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How one teacher talks about Ferguson

Jan 7, 2015

The 6th grade students at Shabazz Academy in Lansing spent the semester studying the events surrounding the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride and Eric Garner.
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

Teaching middle school students about what happened in Ferguson, or talking about choke holds and grand juries – that’s not part of Common Core, and it’s not likely to show up a a standardized test. But some teachers like Peter Maginot are teaching it anyway.

Maginot teaches sixth grade at Shabazz Academy, an Afro-centric school in Lansing. He's white, but all of his students are black; they’re black, they’re poor and they’re honestly concerned that what happened to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride and Eric Garner could happen to them.

When I visited Maginot's classroom last month, his students were reviewing the facts in the Mike Brown case. Here are a few of the facts, as stated by the students:

"He was shot and killed by a white man."

"He didn't have any weapons, and he was walking down the street."

"He was a teenager."

"They did not indict the person who killed him."

The students – all no more than 10 or 11 years old – know all about what happened in Ferguson (and Staten Island and Dearborn Heights and Florida, for that matter.) They talk about it at home with their parents; they talk about it on the playground with their friends. Their teacher, Peter Maginot, thinks it’s also important for them to talk about it at school with him.

Peter Maginot asks his students to reflect on events in Ferguson and Staten Island.
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

When Maginot started the semester, he wasn’t planning to talk about any of this. It was supposed to be a class about leadership.

But then an unarmed, black teenager in Ferguson Missouri was shot and killed by a white police officer. And a black man from New York died after being placed in a choke-hold by a white police officer. So Maginot decided to spend the semester instead talking about those cases specifically, and the treatment of African Americans more generally.

Maginot believes it's important for teachers to provide a "safe place" for students to talk about these big issues, and steer them in a positive direction. So in addition to the facts of the case, Magniot also asks his students to think about solutions.

Take racial profiling, for example. The students talked about it at length: what it is, why it happens, who it affects. Now, says Maginot, let's talk about solutions: "something that we as individuals can work on, or something our community could work on?"

As the students wrestle with that question, there’s one young boy at the back of the room, wrestling with his own thoughts.

Zyon Adams, 11, is turned around in his seat, facing backwards. He’s staring at a bulletin board he and his classmates made.

A billboard created by students in Peter Maginot's class
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

There are four photos are stapled up on the board: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride and Michael Brown. The letters RIP are written in black marker over each picture:

It's "messed up," says Zyon. "It’s just really black people getting killed a lot. And really you don’t usually see a lot of white people in those types of problems." I ask him how that makes him feel. His voice wavers a little bit when he says how "scared and upset" it makes him feel "because it might happen to me one day. I could be one of the people on the posters saying RIP with my picture right under it."

It’s heavy stuff, what these kids are grappling with.

They’ve got solutions, though. They’ve got sixth grade solutions. They want to hang up posters, go on field trips to schools with white kids and talk about the issues with them, get their take on what’s been happening.

Zyon Adams, 11, wants to be a lawyer when he grows up so he can help young black men who are in trouble.
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

For his part, Zyon Adams is thinking more long term. Before this class, he wanted to be a paleontologist. Now, he thinks he wants to be a lawyer so he can represent young black men who get in trouble.   

"I could help people and explain their case and I’d tell the truth every time."