Teacher-created video helps start conversation about race

From the Delaware Department of Education’s Facebook page and all the way to Japan, a video crafted by Delaware educators is opening the conversation for speaking to students in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a white police officer and as protests continue locally and nationally.

“I think we all just felt it was important to let our students know that we are here for them throughout this entire situation and that we will do our best to support them in any way possible,” said Briana Villa, a kindergarten teacher in Caesar Rodney School District. “There wasn’t much coming out, from an educator’s perspective that we could see, to let our students know that we supported them.”

The video was created, edited and written by Ms. Villa and teachers Diona Talley, Tere Crawford and Noelle Mouhtarim. It included nearly 50 Delaware educators from up and down the state.

“I don’t think any of us expected to get that many in the video from the beginning, but I definitely think that a lot of educators all around do share the same opinion we have, wanting to be there for their students, but a lot of people were just unsure about how to go about it or how to kind of start that conversation,” Ms. Villa said.

Ms. Talley, a fifth-grade teacher in Capital School District, described it as a way to initiate the conversation.

“A lot of teachers don’t know how to talk about it. Talking about racism, talking about inequities, it makes them uncomfortable to speak about and I feel like it was a very good icebreaker for teachers to be able to start a conversation with their students,” she said.

“An Open Letter From Delaware Educators to our Students…”, which was posted to YouTube Sunday and has accrued more than 6,000 views, is one part of the larger conversation in the state dealing with racial injustice and police brutality.

Mr. Floyd’s arrest and murder May 25 in Minneapolis was caught on camera. The white officer, Derek Chauvin, was later charged with third-degree murder and second degree manslaughter.

His death sparked protests around the country, beginning in Delaware at the end of May. Demonstrations organized up and down the state have continued through this week.

For educators, it’s impossible to ignore the injustice and the response to it.

Opening a conversation

“There’s just no ignoring this. If I’m carrying it and I’m struggling to deal with it, then I know that 10 year olds are. I know that 15 year olds are. I know that 18 year olds are,” Ms. Talley said. “Because they don’t know how to express their feelings because they feel hopeless. Even if they don’t want to talk about it, they need to talk about it.”

But many do want to talk about it, said Ms. Mouhtarim, a ninth-grade teacher in Caesar Rodney School District.

“If we’re going to ignore racial tensions, then we’re ignoring the struggles that many of our students are facing in Delaware because most districts do have a prominent black population in their schools, and it would be an injustice to them to simply ignore it,” she said.

When the protests first began in late May and early June, some districts released letters in response.

“I have been a public educator for 35 years, now, and even as I write this open letter to you, I am struggling with crafting just the right message, selecting just the right words. But there are no ‘right words’ for what is happening in our country right now,” Superintendent of Smyrna School District Patrik Williams wrote to families June 3.

In a phone interview, he noted that teachers have to blend curriculum with what is going on around them.

“Kids, especially when they hear and see things, they don’t understand or they don’t fully understand — because of their age, because of their immaturity — they’re looking to us to give it some perspective,” he said. “So if we don’t, if we don’t explain to the best of our abilities and try to put it in perspective and help them become active participants in the world around them, and we don’t give them a framework, then they’re going to go and create their own, and it may not be accurate. It could be harmful to them or others.”

Many concurred.

“I think it’s additionally difficult right now because of the situation we’re in, where we can’t have our kids in front of us and have that value of that real face-to-face conversation,” said Smyrna High School Principal Stacy Cook.

She noted that the school administrators have told the staff at the high school to open up the opportunity for conversation with the students.

“The important thing is not to try to move beyond it [and] try to do business as normal,” she said. “You don’t want to just keep moving forward when clearly we have this really important issue, standing right there in front of us that our kids are experiencing, our kids are feeling and we have to acknowledge that.”

Dr. LaTonya Pierce, assistant principal for Smyrna High School, explained that the high school has been using its social media platforms to get the message out that “we support our students who are suffering, who are struggling during this time and we support the message of Black Lives Matter,” she said.

“As educators, I feel like we have the largest and most influential platform to reach our students and the community and that will help bring about a change and impact,” she said.

