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How Marvin Gaye and Nikki Giovanni help my students discuss racial violence

Proudly telling the world about #generationIB in our 50th anniversary year

This engaging and thought-provoking article was recently written by Colin Pierce, a Language arts teacher and IB Diploma Programme Coordinator at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle. It was published by in their Teachers’ Lounge on 25 June 2015.

Asheesh Misra—the IB’s Programme Manager for the ‘Bridging the Equity Gap’ project in the US—was compelled to share the story with the IB community as part of the E2 Excellence and Equity section of the blog. The E2 blog posts form a dialogue among IB educators and school leaders around empowering under-represented students for success in life-long learning. 


Participants gather at a community outreach event in Rainier Beach, Seattle. Teacher Colin Pierce said the events are a forum to discuss community issues, including the nationwide impact of racial violence. (Photo by Mike Fritz)

“I’m scared,” Will’s sister said. “I’m scared for him because I think, ‘What if he has a run-in with the police? What will that officer see and how will he react?’”

She blinked and two big tears rolled down her cheeks. She looked over at her brother, a tall, sweet-faced, linebacker of a sophomore at my school. He, too, sniffed and began swiping the tears away from his eyes. Soon it was his mother, then the stranger next to her, then nearly everyone in the room.

In a school community composed of nearly 95 percent students of color, in a neighborhood that has a higher rate of gun violence than anyone would like, this lesson was also designed as a forum to discuss the fears and anxieties stirred up by this year’s seemingly endless string of men and women of colour killed or assaulted by police, vigilantes and, more recently, racially motivated domestic terrorists.

What emerged was a conversation highlighting a truth that is often lost amid the sensational headlines and commentary on what might justify the taking of a life.

This happened at one of the monthly community outreach events that my colleague Cambrie Nelson and I have been organizing for the past few years. We rotate these events through community centers and other neighborhood gathering places to bring sample lessons to parents and the broader community, with the goal of building supports that enable our largely low-income student population to engage and succeed in the challenging IB Diploma Programme.

That day featured a language arts lesson aimed at developing comparative textual analysis skills and looking at the way the cultural and historical context of authors and audiences can shape the meaning of a text. I had paired Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s Going On” with the Nikki Giovanni poem “We” and asked the participants to reflect on the messages of each, and then how those messages might have different meaning for young people today.

When I planned the lesson out the day before, I didn’t intend it to end with everyone crying in the basement of a church. And yet there we were, all of us gathered around a table on a rainy Seattle Saturday, with tears streaking our cheeks.

What is really at stake when we talk about systemic violence against people of colour is the psychological and physical survival of thoughtful, caring, young people like Will and the collateral damage of trauma inflicted on sisters, mothers, fathers and brothers. Will is loved fiercely by his family and his community, and he deserves, as all young people do, to have that love expressed more frequently as a celebration than as constant fear for his life.

I am white, raised in an affluent neighborhood in Oakland, California, and it would be insulting for me to presume I have anything to teach my students and their families about the experience of racial or economic injustice. But as a teacher in their community school, it is my obligation to create space and resources for those conversations to happen. It is my obligation to make sure the central concerns of the community I serve have a respected place in my class and curriculum.

Read the full article on the PBS website.