Eric Mosley is a 5th grade reading teacher at an all-male middle school in Brooklyn, NY. I talked with Eric about the increased public awareness around unarmed black males dying at the hands of law enforcement. Here, he shares his thoughts on the intersectionality between education and social justice, and discusses why educators have a responsibility to tackle these issues in the classroom.
First, have you discussed the increase in public awareness of unarmed Black men dying at the hands of the police in your classroom?
Yes, It’s happened in a couple different ways. At the beginning of the year in August when we first heard about Michael Brown and the situation in Ferguson, we didn’t talk about it as explicitly, because we didn’t know how to talk about it. But as instances continued to happen throughout the year, and gained more coverage in the media, we wanted to be really careful on how we discussed it.
The most difficult thing for me was that for so long we told the boys that education was the way out, and education is the great leveler, and it gives everybody equal access to opportunities But then it’s like, what happens if you just get shot or somebody just kills you before you have an opportunity to prove how intelligent you are and how deserving you are?
How have you structured your lessons?
I was very careful. I wanted to provide a space where they could talk and process, so it started with just conversations. We watched CNN Student News, which is ten minutes of local and global news, and every week day they have a current events portion, so much of our conversation comes from what we see on Student News. It was most important to me to just create a space in our morning advisory and throughout the day for them…to talk about what they wanted in a safe space. I think that was our first step.
Later on, we felt that as a school that’s 98% black and all males that we needed to do more, so a group of teachers decided that we wanted to talk about prejudice, stereotypes, the bias in those stereotypes and the prejudice that existed specifically with Mike Brown.
We knew it needed to be academic and very personal. We got together and brainstormed: what are the biggest things or what are the first things that we need to talk about in order to get a common language for them? So we decided stereotypes, prejudice, and bias were the stepping stones.
We put together a lesson where we analyzed the language Darren Wilson used to describe his feelings towards Mike Brown in his testimony and we had our students (6-8 grade) analyze the diction that he used to reflect his own personal bias and we had them just talk about what they thought that meant. We had them watch a Buzzfeed video of the last words of fourteen unarmed black males who had been shot by the police, and we had them talk in table groups about a set of questions ranging from ‘Do you identify as a person of color?’ to ‘Have you ever felt threatened by the police?’ We just had them talk amongst themselves and express how they felt about it.
How have your students responded?
There was a lot of great discussion . In the lessons conducted in individual classrooms, analyzing Darren Wilson’s testimony, so many of them were outraged at the words he used to describe Mike Brown–when he referred to him as a demon, and that he was afraid for his life. They were really angry about the way that he spoke, and a lot of them expressed their discontent and confusion with why these officers were not being indicted. I ’m proud with how receptive and analytical they were in those discussions.
What are your thoughts on the police treatment and media coverage of youth protesters?
I think that it’s of course very, very biased against the protestors. I think it’s ridiculous the way the media chooses to portray the youth. Yes there are people who are looting, yes there are people being destructive and violent, but there are also people who are protesting non-violently. I think the media is doing a not surprisingly poor job with the coverage.
What role should educators play in discussing social justice issues in the classroom?
I think that educators need to cultivate a safe space within their classrooms or advisories for students to discuss social justice issues. I don’t think kids get to really talk about current events and things that are relevant to them enough without teachers’ commentary or guiding the discussion, so I was a little bit nervous about where the conversation would go or what they would say. So I thought my role as a facilitator was to present the information and let students gather and make their own opinions and assumptions based off of it. I also thought it was important for me to paraphrase what kids were saying, especially if they did not have the language to completely or most effectively communicate what they were trying to say, so that other students could also participate and build on that, and they could have the most meaningful discussion. I definitely think it’s our job for us to create opportunities for students to discuss and process and analyze what is going on in the world and how it relates to them.
Do you think schools should implement a social justice curriculum to address these issues?
I don’t want to say schools should implement a social justice curriculum because I don’t know if we know what that means. We don’t have the answers to these questions…I’m hesitant to say that we should create it because I don’t think we as people are on the same page enough to be able to tell kids this what you should do.
I think that we should be aware that there are opportunities. We often have missed opportunities when it comes to kids and social justice. I think there should be a space, I don’t know if there should be a curriculum.
As an African-American male teacher at an all-male school, how do you go about preparing your students for the world outside of the classroom?
That’s a really good question and I find that’s what is most important to me in my work. I’m a reading teacher so literacy skills and test data are super important to the school, but to me what’s most important is that they value themselves and they have a sound moral compass. So as far as things that I do…at our school we have very strict behavior management system and we use point values to regulate their behavior management. I always provide the purpose behind what we are doing, I always tell them, this is not about points, its about your integrity. It’s about who you are choosing to become, what type of man you are choosing to become. I talk to them all the time about the habits that they are building—trustworthiness, integrity—these are the things that will take them the furthest in life, beyond the academics and the things they are learning now. These are the things that are also really important that will make a person.
Finish this sentence: One thing I wish law enforcement officials knew about my students is…
They have dreams, they have goals and that they are children. They are children, they are not thugs. They’re children.
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