Trayvon Martin and My Students

Writing toward justice

By Linda Christensen

Illustrator: Robert Trujillo

At a local protest over the killing of Trayvon Martin and the delayed arrest of George Zimmerman, Kelsey Turner, one of my students at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, brought many of us to tears when he said, “I wore a Ninja Turtle hoodie today because I wish I could go back to a day in time when I didn’t have to worry about these problems, to a time when I didn’t have to worry about me being an almost grown man and people feeling like they have the right to shoot me.”

When the jury acquitted Zimmerman of Trayvon Martin’s murder in July, I remembered Kelsey’s words and felt rage at the judicial system’s betrayal, the ongoing betrayal of black male students like Kelsey, who have sat in classrooms over the decades as the deaths of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Oscar Grant other black men killed in racist interactions run like ticker tape under the screen of school curriculum across the country. When school started in the fall, I knew that students needed to talk about the verdict, to have time to “wail,” as academic/activist Cornel West says, to be part of a national debate on racial profiling. And, as always, I wanted to meld this critical discussion with the development of students’ essay writing skills.

“Seeing what happened to Trayvon was traumatic,” explains Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of education at Columbia University, in an Essence magazine interview. He describes the message sent to black youth: “‘You’re less valuable and less worthy of protection, love, and investment than other folks.’ And when that message is received, it wears on your spirit. It’s tough to live in a world where you’re seen as less than.”

Later in the article, Hill discusses the need to create spaces for young black men to talk about the impact of being profiled:

There need to be conversations about what it feels like to be followed in the store, chased out of the mall, or to not be welcomed on the other side of town. Give boys the space to ask questions, vent and cry and be vulnerable in a world that almost demands them to be hard at all times. Because sometimes that very toughness, that hypermasculinity, is the very thing that could get them in trouble.

When any national disaster occurs, students watch their teachers to see our reaction: Is this important? Do you care? I still recall my teachers’ responses to the murders of Kennedy and King. The hushed, reverential tones in my 7th-grade classroom as my teacher delivered the news of President Kennedy’s death, the flag waving at half-mast through the slanted blinds. And the silence during my junior year as not one teacher talked about Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

I watched President Obama’s talk about Trayvon Martin after the verdict, after thousands of demonstrators had gathered in cities across the country to remember Trayvon’s death and to protest the outcome. I was struck by the difference in tone in this speech the pace of the speech is slower, almost hesitant, without Obama’s more typical oratorical style. He looks down instead of looking into the camera. He speaks of his personal experiences with racism, the experience of African Americans, the history of race in this country:

There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happened to me at least before I was a senator.

In fact, during the speech Obama explores what Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP, spoke about when he said, “Our people have been free for 150 years and yet our young men are still treated like criminals. Racism is the original sin of our country.” Obama’s speech acknowledges “that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.” Obama’s speech moved me. I thought, “Finally, a president is acknowledging the pervasive racism in our country.”

But when I heard Cornel West’s critique of Obama’s speech during an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! a few days after the president’s talk, I recognized how much I had missed, how much I wanted Obama’s speech to do more than it did. I also realized West’s discussion of the speech provided a great example of how to critique an article, a novel, a speech by the president. Goodman showed West chunks of Obama’s speech and asked him to respond in the same way I want students to annotate any kind of text: critically, using evidence from the original text, both acknowledging and questioning the merits of the evidence.

The Opening Act: Trayvon’s Photo

Because I retired from full-time teaching several years ago, I adopt a class each year, usually at Jefferson High School, where I spent most of my 30-year teaching career. Jefferson is located in a gentrifying African American neighborhood in North Portland. About 60 percent of the school is African American, 20 percent white, and 12 percent Latina/o; 84 percent are on free and reduced lunch. This year, Dan Coffey and Amy Wright, two 11th-grade language arts teachers, invited me to share their classrooms.

When we started this unit on Trayvon, we wondered how much background knowledge students would need. Amy and I created an opening PowerPoint lesson plan that included photos of Trayvon and Zimmerman, as well as a timeline activity in case students needed more information. They didn’t.

We projected Trayvon’s photo and asked, “Who is this? List everything you know about this person. If you know a lot, write a lot. If you don’t know, describe him.” Students bent their heads and pens to the task, writing furiously. Almost all the students knew chapter and verse about the events: the profiling, Zimmerman’s call to 911, the Arizona Iced Tea and Skittles, Trayvon’s phone conversation with his friend, the struggle, the gunshot, the delayed arrest, the trial, the verdict, and even subsequent information about Zimmerman and his wife, and his purchase of a new gun. The two students who did not know about Trayvon’s murder and the trial took notes during the discussion.

