look of him.


@geek_tragedy I came down here to say more or less the opposite: I (ex middle/high/elementary school EFL teacher) can't even imagine purposely bringing it up in class. I really admire that all of these teachers allowed for the possibility of discussing it. There's such strong feeling surrounding it that it seems exactly like the dangerous sort of topic a district might drop you for bringing up in the first place (or being there when it was brought up and not shutting it down). I know that it contains so many important issues that kids definitely do need to learn about - the real consequences of stereotyping, when violence is justified, when the system is rotten and how to live when it is - but if it were me I think I'd rather try to address those topics using other subjects that wouldn't end with me being dropped at the end of my contract. I don't honestly know what I'd do if it were brought up by a student, but my first instinct would be to brush it off and say that we have to remain on topic. I don't know if I'd be clever enough to find a way around the cowardly response, and I think a lot of it would depend on how much sleep I'd been getting.

two dresses

@geek_tragedy i absolutely agree with you, and i wonder if that's due to the fact that i teach at the college level. i've actually published on the myth of the neutral professor and how it's a mechanism of neoliberalism to pressure instructors into silence and complicity. the university (and the nation) are a moving train, ideologically speaking--there is no neutrality there, neither in their policies nor their practices, and especially not in their cultures--so to feign neutrality as a professor or TA is like standing still on that moving train and believing that you aren't going anywhere. it's simply not true.

and i think it's amazingly powerful for our students to hear us say that we are not okay with certain things. and if you do it right, your classroom will still be a safe space for students to express how they feel, even if they hear you say that you don't agree. but we also have to think about those students for whom the experience of having anyone in a position of relative authority stand for and with them.

i realize this might be different in a high school setting, but it's not that i don't risk being fired, too...especially since we're now meant to conceptualize our students as our customers in the neoblieral university, and i'm standing there and telling them they're not "always right," particularly when racial oppression and privilege are involved. i just can't imagine doing it any other way, although maybe that's the privilege of working in higher ed...i still think addressing it piecemeal rather than mentioning a specific case is better than not teaching it at all!

@geek_tragedy "The best thing I ever learned from my supervisor, who teaches courses on race, colonialism, and literature, is that when we are discussing grave injustices, the best thing to do is to acknowledge that there are things that are deeply wrong."

Yes. I like this, but I don't quite understand why you're critical of the teachers who are writing. Is it because they're hesitant to explain social justice issues, or because they're just not willing to talk about controversial current events? I ask because I taught high school without a teacher's union (in rural Virginia where racism is alive and well) and I really sympathize with what they're saying, and I'm surprised that someone is critical of it.

The 3 weeks I taught "To Kill a Mockingbird" with 9th graders in the spring involved a lot of anxiety -- in the middle of a conservative, southern town in a school that didn't teach proper sex ed, they wanted me to talk about rape and Jim Crow? Awesome, because that sounds like a recipe for not getting fired!

Better to Eat You With

@Cawendaw I teach college, and I'm afraid I'll get fired if I discuss it in the fall. The right is on an academic witch-hunt, and I'd prefer not to be dumped in the tank to see if I float. That makes me a chicken shit, I know, and betrays my wish for justice, but I can't do anybody any good without a roof and food, you know? I'll definitely look for ways around it if it comes up.

@Better to Eat You With "I can't do anybody any good without a roof and food, you know?"



@S. Elizabeth

I'm not being critical of them, exactly, but I do think it's important to sometimes say things like "this man shouldn't have died." My family has had....6? 7? non-unionized high school teachers (my great-grandmother, my grandmothers, my sister, cousins, etc.) and I actually taught high school myself. I think that talking about current events can be a difficult line to walk, and I am glad that teachers are talking about Trayvon in the classroom.

