Gina Harris is a K-8 bilingual/ESL resource teacher at Emerson Elementary School in Maywood, Illinois and proud union member who works tirelessly to create a world that works for everyone.
By Gina Harris
School is back in session. But the impact of chilling, yet familiar news that punctuated the summer in early July hasn’t dissipated. It has followed my students and me into the classroom.
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On consecutive days that week in July, the police fatally shot two Black men—Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota. I was reeling, but the violence continued. Later that same week, a Black gunman shot and killed five White police officers in Dallas. It was all too much to bear. Something inside me broke. And all I could do was cry.
My young daughter responded by turning to Facebook where she posted this plea: “I hope I don’t get killed today for being Black.” It broke my heart. This is the hope (and prayer) each day of many of my largely African-American and Latino students at Emerson Elementary School in Maywood, Ill. The recent spate of high-profile shootings, the disturbing conversations about separation and hate and deportation in our current political environment have hung like a cloud over their summer and added to their fear and worry.
As they headed into school this month and a new academic year, my students were counting on me, their teacher, to be straight and truthful with them about all of this. I will be the adult in the room, but I won’t be the person with all of the answers—to violence, racism, or systemic injustice. As a practitioner of restorative justice at school, I plan to gather my students in a peace/dialogue circle—a safe space in the classroom to have conversations and to grieve; and to pursue the change that they want to see in their world. As an educator-activist, there is nothing that gives me more joy than to support young people in recognizing and understanding that they are part of the solution.
In these circles, teachers, educators, and students have an opportunity to work together to come up with solutions and to ensure that everyone is heard and recognized. As violence, institutional racism, and anti-immigrant sentiment continue to erupt in America, we cannot pretend that what we are experiencing as adults and teachers is not, in many ways, also affecting our students.
While peace circles may seem like a small step for coping in these tense times, they can be one of the first ways to deal with the hurt that our students have brought back to school with them; and they can also help us unravel what we are feeling as education professionals. Is it going to be easy for students and teachers? No. Will it make some of us uncomfortable? It certainly will. Do we have to have the conversations anyway? Yes, we do.