Discussing Upsetting Events with Young People
When upsetting events happen in the world, it can be helpful to give young people a chance to share their feelings and thoughts about them. While we adults may be tempted to avoid bringing up such news, if it is on students' minds, it's present in the classroom, whether we talk about it or not. When we create a safe, supportive space where students can share their thoughts and feelings about sensitive issues and events constructively, we can turn those events into powerful teachable moments, and foster a stronger sense of community among our students in the process.
Consider these guidelines for discussing difficult issues in your classroom: Teaching about Controversial or Difficult Issues.
Note: While all students are likely to be upset about this issue, students of color are carrying an extra emotional burden. Especially if Black and Brown students are in the minority in your class, you might consider facilitating an affinity circle for white students to process their feelings and increase their sensitivity on this issue before convening the whole group.
About the George Floyd Police Killing and Protests
George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed by police in Minneapolis on Monday May 25, 2020. Bystanders captured white police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, while three other police pinned him down, and bystanders pleaded with them to stop. In a video that circulated widely on social media, Floyd is heard repeatedly saying, “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe,” and “don’t kill me.” After being transported to a medical center, Floyd was pronounced dead.
The four police officers involved in the incident were fired. Five days after the killing, Derek Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death. On June 3, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced that Chauvin would be charged with a more serious count of second-degree murder, and the three other officers would be charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
After George Floyd's killing, protests quickly erupted in Minneapolis, and have spread across the country. Protesters have decried the police’s excessive use of force during Floyd’s arrest – and the long history and pattern of police violence against unarmed Black men and women. They have demanded that all the officers involved be held accountable for the murder of Floyd.
Their calls for justice have been echoed by people across the country and the world. The UN's human rights chief condemned the killing, calling it the latest in “a long line of killings of unarmed African Americans by U.S. police officers and members of the public.” Protests in the U.S. and elsewhere have called attention not only to the killing of George Floyd, but many other Black and Brown men and women. Most recently, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was killed when the police raided her apartment in Louisville in March. Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger, was shot and killed by two white men in Georgia on February 23.
Police in riot gear cracked down harshly on the protests in Minneapolis, using tear gas and rubber bullets. Many commentators compared this response to how law enforcement had reacted to protests in Michigan against the state’s Covid-19 lockdown. In Michigan, white protesters, some of them armed, were allowed to flood the Capitol where a session was underway. Police stood quietly as protesters came within inches of them. At no point did they use force to push back the protesters or clear them from the space.
A few days after the killing of George Floyd, the protests escalated in Minneapolis, as some of the protesters set a police station ablaze, and other buildings as well. In a number of cities, protesters clashed with police.
Many of those protesting expressed not only rage, but exhaustion that after years of peaceful protests against police violence, Black men and women are still being targeted and killed. On May 28, an attorney for George Floyd’s family, Benjamin Crump, issued a statement:
“I spoke with George Floyd’s family this morning and they would like to thank all of the protesters for joining them in standing for JUSTICE. They know we’re all hurting. They know that any decent human being who watches the video of the police killing their Gentle Giant by having his knee on his neck while he was handcuffed facedown will also feel a shortness of breath like George. They told me they want peace in Minneapolis, but they know that Black people want peace in their souls and that until we get #JusticeForFloyd there will be no peace. We also cannot sink to the level of our oppressors and we cannot endanger each other as we respond to the necessary urge to raise our voices in unison and in outrage. Looting and violence distract from the strength of our collective voice. To assuage this death and begin the community’s healing, city and police leaders need to look at the culture they’ve created and ask the hard questions.”
Before inviting students to share their reflections about the George Floyd killing and protests, familiarize yourself with the latest news. You might also invite students to read a particular article(s) about the events so that everyone has a common grounding.
Before the listening circle, come up with some prompts or questions you think would be appropriate for your particular students. Some possible prompts are below.
If the listening circle is helpful, consider facilitating more in the days to come.
Welcome students to the space, beginning with a check-in, if you haven't already connected.
Before you open up the topic, establish or review your class’s guidelines for discussion or "community practices."
If the class is new to listening circles, explain the process: Listening circles give people (young people and adults) a chance to say what they are thinking and feeling, and can help engender mutual understanding and support. A listening circle allows time for participants to speak and to listen. It is not a time for discussion or dialogue. Rather, each person is invited to speak in response to a question or prompt. When a person is speaking, the others in the group should listen only and not interrupt.
For your virtual listening circle, post for all to see a list of the participants. People will have an opportunity to speak in that order.
Some guidelines for listening circles include:
- It's okay to pass if you need more time to think or would rather not respond.
- Speak from your own point of view.
- Be your own barometer - share as much as you feel comfortable sharing.
- Confidentiality is important. We need to agree that what we share among ourselves will stay private.
Next, provide an introduction to the issue. Say a little about the killing of Floyd George and the protests that have followed. Share that many of us have strong feelings about what has happened, as well as thoughts and reflections.
Invite each person in turn to share what they are thinking and feeling.
Give each person a few minutes to say whatever they want to say - or to pass. When one person is speaking, the others in the group should pay close attention but not comment. The circle is over after every person has had at least one chance to speak. Often going around the circle more than once allows those who pass on the first go-round to collect their thoughts and feelings so that they can share in the next round.
Possible prompts might be:
- What thoughts might you want to share with George Floyd's friends and family right now?
- What thoughts and feelings have you had about the police violence against George Floyd?
- What thoughts and feelings have you had about the protests that have taken place?
- What thoughts and feelings do you have about the police response to the protests?
- What is one thing we could do - individually, as a group, or as a society - to show support for one another in the wake of these events?
- What do you want to say about what is happening at this moment? What's on your mind?
- What would you like to do for our community or the world to address this issue?
To bring the session to a close, you might invite students to share a reflection on a quote that is appropriate for their group. Three possibilities:
“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” (Desmond Tutu)
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” (Frederick Douglass)
“My response to racism is anger. That anger has eaten clefts into my living only when it remained unspoken, useless to anyone.” (Audre Lorde)