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Teaching About the Jordan Davis Murder Trial

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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This post represents the work of a group of educators and education activists who wanted to help educators help students process the verdict in the Jordan Davis murder trial. Many of us wrote from our experiences both in and out of the classroom, and as such, many of us used "I" statements in talking about these ideas. The writers are Melinda Anderson, Joshua Block, Zac Chase, Alexa Dunn, Bill Fitzgerald, Matt Kay, Diana Laufenberg, Chris Lehmann, Luz Maria Rojas, John Spencer, Mike Thayer, Jose Vilson and Audrey Watters. You can also link to the Google Doc or download the whole thing as a PDF. Everything written below is collaborative. This document is Creative Commons -- Share Alike.

As educators, we believe that we have a responsibility to use our classrooms to help young people grapple with and address the messiness of the world around them. In collaborating on this, what we know to be true is that there is more than a single lesson plan here. The issues raised by the Jordan Davis murder trial touch deeply on issues of race, law, and social justice, and any and all of these issues could be a course of study. What we hope to do is offer a number of ways for teachers and students to think about the case while knowing that no one way, no one day can possibly speak to all of the challenges this case represents.

What follows is an attempt to organize what was a 15-hour brainstorming session into a few organizing concepts:

  1. Things to consider as a teacher when tackling this subject
  2. Ideas and resources around teaching about/toward the Jordan Davis murder verdict
  3. Some concrete lesson plans that teachers could use to examine the verdict from several different lenses

General Thoughts About Teaching Toward the Jordan Davis Murder and Verdict

  • Many teachers are a little uncomfortable, maybe even afraid, to have these conversations, but that's exactly why we need to have them. Importantly, these conversations also need to happen among the adults in the building. Many of the ideas in this post could also be used for professional development sessions with the adults.
  • Pay attention to the context of your classroom. If it is a predominately white classroom, please don't use the minority student as the "expert informant" whose job it is to "tell it like it is." That's a whole lot of pressure to put on a kid. On the same note, if you teach in a school where students are mostly African-American (or students of color in general), share how you feel about it, how it makes you angry and sad. Then give them space to talk about it.
  • Give students the permission to process in a way that represents who they are. Some kids want to talk about it. Some want to listen. Some want to blog about it. I've had some kids sketch their ideas out in word bubbles or in art while we try and make sense out of the tragedy. (See Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers.)
  • I would caution teachers that some kids (including African-Americans) might not feel as crushed by it as they do. Some students have normalized injustice. Some students have seen things that we can't fathom, and it's hard for them that their own stories of injustice were never deemed "newsworthy." Some students are just not that interested at the moment in an event that feels "far away" from them. It's very important to remember that kids don't want to feel emotionally manipulated by any adult -- especially a teacher.
  • I think it helps sometimes to make the distinction ahead of time that discomfort doesn't mean "unsafe." It might not be a comfortable conversation, but hopefully it will be a safe, trusted environment. I know that I've had to go over this concept when talking about racial injustice in immigration policy.
  • On issues that have significant emotional impact, I like to start the class with the opportunity for personal reflection and thought gathering before getting into group discussion. One process I used was to open the class with a background reading, and give students blank index cards. After they have read the background piece, they write one adjective describing their thoughts on the piece. Then, the cards get collected and displayed in a publicly visible space. This process creates the room for people to gain familiarity with the issue, along with some time to collect thoughts/emotions before starting discussions.
  • Keep the developmental level of kids in mind. The way I talked with my older son (third grade) is different from how I'll talk to eighth graders.
  • Plan the lesson, not as scripted (because you cannot script this conversation), but be aware that just having an open-ended conversation with kids may unintentionally create the space where kids don't feel safe or OK to have the conversation. Small group discussions, writing prompts, time for reflections, and the setting of norms for these conversations can help to create a place where kids feel safe to have what will quite possibly be a very uncomfortable conversation.
  • I think it’s important to say that we will not "solve" this problem in an hour-long class, and we have to be thoughtful about owning that upfront.
  • That said, it is important to really be aware of time when dealing with topics like this. It isn't fair to kids to get so caught up in the conversation as to lose track of time and then just "dismiss" them when class is over without giving them the opportunity to have some closure on the conversation, even if many of us are at a place where we don't have closure on what actually happened.