When I asked, “How do you know so much?” Mahogany said she watched the news with her mother and grandmother. Others added similar stories of discussing the case in summer school, with family or friends. When I talked with students one-on-one during a fire drill, one young woman said, “I searched on the internet for information over the summer. I’m really glad we’re discussing this because I’ve been wanting to talk about it.”

Analyzing President Obama’s Remarks

Before students watched the video of Obama’s speech, I distributed a hard copy of the talk for them to write on. Let me say, I experienced some hesitation in launching a piece that asked students to criticize Obama because, as the first African American president, he represents hope to many of our students. Also, he has been viciously and unfairly attacked from the right. That said, West’s critique addresses actions that a string of presidents, including Obama, have committed from drone attacks to prosecution of whistleblowers to failure to address “the New Jim Crow” to promoting corporate agendas.

I began by talking about where we were heading with this unit: “We’re going to write a critique of this talk. A critique doesn’t mean to just shred apart; it also means to be alert to what you like or agree with and why. For example, you might approve of a solution that the president proposed. As you watch the speech, think about the content of the talk: What do you agree with in this speech? What resonates for you in the talk? What do you find problematic? What is missing?” And, while I was in danger of overloading them, I also added, “Think about the audience of the speech. Who is Obama talking to? How do you know?”

Although the speech is relatively short, only 15 minutes, I chunked out the viewing because I wanted students to pause to write and talk after significant points instead of waiting until the end. Also, because I was teaching this in September, I wanted to model how to take notes and discuss texts. I stopped the video about four minutes in, just after Obama relates his own history with racial profiling. I asked students to write notes about this first section: “What resonates for you in this section? What do agree with? What do you argue with?”

After students wrote, they talked. Obama’s personal experiences echoed in their lives. They, too, had experiences being followed or viewed as suspicious. One young man, an African immigrant, mentioned that he lives in an almost all white community and said, “My neighbors’ eyes follow me when I walk in the neighborhood.” Another young man wrote, “I know how it feels to feel like you are less than someone else. I remember one time I was in the mall with eight of my friends, and the mall security told us we have to separate into groups of three because they thought we were a gang.” Kell brought us back to mourning Trayvon: “The president said, ‘Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.’ Trayvon can’t be nothing now.”

We continued through the remainder of Obama’s comments, stopping several more times to write and talk our way through the speech. Although the speech is short, this activity took most of the 90-minute period. At the end of the class, Clayborn remarked, “We should stop thinking about Zimmerman and start thinking about the system that allowed Zimmerman to go free after murdering an unarmed teenager.” The class agreed; this remark later became Clayborn’s thesis in his essay.

When we returned the following class, I distributed a two-column handout. In the left-hand column, I asked students to return to the hard copy of the president’s speech, reread it, and pull out five quotes they wanted to discuss five key pieces of the talk. I asked them to use the right-hand column to write an analysis of each quote: what it meant, why they chose it, why it was important, why they agreed or disagreed with it, what issues it addressed, what issues it missed. Although this might seem redundant to the previous day’s assignment, this close reading of the text is where I had noticed that students in previous years experienced difficulty. Too often they summarized the text and/or related it to their own lives, but they didn’t analyze it. I wanted them to practice that skill. Since they had watched the video and read along, they could go deeper in a second reading.

After I noted that most students had one quote but some students were struggling with the analysis, I asked a couple of students to bring their papers to the document camera and to share their quote and analysis. We looked at why their analysis worked and what could be added. For example, Trina wrote about Obama’s “it could have been me” quote: “He is showing emotion; Obama tells his experience of being stopped and frisked before he was a senator or president. He’s trying to relate to Trayvon and all African Americans that he has been through the same thing.”

In this analysis, Trina demonstrates an understanding of why Obama includes this section in his speech and also who his speech was aimed at. Could she have said more? Sure. But as we discussed her analysis, the students began to understand how to move beyond summarization and into locating audience, context, and the purpose of the speech.

Maya wrote that, when Obama spoke about demonstrations and vigils and protests, he was trying to calm people down: “If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.”

We stopped writing and analyzing 10 minutes before the end of the period. At that time, I asked a few more students to come up to the document camera to share one of their quotes and the related comments. Most students wrote about similar places in Obama’s speech: his identification with Trayvon, his remarks about the history of racial disparities, his question about what would happen if Trayvon had been white and Zimmerman black, his statement that he and Michelle talk frequently about the need to give young black men “the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them,” and his final note that “each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.” While the students shared, I encouraged their classmates to talk about what worked in the analyses, and to add quotes or more commentary to their own papers.

