Teaching about Trayvon Martin

Will schools take time to talk about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case?  And by “time” I mean more than 15-20 minutes in an advisory or homeroom setting.

Probably not. Most schools are not even in session now, but some year-round schools here in Durham just started the 2013-14 school year. I’m guessing most schools — in Durham and around the country — won’t do much, if anything, with the Trayvon Martin case.

That’s a shame, because if it were approached thoughtfully, it could be an amazing learning opportunity, albeit one that would require several weeks to unpack.

A challenge of teaching emotionally charged current events is that there are lots of ways to spin an event and lots of perspectives from which to come at an event. This is true of history in general, but emotions somehow run less high when we think about the ancient Greeks and Romans than when we think about events in contemporary Sanford, Florida.

I think Sanford, Florida, is a good place to start — make sure students know where Sanford is and a bit about its demographics and history. Google Earth is a great tool for this.

Then make sure they know the basic facts of the case. It was a rainy night in February 2012; a 17-year old black man went to a 7-Eleven store… well, wait a moment, this is where it gets tricky.

Do I refer to Trayvon Martin as a “black man,” or as a “young man,” or as an “unarmed youth?” There’s not one neutral way to portray the facts — that’s one of the first lessons I learned in law school. You want the judge or jury to see the picture you paint. And each side can paint a different picture, by using different language. Is George Zimmerman a “racist vigilante” or a “concerned citizen”?

Here’s how columnist Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post set the scene in a recent column:

When Sanford, Fla., police arrived on the scene, they encountered a grown man who acknowledged killing an unarmed 17-year-old boy. They did not arrest the man or test him for drug or alcohol use. They conducted a less-than-energetic search for forensic evidence. They hardly bothered to look for witnesses.

As a teacher, I would have students get the “basic facts” from multiple sources (a process that could take several days) and then consider a variety of opinion pieces about the meaning of the events in Florida.

UPDATE on July 26: I just watched this 6-minute interview of Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz by Mike Huckabee, and Professor Dershowitz makes the point that Zimmerman was arrested. He was brought in handcuffs to the station. But the police could not make out a case against Zimmerman because he claimed self-defense under Florida’s law. He was released several hours later.

To arrest simply means “to stop” and to hold under the authority of the law.


Once we clarified the facts and considered a variety of opinion pieces (a process that would take a few weeks, I imagine), each student would write an opinion piece that attempts to makes sense of the events in Florida. Those opinion pieces would go through multiple drafts as we each refine what we mean to say.

As a sampling of sources we might consider, this column from the Wall Street Journal focuses on blacks taking more personal responsibility for the crimes they commit. It takes a wildly different perspective from this column in the New York Times, which details the myriad ways the legal system failed Trayvon Martin even before the not guilty verdict in the recent trial of George Zimmerman.

As the teacher, I need to be vigilant about how I portray the facts. My initial instinct was to put “not guilty” in quotes in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. If I do that, it implies that I think the verdict has less weight than if I leave the quotes off. Rather than just make a choice, it is incumbent upon me to be aware of my choice of language when portraying this case, and to share the choices I make with my students.

Over several days, I would have students read both of those columns above, plus a few more from other sources. I would have them watch President Obama’s thoughtful and personal speech about Trayvon. We would consider all sorts of angles and perspectives — is this a case mainly about racial profiling and black men? How would it feel to be a young black person walking down the street carrying a drink and some candy? Is it a case about Florida’s “stand your ground” law? Is it a case about gun control? Is it a case about what’s wrong with our legal system? Is it about how we’re a violent society? What is the “history” that President Obama refers to when he says, in his speech, that

Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.

Once students look at the situation from a number of perspectives, we could then have an extended discussion that would be guided (I hope) more by my students’ interests and concerns than by my biases.

I lean to the left — there, I said it — and I am appalled by the result in this case. I am a lawyer, too — I understand the law and the burden of “reasonable doubt” — but that does not mean I think the law in Florida is just.

I would share my view with my students, but I would do my best not to push my views on my students. I was moved by this NPR piece, titled The Talk: What Did You Tell Your Kids After The Zimmerman Verdict? and I would explain to students why I was moved by the piece and by Levar Burton’s account of “how to drive while black.”

But I would like to think I could be open about the discussion, and that a student more inclined to the perspective from the Wall Street Journal piece referenced above would be comfortable sharing his or her views. The Wall Street Journal piece concludes like this:

Did the perception of black criminality play a role in Martin’s death? We may never know for certain, but we do know that those negative perceptions of young black men are rooted in hard data on who commits crimes. We also know that young black men will not change how they are perceived until they change how they behave.

The homicide rate claiming black victims today is seven times that of whites, and the George Zimmermans of the world are not the reason. Some 90% of black murder victims are killed by other blacks.

So let’s have our discussions, even if the only one that really needs to occur is within the black community. Civil-rights leaders today choose to keep the focus on white racism instead of personal responsibility, but their predecessors knew better.

“Do you know that Negroes are 10 percent of the population of St. Louis and are responsible for 58% of its crimes? We’ve got to face that. And we’ve got to do something about our moral standards,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a congregation in 1961. “We know that there are many things wrong in the white world, but there are many things wrong in the black world, too. We can’t keep on blaming the white man. There are things we must do for ourselves.”

Somehow, I can’t envision Dr. King not being outraged by the Trayvon Martin case, but we can never know for sure what Dr. King would say about this case. As a minster who advocated non-violence, I don’t think he would support the “stand your ground” law.

The excerpt above from the Wall Street Journal cites many statistics — this case could present a good opportunity to do math in an applied and relevant setting. What are the statistics about various types of crimes? And how can those statistics be manipulated/massaged to make different points?

What we owe to students is to help them sift through the overwhelming amount of available information about this case; gather a reasonable amount of information from a variety of sources and viewpoints; and let each student develop his or her own well-reasoned and thoughtful opinion about what happened and why in a case that thoughtful people around the country and around the world are talking about.

Because our schools don’t have the sort of curricular freedom to address the Trayvon Martin case, I fear that most students will get the regularly scheduled program — with perhaps a cursory discussion of a troubling and complex situation that deserves a great deal of attention, thoughtful dialogue, and reflection.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Teaching about Trayvon Martin

  1. What an extraordinarily thoughtful and balanced lesson, Steve. I think we teachers often shy away from teaching provocative lessons because we are afraid of being tarred as indoctrinators. But you’ve offered a way for us to engage our students in compelling analysis of the facts, how facts are portrayed through the human lens, the bias latent in language, etc. Stanley Fish wrote an interesting blog the other day, suggesting the roots of the “Stand Your Ground” law are found in the wild west mentality of old spaghetti westerns.

    The conclusion the students ultimately draw in the Martin case is not important. What’s important and lasting is developing the ability to make informed conclusions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s