Students were sharing their insights, disagreeing, correcting me and one another, and comparing sources. And they weren’t thinking about lost deposits and possible dangers—they were trying to understand complex events from multiple perspectives.
When teachers spoke during the conversation, they followed the same rules as the students. Among them was Martha Haakmat, the school’s head, who asked the students their thoughts on what, given how ingrained racism is in many parts of society, a school’s responsibility is to its students to help undo those legacies.
For Oliver, schools need to embrace and enhance diversity: “Learning in class with people different from yourself should just feel normal,” he said. For Chloe, ensuring opportunities for discussion should also be a school’s priority: “Kids learn from their parents,” she said, “but not all kids ask their parents these questions if they aren’t learning things in school.”
That night for homework, I asked students to reflect in writing on their research and the day’s conversation. “The most important lesson I learned is to think first before doing things,” Tristan wrote. At first I assumed he was talking about the students and rioters, but he later clarified that he was was referring to the police. “They should have known their reaction would make a huge impact everywhere around the country.”
Students also wrote about the trip, fearing for the safety of Baltimore residents, and for their own. But most still wanted to go. “The past few days have been especially sad with all the riots in Baltimore,” Arlo wrote, adding that he wanted protests to continue, as long as they did so peacefully. “I think it would be cool to see how the local community is helping damaged businesses to get back on their feet.”
With the scheduled date of the trip still two weeks away, my students and I continue to add to the shared Google Doc. Friday morning’s news brought “indictment” and “Marilyn Mosby” to the new-vocabulary list. The initial lesson is over, but the learning goes on.
Lessons in American history and literature should prepare students to be informed, contributing citizens. Democracies thrive when people wrestle with big questions; read, write, speak, and think well; and understand the differences between fantasy and fact, opinion and propaganda. But intellectual skills aren’t sufficient. Students also need opportunities to connect emotionally with people and places outside of their immediate surroundings—to feel empathy, outrage and compassion.
Students develop skills and independence much more readily when they are empowered to engage in meaningful work than when they are merely told information. In this case, students mapped an unfamiliar city, researched the past, grappled with the brutal realities of inequality, educated themselves about social phenomena, and navigated digital news sources. They spoke respectfully across differences of opinion, listened to each other, and reflected on what they learned. In short, they practiced what adults will need to do to better understand and solve the thorny questions facing today’s society—including those raised by Freddie Gray’s death.
The trip my students planned is still two weeks away, and it’s unclear whether it will actually take place. But regardless of whether the class stays or goes, this has already been by far the most educational middle-school American history trip I’ve ever experienced.