But I am also of the opinion that people are so afraid to say anything vaguely social-justicey that they overdo it. I'm not the activist that some of my family members are, but as I said, sometimes it's important to evenly acknowledge an important moral truth. You don't have to yell, or get really upset, or be ranting. You can simply say, "obviously, a situation where an unarmed teenager is shot dead like this is messed up." (You don't have to use those exact words.) Although I'm unionized I face a great deal of pressure from an administration that's extremely conservative and neo-liberal, and if someone complained, I'm sure that the admin would put me through hell. To me, it's worth it--I don't want to teach if I can't acknowledge things like this.

I am not saying, however, that someone in precarious circumstances should put their job in trouble. I am saying that the teachers who can should start acknowledging deeply fucked up shit. We're important to our students and they deserve to hear these things from us.

@geek_tragedy Okay, so I'm not reading this as "teachers are afraid to talk about the circumstances of the crime," but I would be really, really cautious talking about the verdict and why it happened. No, I would have no problem saying "an unarmed teenager on the street shouldn't get shot." In fact, even though I was without a union, I'm pretty sure I said things like that.

I agree that teachers should talk about social justice. I think that would be great. I also think it's an individual teacher's call in terms of how much they want to put their ass on the line. For you, that's worth it, but for me it wasn't because I really needed the job and the money and to not be fired. I think if one is willing to be brave and do that, it's great, but I am highly critical of the idea that someone in the position of a non-unionized teacher is obligated to risk their livelihood to teach in a particular way. Yes, teaching is about opening minds and changing the world, but it's also about putting food on your table and trying to make ends meet, and as a single woman I was not willing to risk that when I didn't have a safety net.


@Better to Eat You With I actually think bringing it up in a college class might be a terrible idea. By this point, the students have a basic understanding of what is going on, so it won't be so much of a 'let's talk through what happened so we can understand' as it would be with elementary aged children. I can see it turning into a rather inflammatory discussion and someone saying something that can be construed as racist. A big reason I don't talk about it with co-workers. They 100% believe TM deserved what he got and I just can't deal with it.


@Better to Eat You With Maybe if you put it in the context of the hundreds of blacks murdered by other blacks in Chicago that never hit the front page of the Tribune or Sun-Times, let alone national media, you can have the discussion on how little the media and liberals care about those victims while going overboard on sensationalizing Martin/Zimmerman. Maybe that will placate the right-wing academic "witch-hunt" you fear. Giving both sides will make it hard to single you out. Being biased will make it easy.


The two little boys crying is heart-rending. It's hard-- the Trayvon Martin case was about more than racism, but when you get down to brass tacks it really is about racism.


As an English teacher I would definitely pair it with 12 Angry Men, where the defendant rather than the victim is a minority, and use it as an opportunity to discuss the way our legal system works. This case was tragic, and the verdict was disappointing, but sadly I was not at all surprised by the result. When it comes down to the amount of evidence in this case, it was difficult to prove either side, and there was certainly an understandable amount of reasonable doubt. I feel for the jurors who had to make this decision, and of course for the victim's family.

I hesitate to post this, since the Hairpin is not always super nice to a dissenting view. Please understand that I in no way think that Zimmerman is innocent - what he did was wrong in every way - but from a legal standpoint I have a hard time seeing how they could have convicted him of murder with the evidence at hand, although the prosecution could certainly be held responsible for that to a certain extent.


As a linguist who teaches sociolinguistics courses on race, ethnicity, and social identity, there are several ways to tie this case into my lectures on:

1. Ethnic slurs. I would mention the (now forgotten) issue of whether or not Zimmerman called him a "coon", and pair the "creepy ass cracker" and n-word issues with two sources: a David Roediger reading on white ethnic slurs and a documentary called The N-Word. Somewhat related is the use of words like "thug" in discourse.

2. Ethnicity/race labels, census categories, and the history of who does and does not count as white. People's confusion over "white Hispanic" definitely ties in here.