Generally, teachers would be able to talk with students face to face for a more personal conversation, but Dr. Pierce said that the school has asked teachers to speak with students, either by incorporating it into the content, or setting aside time to have these conversations.

“We know that these conversations are often uncomfortable to have,” she said, “but they’re very necessary.”

When it comes to what it looks like in the classroom, because Ms. Villa teaches kindergarten, she has relied on sharing resources with parents, she said.

“It’s difficult to have the conversation in general, but especially due to the limited time and interactions that we have with them,” she said. “Also with the nature of the situation, I don’t think it’s necessarily my job to expose them to all of the details that’s going on, but instead have open conversations and discussions with them.”

Ms. Crawford, a first-grade teacher in Capital School District, agreed. She sent the open letter video to parents and a book titled “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice.”

“It talks about it from different perspectives so that approach really is being conscious of my age group but also providing a resource that could aid in the conversation if they need to have a conversation,” she said.

She noted that she encouraged parents to have discussions they feel are appropriate with their children, to allow them “the chance to talk with their children before we really step in, especially during this remote learning time,” she said.

“Realizing that we’re all working together in a home-to-school partnership, so I’ll always respect their role as the parent first,” she said.

Ms. Mouhtarim said that she has been pulling resources from the National Education Association, which has an online drive full of resources specifically related to systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement on their website.

“While my students are capable and often do a lot of research on their own without even knowing it — oftentimes through Twitter and Instagram and TikTok — they are more aware, I think, than they think, but I’m giving them articles, and supplying those to their parents, again, as a basis,” she said.

She added that this is the time to draw connections back to literature they’ve been studying. She pointed to “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which has “really strong themes of racial injustice,” she said.

“We’ll go back now and just to kind of show them that that piece of literature is incredibly relevant and it does present a lot of themes and ideas that we could still talk about now, or we’ll go back to the Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, which we studied all the way back in December,” she said, “but I’m showing them a lot of the ideas and philosophies that Dr. King shared in that speech that we should maybe be reminding ourselves of and use that to carry a conversation.”

Ms. Talley also pointed to social emotional education and trauma informed education, and how it is important to reckon with what is going on outside of the classroom.

You can’t teach kids, she said, if you don’t know what they’re going through.

“The same way that teachers want to know if somebody died in their family, well, somebody did die in their family, and they keep dying in our family. Everybody out here is our family, the people that you see in the news, to some people they feel like, ‘Oh, that’s sad,’ and then they can go to the beach,” she said. “This is devastating for us. It’s not just, ‘Oh that’s sad,’ and get over it. This is life changing, it’s life altering. It makes you mad, it makes you angry, it makes you sad.”

Which is why, many of the educators acknowledged, the conversations must continue rather than come on the heels of something tragic.

As an English teacher, Ms. Mouhtarim said that bringing in new, diverse texts can complement the classics.

“What I want to do is maybe with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ we can complement that with ‘The Hate U Give’ [by Angie Thomas]. It employs a lot of the same themes, a lot of the same ideas, however, it employs a young black female perspective that could be easily compared with that of Scout from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” she said.

Ms. Talley added that African American history in school can be limited to slavery, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

The biggest thing they can do, she said, is educate students on why things are the way they are.

“You have to understand the origin for you to have any sort of compassion, for you to understand why people feel the way they do. Maybe it would make them mad, maybe you would light a fire in them when we educate them on — ‘Why are they still doing this? Why is it still like this?’” she said. “And these are the questions that we need our kids to feel so they can want to make a change. They need to understand where they come from and where we started from. And our history is deeper than just slavery.”

School organizations

For some students, they have created a space to have those conversations continuously.

At Smyrna High School, students found a Black Student Union this year.

“We will use that platform to continue to educate and try to bring a unified student body together and continue those conversations,” Dr. Pierce said.

Courtney Voshell, principal of Dover High School, noted that the students have always had a “great voice.”

“And we’ve always supported them and how they want to showcase that,” she said.

She pointed to students leading a national walk out two years ago and students who, just last week, organized a peaceful protest.

“They always seem to rise to the top when they want their voices to be heard in a positive light to spread positive change,” she said, adding later, “As a building leader, I lean on them just as much because they’re helping to educate me.”

