Teaching and Learning

Light Emerges from Our Darkened Screens

Teaching is a lonely experience in this COVID reality. I plead to the faceless names on my dark screen: Anyone out there? Can you hear me?

A faint voice from the emptiness of my screen emerges: “Yes professor.’’ Relief – a beating heart on the other side of this digital existence.

For students it is equally challenging, realizing that privacy is a luxury, but essential in remote learning. They know too that weak internet connections hamper their success.

And still more than ever, job obligations take precedent as severe economic times hit student households hard. Sometimes, the best they can do is tune in while on the job.

But give freshman 101 students a real-life writing assignment with facts and history and their voices sound in the main room and breakout rooms of live sessions.

I had my students research and write about police brutality — a real life scenario that awaits them outside their door each day. This writing assignment goes beyond YouTube sound bites that ‘all cops are racists’ and the inevitable scourge of police brutality. With this assignment, students now have the opportunity take their anger from experience and look for solutions.

Students take on the responsibility to inform themselves. They read and listen to the voices of today’s Black leaders and activists in panel discussions organized by the Obama Foundation and My Brother’s Keepers Alliance.

Students research the psychological trauma of police brutality in its aftermath — confirming their own observations and experiences. The next step is to find a proposal to reform police departments.

They select one proposal in the Obama’s Task Force: 21st Century Policing Report. Charged with critiquing one reform from body cameras to de-escalation police training policies, students come up with their own solutions that weigh the viability of the foundation’s proposal.

Kimalee Anderson took on the challenge. She researched reforms proposed by mental health professionals from the national nonprofit, The Treatment Advocacy Center. “I did the research to find out exactly what was going on, not what I was thinking,’’ said Kimalee. Her essay argued that police should be required to call in the experts to handle 911 calls that concern the mentally ill. Working from her dental office job, Kimalee read her essay aloud on camera to the class. Her topic inspired others to take on the same issue.

Students also reflected on the history of American slave patrols, making connections to today’s local policing policies.

Shavoya Easy’s research brought to light the voices of old and new, from Martin Luther King Jr. III (the son of the slain civil rights leader), to the late Congressman John Lewis, to the youthful voice of today’s Black movement organizer DeRay Mckesson, co-founder of Campaign Zero.

Shavoya heard their voices when she reached further back into history. There was a profound connection with Frederick Douglass’ 1865 speech: “What the Black Man Wants.” Shavoya and others were astounded that Douglass’ original words echoed today’s effects of police brutality on Black America.

Douglass’ speech made before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in the final days of the Civil War implores that the next step after emancipation is the right to vote, along with a freed Black slave’s right to determine the job and place they want to settle. Shavoya’s research on the Slave Patrols of the era detects a correlation to today’s local policing practices that contain and want to control the movements of Black Americans.

Shavoya quotes Douglass’s antebellum reference of the “mob’’ — a renegade of white racists who become “judge, jury and executioner” when stating the facts of the police killing of George Floyd.

Students also connected to the hopeful words of former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey who lamented the need to shift police roles from “warrior” to “guardian.’’ Police officers should not be “warriors” or soldiers of oppression, but “guardians’’ who honor the oath to protect and serve. Students grasp the concept quickly but have never heard it so clearly stated.

Student Anthony Spinola writes: “The fact that people are being brutalized and murdered by the same people who have sworn to protect us is insanity.’’ Spinola, the son of a former Westchester County sheriff, told the class his father was a racist.

Reading his essay to the class, Spinola’s insight from a circle of racist police, opined that police unions perpetuate racist ideals. To support the claim, he cited an article from the New Yorker that examined the endorsement of Donald Trump by NYPD union leader Patrick Lynch.  Spinola’s essay proposed withholding federal grants from departments being investigated for racist behavior and police brutality — a means to check and balance the power of police unions.

The teaching moment in this freshman 101 virtual classroom broke through its anonymity. Honest candor that reflects today’s racist reality broke the silence. Provoked students read their writing aloud and considered solutions on the horizon. Their research and writing experience dug deep in their intellectual curiosity in a life topic dear to them.

For myself, I learned that teaching is about passing the baton to the young to inspire them to find solutions to the problems we could not solve.

And still more inspiring was seeing students quote Martin Luther King III who in an interview with journalist Christiane Amanpour, stated:  “It takes a few good men and women coming together to create a strategic plan and effort.”

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