Cornel West: A Sharper Perspective

The next day I layered in West’s critique of the speech, using the interview with Amy Goodman. This was students’ first introduction to Cornel West, who is a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, radio commentator, activist, author, and spoken word artist. They fell in love with him and insisted that we watch the entire interview, not just the clips I had selected. This interview is not easy. West speaks rapidly and makes many historical and contemporary allusions without providing context. For example, he mentions Assata Shakur, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Ray Kelly, and many other contemporary and historical figures. Amy developed a cheat sheet so that students could have some background about the people West discusses as they followed along with his talk.

Because I wanted students to understand that the format of Goodman’s interview parallels the critiques that they would write, we looked at the excerpts from Obama’s speech that she selected, then at West’s responses to those selections. How did he critique? What did he say about the segments that we had discussed on previous days? We followed the same protocol of stopping after each segment to discuss it.

West stunned students from the first time he opened his mouth and stated, “I think we have to acknowledge that President Obama has very little moral authority at this point, because we know anybody who tries to rationalize the killing of innocent people is a criminal. George Zimmerman is a criminal, but President Obama is a global George Zimmerman because he tries to rationalize the killing of innocent children, 221 so far, in the name of self-defense, so that there are actually parallels here.” I had to stop and discuss drone missile attacks; many students were unaware of the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, and the resulting deaths of innocent people.

Students had read an article on stop-and-frisk laws prior to the beginning of the unit to give them background on the racial profiling laws discussed in both men’s speeches, but their understanding of the harm of these laws grew when West made connections between the stop-and-frisk laws and the increased incarceration of black and brown kids:

[New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly] racially profiled millions of young black and brown brothers. The question is: Will [Obama’s racial] identification hide and conceal the fact there’s a criminal justice system in place that has nearly destroyed two generations of very precious poor black and brown brothers? [Obama] hasn’t said a mumbling word until now. Five years in office and can’t say a word about the New Jim Crow.

The difference between Obama’s claim about wanting to end racial profiling and West’s statistical citation of the numbers of youth of color who have been incarcerated and the fact that Obama had not discussed this during his five years in office became a theme in many student essays. This critique of a point many students initially agreed with in Obama’s speech helped them see the difference between an assertion without evidence and the strength of an argument when real evidence enters the conversation.

West also attacked Obama’s remarks about his and Michelle’s talks about how to make black males feel more a part of society:

If you are concerned about black boys being part of our society . . . I would say we’re going to have to talk seriously about massive employment programs; high-quality public education, not the privatizing of education; dealing with gentrification and the land grab that’s been taking place; ensuring that young black boys . . . have access [to] a sense of self-respect and self-determination, not just through education and jobs, but through the unleashing of their imaginations more arts programs in the educational system. They’ve been eliminated, you see. Those are the kind of things hardly ever talked about. But we can only talk about transpartnerships in terms of global training for capital and multinational corporations and big banks. That’s been the priority: the Wall Street-friendly and the corporate-friendly policies that I think are deeply upsetting for somebody like myself vis-ö-vis the Obama administration.

Dazha’s analysis of this section echoed many students’ essays:

I agree with West because as much as Obama talked about what African American boys go through, what is he doing for them? Nothing. It’s clearly not a priority. It’s like Obama says things with little to no action. I was on Obama’s side until I heard West’s rebuttal. Even as Obama addressed the issue, he spoke as if he didn’t belong to the black American side.

Group Work on Quote Analysis

When I reviewed student essays from last year, I noticed that I had not done a good enough job of teaching evidence paragraphs. It wasn’t just that students’ “analysis” of the evidence was more often summary than analysis. They also didn’t always include the context of a quote or anything about the person who made the quote. So I created an assignment to develop students’ awareness and skills about how to write evidence paragraphs in an essay.

We were grappling with a classroom community issue at the same time. The class I was working in with Dan mirrored the school’s diversity, but students sat mostly in racial groups. They called on students within their race and, although there didn’t appear to be tension among the groups, there also didn’t appear to be mixing. Dan and I decided that if we constructed racially and academically diverse groups of three to four students to work on evidence paragraphs, we could feed two birds with one hand work on disrupting the separation in the classroom while preparing students to write essays.

After giving the assignment, Dan and I modeled the process of writing an evidence paragraph with the group. The assignment asked students to provide:

  1. Context for the quote.
  2. Identification of the speaker: Who is it? What is his/her authority on this topic?
  3. An introduction to the quote (which might be contained in the previous sections).
  4. Analysis of the quote: Do you agree or disagree with the quote? Why? What is missing? What else do readers need to know?

