My Students Were Shocked and Angered by 13th. Here’s How We Build Them Back Up.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

Last Saturday, several students attended a screening of the important documentary 13th, by Ava DuVernay, at our school. Community members (Mothers of Black Sons) sponsored the event, and after viewing the film students and community members broke out into small groups to process and discuss the haunting narrative in the film.

Not surprisingly, my parents and son also attended. My mother had already seen it, but embraced the opportunity to join our school community to view it again. Afterwards, we shared how jarring it was to see this, even though we well knew the target that is on the backs of so many Black and Brown men and women.

At Shoemaker, we firmly believe it is our duty to teach our students in a way that will support students to learn how to think critically and act independently so they are truly prepared for post-secondary success and to lead and serve in their communities.

Leading and serving takes a particular and deliberate preparation. Community focused schools must seize the opportunity to do something about oppression, systemic racism, and white supremacy through instruction, experiences, and mindsets. Students have power, but they must know it and be prepared to use it. The preparation must be ongoing. With the onslaught of news about injustices that plague our experiences, students at times will want to throw up their hands in despair.

Darryl Murphy, a Philadelphia Notebook reporter, spoke to students and included their thoughts in his article. They shared their feelings of despair and hopelessness:

In one room, when asked by a discussion leader to describe how the movie made them feel in one word, they shared terms like pain, hurtful,  anger, and shocked.

Shortly after, most of the students in the group agreed that there was no resolution in sight for the problem of racialized mass incarceration.

One student said the country hasn’t made much progress when it comes to racial equality and a fair justice system, even if discrimination and racism are less overt.

“There are ways to stop this,” the student said. “But, like, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, everybody tried.…The stuff that’s going on now is just hidden. Nothing is changing.”

But, we must tell our students, this is why you are here. You are who your ancestors prayed for. They were praying for an end to white supremacy and, here you are. Own it.

Obama’s words come to mind, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Building Hope in the Classroom

The feeling of hopelessness that community members may feel at times is one of the reasons we began a Social Justice course for all of our eighth-graders. The whole premise is to help students lead and serve in their communities.

These eighth-grade students examine youth-activist movements and their catalytic social conditions. Today, students are building alliances across other eighth-grade sections to focus on specific community issues that they want to address.

Several of the seniors are currently reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Students are learning that state violence comes in all shapes and forms, but it is consistent about its targets.

At the end of the day, conscious educators know that education without social justice at its core is no real education at all.

The system needs teachers who regard teaching as a political activity and embrace social change as part of the job.  –Marilyn Cochran-Smith

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