Ideas and Resources for Teaching the Jordan Davis Murder Verdict

  • Apparently Don Lemon was furious about the verdict. Seems as good an anticipatory set as anything else.
  • What is the relationship between law and justice? Can be connected to excerpts from Thoreau on Civil Disobedience.
  • How do societies change? What is the role of individuals to demand change? Can connect to 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action. I find that some students respond to issues by saying, "That's just the way things are . . . " I believe it is crucial to remind young people that history is filled with struggles for and periods of change. Film clips can be very helpful to remind students of historical moments when people mobilized to demand change. Here is a powerful clip from Egypt. The film The Democratic Promise has some parts that resonate with students. (It's in parts on YouTube - this is part 1.)
  • Patricia Hill Collins' book The Alchemy of Race and Rights has a powerful section on Critical Legal Studies using the example of Eleanor Bumpers. She does a great job picking apart the way society and language can steer the conversation away from what is morally right. It is a great starting point for picking apart something like Stand Your Ground.
  • Depending on the age and the group, people can consider using some of Augusto Boal’s tools from Theater of the Oppressed. This Training for Change activity is another possibility for enabling students to explore ways to speak up against injustice.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates has a powerful essay about the verdict in the Atlantic. (Coates also wrote extensively about the Trayvon Martin murder, pointing in several articles to Jordan Davis' death. Discussion: how has the coverage of these cases been different?)
  • One thing I have been thinking about is the ease with which certain words get thrown around, like "thug." Is there a place in the conversation with the kids to talk about how the words they use matter? Perhaps finding examples in media of how language is used to support stereotypes and how language can also subvert them?
  • Another thing I have thought about is the role of schools in teaching empathy. Is it a good idea to include in the lesson a place for students to practice deep listening?
  • This could be an interesting way into the conversation. It would take some time, but if someone was interested in building this into more than a day, see this link: http://sfi.usc.edu/creatingcharacter/docs/LP_JusticeFairness_CC_002.pdf.
  • I would address some of the facts of the trial and also the humanity behind it. The CNN video where Jordan Davis' parents talk about him is powerful, because he retains his humanity.
  • I would make sure that some time is spent (after the initial chat about the feelings in the room) learning about the history of Stand Your Ground laws.
  • I would make sure that some time is spent going over what terms like “murder" and "manslaughter" mean, the choices that prosecutors make when going for each distinction -- and how Stand Your Ground affects those choices in Florida. Here are some links:
  • There is enough "living history" from the civil rights movement still around. I would find a way to bring in someone who was around for Emmett Till (or any other such vigilante injustice) and have a conversation linking now and "then." I am bringing in a few folks to speak to my kids about the race riots that they have witnessed -- could be a similar opportunity. And if the notice is too short, there is no shortage of first-person interviews, news reports and other primary sources to explore and pick through for similarities, and no shortage of questions to ask about what they see.
  • I have had some fairly explosive conversations about my own dealings with the police and would-be vigilantes, and so have many of my mentees and students. I think that any conversation has to take into account that many of them have their own stories to tell about this kind of injustice -- and they need to be given the space to talk. Many of the kids have "stop and frisk" stories that they would be quick to relate to what happened in these famous cases. Their family members have been through it -- many opportunities for connection.
  • After the Trayvon Martin murder verdict, the QED Foundation published a page of resources for talking to kids about the verdict. Some of these links may be useful entry points for talking with kids about the Jordan Davis case.
  • I screen Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (a well-done film review by Roger Ebert) in Senior Reel Reading, and we explore how this film is a vehicle for social commentary. One character, Radio Raheem, is killed by white police after an enraged incident in Sal's Pizzeria over the volume of his boom box. However, it's not so black and white (pardon the pun), and there are many, many gray areas. Versions of this kind of story can be seen in the Howard Beach incident (which inspired Do the Right Thing), the Jordan Davis case, and countless cases in between and yet to come. While a 1989 film, it is still so relevant today.
  • I want them to maybe look at some key Pennsylvania laws and compare to Florida laws. "How am I in danger?" "Am I?" I want my students to see Arizona laws and the fact that they're currently fast-tracking a Stand Your Ground law in our state.

One Possible Lesson Plan: Target Age - Grades 7-12

Warm Up

What is justice? Provide examples. What is injustice? Provide examples. Discuss. Collect examples on the board or digitally.

Provide students with scenarios that allow them to take a stand on whether something was just or unjust. Suggestions: students can jot down their thoughts first and then use the "stand on a line" or "opinion continuum" activity to indicate where they fall on the just/unjust spectrum with each of these scenarios:

  1. A family is forcibly interned (confined for political or military reasons) for two years because they are American citizens of Japanese descent, and the government decided they were dangerous. (Reference)
    Just or unjust? Explain your thoughts.
  2. Homeowners lost their homes in order to make room for a General Motors plant to be built. They were fairly compensated by the government for the cost of their property but were not given a choice to sell or not sell. (Reference)
    Just or unjust? Explain your thoughts.
  3. A 16-year-old drives while drunk and kills four people. He receives probation and no jail time for the crime. (Reference)
    Just or unjust? Explain your thoughts.
  4. Children are removed from their homes and taken to boarding schools where they are taught that their native language is bad, and they must learn English, take "western" names and adopt western customs in order to fit into American culture better. (Reference)
    Just or unjust? Explain your thoughts.
  5. A man was released from death row after 15 years when DNA evidence was used to clear him of wrongdoing in the murder of his cousin. (Reference)
    Just or unjust? Explain your thoughts.