Using Obama’s quote about today’s youth’s changing attitudes based on his observations of his daughters, Malia and Sasha, I asked the class how we could write a paragraph that included Obama’s quote, West’s analysis, and our four required elements. “How would we begin the paragraph? We need to discuss the context of the quote. When and where did he say this? Who said it? “

Mahogany said, “We could start by writing that President Obama gave a talk after the verdict came back.” Going back and forth in this way, the class and I constructed a model paragraph:

President Obama finishes his speech following the George Zimmerman verdict by stating, “Things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.” I both agree and disagree with this quote by the president. Yes, things are getting better: Jim Crow laws are no longer in place and segregation was abolished. Yet astounding numbers of African Americans are still incarcerated and victim to stop-and-frisk laws and other kinds of racial profiling. These issues will be forced on the next generation. As president, Obama should say less “they are going to” and more “I will” and “we should.”

We left this paragraph on the document camera as a template for students to refer back to as they constructed their own paragraphs in small groups.

Then we gave each group a quote from Obama’s speech and West’s interview. In retrospect, I would let them choose their own. Students had interesting discussions as they wrote their paragraphs. Some argued over the wording that slid them into the quote; others discussed what they wanted to say about the quote. This was a crucial and missing step from my previous work on essay writing, especially when students need to layer evidence from multiple texts. At the end of the period, we shared these collective paragraphs. As testimony to the importance of the process, many students used one of these paragraphs in their final essays.

The Essay

Before they started writing the essays, Dan and I asked students to review their notes. What did they want to say about the speech? Which quotes or ideas were most significant to them? “Remember, your assignment is to critique the president’s speech. A critique doesn’t just mean to tear apart. It also means what you agree with, what pieces of the speech you support. Perhaps you like a solution President Obama proposes. But critique also means to cast a critical eye. Dr. West brings a wealth of background knowledge to his critique: What’s left out or unacknowledged in the president’s speech about his policies? Go back through your notes and highlight ideas that link together.” Then, as a class, we brainstormed possibilities.

From the beginning, Maya knew she wanted to write about how Obama’s speech was meant to pacify: “Obama didn’t want the people to rise up and take matters into their own hands; he made his speech to merely cool the fires, not to kindle.” We discussed and wrote on the document camera which quotes would support her thesis. Kell wanted to discuss the twin issues of stop-and-frisk laws and the mass incarceration of black youth. Some students picked up on West’s critique of Obama’s lack of action on issues and wrote about his “timidity.” Sydney wrote, “Obama addressed his citizens like a quiet old grandpa, only chiming into the conversation because he could, rather than being raw and passionate. To make change, we cannot think we need to do something, we have to do something.” Only one student returned to the drones and global issues that West brought up in his critique.

West’s repeated lines that Obama claims to care about black and brown youth, but his lack of action demonstrates that he’s not serious because he hasn’t built any programs, reverberated for the majority of our class. For they are students at a high school that has no music program, no drama program, worn-down computer labs, floors with missing tiles, and classrooms with Home Depot shower stall “whiteboards” mounted by teachers. Obama’s “hollow” language and West’s outrage delivered in almost slam poetry style became a theme of their essays.

Kell’s essay demonstrates the passion that fueled much of the writing produced during the unit, but also the sense of anger over Obama’s lack of action on issues that affect their lives:

Considering the fact that African American boys are seen as disposable, President Obama should stop talking so much and start acting on these problems. He should either make a new law or put some type of restrictions on the ones that already exist. As a young, black male, I don’t want anything like this to happen to me. I know I live in another state, but I don’t want to end up a victim like Trayvon Martin.

Clearly, this unit resonated for students because they care about racism, poverty, and racial profiling. Trayvon was one of their own. Both Obama and West spoke directly to their lives. They understand the shame and anger caused by stop-and-frisk laws, by “looking suspicious” because of their skin and their clothes. They attend an under-resourced school, they experience the lack of programs for youth in their neighborhoods, and they live with the criminalization of black and brown youth, watching classmates disappear into jail cells and hospitals.

If we are serious about nurturing students’ academic skills, then we need to keep them wrestling with ideas that speak to deep themes in society and in their own lives. This is why, as teachers and schools, we need to move beyond the simplistic notions of “text complexity” given to us by Common Core, worry less about MLA format, and care more about developing curriculum that builds students’ intellectual capacity to engage in national dialogues with the power and poetry of Cornel West.  

Linda Christensen ( is the director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and a Rethinking Schools editor. She is the author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up and Teaching for Joy and Justice.