Chicago Public Schools students judge Mayor Emanuel’s Laquan McDonald speech

I saw the Chicago Public Schools suggested lesson for the Laquan McDonald situation.  But I didn’t see much academic merit to it.  If we’re going to take on controversial issues in the classroom, we need to still ensure the learning experience builds students’ academic skills.  Despite the fact that as teachers we’re immediately criticized for not explicitly articulating standards (the skills we’re teaching), the CPS lesson has no standards.

Too often we believe that young people can only superficially engage in real-world conversations.  Or we believe that conversations have to be “touchy-feely” to be meaningful.  I fight against both of these misconceptions in my high-school English classes.  When given the opportunity in a structured and challenging intellectual experience, young people reveal how capable they are of making insightful judgments about issues thought to be above their heads.

I’ve learned through bringing in controversial issues into my classroom (like Obama's executive decision about immigration or the Ferguson shooting) that the lesson must be grounded in some primary text—an original text that has not been distorted in any way.  News reports about the event, for example, can serve as secondary texts to supplement the conversation.  But in the CPS lesson, there was no primary text.

When a class of thirty or so students is presented with the suggested questions from the CPS lesson, the conversation could quickly go everywhere and, sadly, nowhere.  Emotions could get escalated.  Opinions could get shut down.  Furthermore, the questions in the CPS lesson don’t help students walk out of the classroom with increased writing, reading, or critical thinking skills:

  •  What did you learn about Laquan McDonald today?
  • If you were going to go home and teach someone in your family about the case, what would be 
the most important aspects of the case you would want to share?
  • What more would you like to learn about the case?
  • Is there anything that you want to be sure your class discusses or does as it relates to this 
case?

In fact, the questions in the CPS lesson plan simply reinforce whatever preconceived notions students already had.

What if students don’t want to discuss the case in class?  Forcing them to isn’t fair.

In my junior English classes full of regular Southwest side neighborhood students, we’re examining argumentative emotional appeals.  We studied Aristotle’s classic guidelines for evoking in an audience fear, indignation, kindness, and—as Mayor Emanuel attempted—calmness.

I only bring in a controversial current event if it fits with our academic focus.

So we watched Mayor Emanuel’s speech at the press conference right before the Laquan McDonald video was released.  For each segment (I divided it into four), students listened for and listed key phrases the mayor said, which included these:

  •  “He was stripped of his police powers ten months ago.”
  • “We can learn to make Chicago better.”
  • “Officer as mentor”
  • “Officers see students as athletes, artists”
  • “Build bridges of understanding not barriers of misunderstanding”
  • “McDonald family asked for calm”
  • “Doesn’t define our city”

For each segment, I asked them to consider Aristotle’s guidelines for evoking calmness in an audience.  Classical rhetoric guidelines say we are calm when:

  • We feel prosperous or successful or satisfied.
  • We have freedom from pain, or inoffensive pleasure, or justifiable hope.
  • When vengeance puts an end to even greater anger felt against another person.
  • When people admit their fault and are sorry.
  • When we agree someone deserves the punishment.
  • When people do not insult or mock or slight anyone at all.
  • When we feel respect toward someone.

Segment by segment, students began crafting their final judgment.  Each time we discussed Mayor Emanuel’s attempts at evoking calmness, almost all the students decided he was partially succeeding or not succeeding at all.  A couple decided he was succeeding and that’s OK.

I tested out students' bias toward the mayor and police officers before our exercise.  “Bias isn’t bad,” I reminded them.  “We just have to recognize our bias to be aware of how it might influence our judgment.”  My goal with these learning experiences is not to make students think like me.  I want them to think.

The mayor’s lines that validated police officers connected with the positive bias a few students have toward cops.  These students shared they have a family member on the force.  If these couple of students found the speech successful, I let their judgments stand as long as their rationales make sense based on our criteria.  Again—I want to make them think.

To finish, students selected one of these ratings to determine if they mayor achieved his rhetorical purpose of evoking calmness in the audience right before the release of the Laquan McDonald video:

  • Highly successful (no one selected this)
  • Successful (a couple of students in one class selected this)
  • Somewhat successful (Over 80% in 4th period selected this)
  • Minimally successful (Over 85% in 2nd period selected this)
  • Unsuccessful (some selected this)

The most interesting part of the conversation for me included what students thought the mayor should have said.  Here is a sampling of my students’ judgments:

 “Mayor Emanuel’s speech proves to be minimally successful, highlighting that Chicago has a race and respect problem.” –Brenda

 “Mayor Emanuel’s speech proves to be somewhat successful, reminding us that we are strong city.  The mayor spoke a lot about how we can get through this challenge.  However, he never addressed the way he felt or why it took so long for him to bring this up, which doesn’t make us feel calm or safe.”  --Liliana

 “The mayor’s speech fails to accomplish its goal and, instead, angers the audience because a lack of respect is what caused the death of Laquan McDonald.  Before the speech was over, I would have like to hear why they deleted the Burger King security tape.”   --Diana

 “The mayor’s speech proves minimally successful proving that he was not able to answer the questions we wanted answered.  In the speech, he says the officer is no longer being paid by the city.  This is not the punishment we wanted.  We wanted to hear him get the right punishment.”   --Harris

 “The one thing the mayor should have said was his emotional reaction to the video.  His message was just to stay together as a community, but the speech didn’t provide much calmness because it didn’t touch the audience's understanding and hearts.”  --Eraldy

 “The mayor’s speech is somewhat successful, proving that he feels somewhat sorry to the McDonald family.  The mayor stated, ‘We will use this episode in the this movement to build bridges that bring us together as a city.’  This almost worked because he mentions how we should come together.”  --Jose

 “Although he is successful in evoking a sense of calmness, he does not address how the undesired situation can be fixed; ultimately, this retracts from this central argument.”  --Bianca

 “I wish he would have talked more about the actions the city will take to prevent this from happening again, some action or phrase that could work against retaliation from either side.”  --Javier

I did not discuss the protests, the video, the court appearance happening while we were in class. These are emotionally charged events with multiple opinions that some people will see as right and others as wrong.  Exchanging these emotionally charged opinions could get ugly and not get us anywhere.

So back to the CPS question in the lesson plan: What did you learn about Laquan McDonald?

Today, my students learned that  Laquan McDonald’s death forced our mayor to confront another violent shooting in our city.  And they learned how to evaluate our mayor’s rhetorical attempts.

This is a lesson, I hope, that stays with my students far beyond the current, ugly controversy.

If you're a teacher who incorporated this event into your teaching, how did it go?  Or what did you think of Mayor Emanuel's speech?  Comment below with your Facebook account.

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