3. Linguistic profiling and discrimination based on accent/dialect. Rachel Jeantel's testimony wasn't evaluated so much for its content so much as for her "attitude", which is perceived as bad partly because she speaks African American Vernacular English and uses gestures that are widespread throughout the West African diaspora. A related issue is how much people who speak "standard" American English choose to accommodate or not accommodate to other dialects, depending on region, ethnicity, and social class. If Rachel had had a thick British accent, would we be getting the same kind of complaints about her?


@koala Oooohhh... yes, this.

Matthew Gordon@twitter

"In the age of the internet and opinion blogs, hearsay and innuendos tend to carry the day. The facts of the case and the laws of the land should rule."

This is the best nugget in the whole article.


Yes and other first glad it was shared, seriously it is very amazing.


This is the stupidest saddest thing I have ever read. You people do realize that Trayvon Martin attacked Zimmerman first? You realize that Martin was beating Zimmerman in the face and bashing his head into the concrete when Zimmerman shot him? You do realize that in ANY state in the country Zimmerman would have been acquitted because this is NOT a stand your ground case it is a self defense case?



@S. Elizabeth You mean truth tellers. If you are a teacher at least try and understand the difference in Stand Your Ground laws and self defense. At least try and learn about the Zimmerman case

@RTJ I said nothing about Stand Your Ground laws, but legally SYG is a type of self-defense. It has to do with the duty to retreat. "It's NOT a stand your ground case, it's a self defense case" is like saying "it's NOT an apple, it's a fruit!" I actually have no problem with SYG, but I do have issues with a self-appointed neighborhood watch guy following a teenager in their car and provoking the teenager.

I don't think you're a "truth teller," I think this is your first post on the Hairpin and you're spewing ideas that are incredibly questionable. You don't know who attacked first -- because nobody knows that, and there was one witness who offered conflicting stories throughout the case.


@S. Elizabeth You're correct that no one other than Zimmerman knows who attacked who first but fortunately for him every single piece of evidence points to Martin attacking first. It would be a SYG case if Zimmerman had a reasonable way to retreat and didn't. Everything points to Martin attacking without warning thus it is a self defense case. I bet you did not know this, when the police were first interviewing Zimmerman they told him the shooting was caught on camera. You know what Zimmerman's response was? “Thank God, I was hoping somebody videotaped it."

"You people do realize that Trayvon Martin attacked Zimmerman first?"
"You're correct that no one other than Zimmerman knows who attacked who first."

Way to be consistent.

Dot Wiggins

@S. Elizabeth the only evidence there is shows Martin attacked. It is not absolutely conclusive but it is all we have. Way to be stupid.

Dot Wiggins

@S. Elizabeth So anyone who disagrees with you is a "troll"?


The best take on this is from liberal columnist William Saletan over at Slate.com. He took the time to listen to all seven hours of closing arguments before coming to judgment instead of only relying on the spin the media provided. His column can be read here:


and it is well worth reading, especially if teachers are going to discuss this in class. Listen to ALL sides of the issue, gather and disseminate the information, and DO NOT let your personal beliefs taint the discussion. If you allow students to listen and read all the facts and circumstances, a better understanding will result.

Dot Wiggins

LVTaxman is right. Shame on all of you commenting with your own agendas; you should stop and think and realize how much harm you are doing. These teachers make me glad I can send my children to private schools.

nill lee

That makes me both proud and sad to be from and living in Alabama. "Rednecks are holding their heads a little higher and tapping the guns on their holsters eager for a stand your ground moment." Yikes. But I think that is true, at least to an extent.


Think about the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird when the mob comes to the courthouse for Tom. Also many of Faulkner's short stories discuss mobs out for justice. 10 tips on losing weight fast

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Vivia Lee@facebook

I hope all schools that "discussed" the Martin/Zimmerman case stressed that it is not advisable to attach people on the street because they may be armed and able to fight back.


I hope all schools that "discussed" the Martin/Zimmerman case stressed that it is not advisable to attach people on the street because they may be armed and able to fight back. More hints

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