In history class at Dover High School, rising senior Kaylan Parker knew when a student said something incorrect about black history, but her teacher didn’t.

“I thought that it was strange that a history teacher wouldn’t know about black history in America,” she said. “So we decided that we should probably start an organization that talks about black history and had discussions that in school you don’t usually have.”

That moment acted as the impetus for Black Communities on Campus, an organization led by Kaylan, her sister Kassidy Parker, Olivia Austin and Kira Palma. The group was created to be proactive rather than reactive.

Each week, the group meets and holds discussion on racial injustices and colorism in the community, said Kassidy, a rising senior. Everyone is welcome.

Rising senior Olivia said that, in the past, teachers don’t always want to talk when students bring up what is going on in the world around them.

“So, this is why the club comes in because then we can talk about it and fully talk about it, instead of having [to] partially talk about it,” she said, adding that it is important to talk about these topics in class, too.

“You shouldn’t hide it,” she said. “If you can’t handle the argument, then why are you a teacher? If you can’t handle the issue or you can’t handle the responses coming from students, why are you a teacher?”

Since forming more than a year ago now, the group has organized the first Black History Expo, which included a fashion show about black fashion from the 1920s up to 2020 and spotlighted black owned businesses. Later this month, they will lead a vigil at Legislative Hall for those who died due to police brutality. They reached out to administration for support, Kaylan said.

“Basically, we can talk all we want in the club. We can talk about these problems all we want. We can talk about starting positivity in this club all we want. But what we really need is for people to come out and see why we should have pride in our community,” Kaylan said.

“People are angry but they’re also sad. It’s a very sad situation to keep seeing all these people that look like you dying for this unjust reason,” she continued. “So what we’re basically saying, ‘Here is us honoring them,’ because they deserve to be honored. They deserve to be honored.”

They agreed that it is important to continue the conversation.

“Being reactive just means that somebody got hurt and wouldn’t it be better if nobody got hurt, if we fix these systems that are being unjust to people of color?” Kassidy said.

The conversations don’t just stop at school, however, Dr. Pierce added.

“I think it is very important, not just educators, but as adults, I think it’s very important that we have these conversations not only in schools, but at the dinner table, in organizations and communities that we work with — whether it’s a community center type of situation, churches — we all need to have these conversations and I think that responsibility falls on everyone,” she said.

Ms. Villa is glad that the video she and Ms. Talley, Ms. Mouhtarim and Ms. Crawford created is helping start those conversations throughout the state, and even further (a teacher colleague in Japan used the video to explain what is going on in America, Ms. Mouhtarim said).

“Being such a small state as Delaware, we were really able to make an impact and spread our message and what we wanted to share, and I think that just goes to show that anyone can really have their voice be heard,” she said.

A mother whose daughter isn’t in Ms. Villa’s class reached out to Ms. Villa to say that her daughter had seen the video and “it made her feel happy.”

“She knew teachers were out there who understood how scared she was feeling during this time,” Ms. Villa said. “…It shows our message is reaching and it’s sticking with those students and that’s really what our goal is from this.”

Racial injustice resources

As the Delaware State News talked with teachers and administrators, they shared resources that can help families begin the conversation of racial injustice. Those resources are below.

BOOKS

“Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard

“Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness” by Anastasia Higginbotham

“Let’s Talk about Race” by Julius Lester & Karen Barbour

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

PBS KIDS for Parents — 13 Children’s Books about Race and Diversity

www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/childrens-books-about-race-and-diversity

VIDEOS

An Open Letter From Delaware Educators to our Students…

www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlBjGgyr8Z0

“Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism” — CNN & Sesame Street Town Hall for Kids

www.cnn.com/2020/06/06/app-news-section/cnn-sesame-street-race-town-hall-app-june-6-2020-app/index.html

WEBSITES AND SOCIAL MEDIA

Delaware State Education Association

www.dsea.org/content/racial-justice

Black Lives Matter at School

blacklivesmatteratschool.com/teaching-materials

National Education Association — EdJustice

neaedjustice.org

neaedjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Racial-Justice-in-Education.pdf

On Instagram:

@DanaReadsBooks

@TeachingBalance

@DrKiraBanks

@eji_or / eji.org