Discuss the Jordan Davis Case

Introduce the basic facts of the case, including information on Stand Your Ground and self-defense. Ask students to write down questions as they hear the facts of the case. Allow time for questions and answers. Possible sources:

Have students develop statements about how justice and injustice relate to this case.

Play/read different perspectives of people after the verdict. Discuss the emotions and frustration felt by many Americans as a result of the verdict:

Talk about action steps. If one wanted to speak out against or do something, what are options? Brainstorm as a class and then share ideas students haven't mentioned, such as:

  • Register to vote or encourage parents to register.
  • Letters to the editor.
  • Discussions with parents/family.
  • Use social media to raise awareness among peers.
  • Keep up to date with current events and issues of social justice.
  • Be aware of local issues of injustice.
  • Lead a school-wide day on issues of social justice.
  • Start a youth group to discuss issues of social justice and bring awareness.

Resources to continue the conversation:

Another Potential Lesson Plan: Target Age - Grades 7- 12

I think lesson plans that bring up pertinent questions to help kids wrestle with the subject are most useful. I would especially like the lesson plan to help kids see that Jordan Davis is emblematic of what happens in schools via zero tolerance and black males disproportionately affected by suspensions/expulsions. When does an innocent high school student become "intimidating," "threatening" or "suspicious"? That's why Stand Your Ground laws are so flawed -- because their underpinning is that bodily harm or death is justified if the person feels intimidated or threatened. People can feel threatened if they are scared or paranoid about their safety. How does "intimidating," "threatening" or "suspicious" look in your students' classrooms, their schools, in their daily interactions outside school? Exploring these questions from their own experiences would be most valuable to me as a parent. My son has said that he notices people judge him and his friends by their appearance, depending on how he's dressed. It makes him feel self-conscious. Maybe explore those concepts.

Journal Entry

Have you ever had a moment where you felt that someone judged you because of your perceived race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation and/or manner of dress? How did that make you feel? Or have you ever judged someone based on those perceived attributes?

Discussion

In small groups, have students discuss their personal reactions to the journal entry for several moments. Then ask groups to share out with the class what they discussed.

Transition

Class discussion prompt: What are your concerns when people make judgments based on those perceived attributes?

Activity

Have students read the New York Times article on the Jordan Davis case. In small groups, have students take on the following questions and then share out:

  • Why did Michael Dunn see Jordan Davis as a threat?
  • Why did Michael Dunn feel threatened by someone sitting in a car, listening to loud music?
  • Why do these kinds of thoughts surface in people's heads when they see a black person?
  • Would things have been different if Jordan Davis was a white kid sitting in his car, listening to loud music? Why or why not?

Big Question

What does it mean when institutional decisions (for example, court cases, school policies, employment opportunities, housing) are influenced by this kind of pre-judging/stereotyping?

  • How does it affect us if we believe a decision was made because of the way someone perceived us due to our perceived race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and/or manner of dress?
  • What does it mean when laws like Stand Your Ground or school suspension policies have a disproportionate negative impact on people of color more than whites?

Summary

  • What can be done to help people be better informed about those they see as "others" based on the perceived identifiers above?
  • What needs to happen to make sure that laws and policies do not reinforce existing inequality in our country and in our communities?
  • What can we do as a community to begin supporting that work?

A Third Potential Lesson Plan: Target Age - Grades 7- 12

The goal of this lesson plan is to give students the chance to talk about the trial and their feelings about it, and then do meaningful, real work that allows them to address the problems they see in the trial and the law.

Do now

Read one of three articles about the trial:

Give students blank index cards. After they read the background piece, have them write one adjective describing their thoughts on it. Collect the cards and display them in a publicly visible space. This process creates the room for people to all get familiarity with the issue, along with some time to collect thoughts/emotions before starting discussions.

Discussion

What do you think of the verdict? Was justice served?

Transition

A short write on these potential topics:

  • What is the relationship between the way I feel about this personally and what I can do as a person in America?
  • How is what happened to Jordan Davis relevant to me?
  • How does this compare to my world? My experiences? What does it say about America? My city? My state?

Activity

In small groups, come up with an action plan about what can be done to make a more just society/country/community. Some potential activities include:

  • Blog post about "What should society or what can we as a community do after the Jordan Davis murder trial?" Maybe even an open-ended blog post with several options, or a brainstorm of blog topics crowd-sourced in small groups.
  • A letter to Jordan Davis' parents.
  • A letter to local politicians.
  • An op-ed for the local newspaper.
  • A meeting with local law enforcement to discuss concerns around the case.
  • Given that the Jordan Davis murder verdict is not something isolated, it would also be good to brainstorm with students about any plans/interest for ongoing involvement/activism.

Summary

  • How do we deal with a tragedy and work to make change?
  • How do we act in the public good when we are angry, sad, frustrated, hurt, scared?
  • How do we do it as a community and not just as individuals who feel all of the above emotions?

A Final Thought

Thank the kids for being willing to engage in the conversation. And tell them you love them. And mean it.

Was this useful?

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

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