Creating Space for Student Voices: Chicago and Laquan McDonald

Posted by Sarah Shields on December 2, 2015

In a Facing History and Ourselves classroom, asking students to question and think critically is challenging every day, but especially when we read headlines about violence in communities close to home. During the week leading up to Thanksgiving, a video showing the 2014 murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was released on the same day that Mr. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder. Facing History offers essential questions to consider and strategies for helping students process the myriad thoughts, feelings, and opinions they are experiencing.

Here are essential questions to consider with your students:

  • What stereotypes might impact the lens through which we view cases such as this? Where do those stereotypes come from? How do we counteract them?
  • What purpose does taking the time to process our emotions and reactions to violence serve as we consider our options for response?
  • What are possible responses to violence and injustice? What dilemmas do people face as they decide how to respond?
  • What should be the role of community leaders in response to violence? What responsibility do they have to members of their communities?
  • What should be the role of the media in response to incidents of violence? What are the different choices members of the media make?
  • What is our responsibility as consumers of media, whether that be traditional media (newspaper, TV) or social media? How can we become better informed?
  • How do the choices that individuals make impact the broader community?
  • How does a community begin to repair and heal itself after acts of violence and injustice?


Facing History trusts students to grapple with difficult, open-ended questions that ask them how they want to live in a democracy, and to understand that the choices they make as members of a civic society matter to their peers, their communities, and future generations. Learning to listen to their classmates and to consider others' perspectives is a vital first step in developing the skills needed to be an active participant in a democratic society. The reflective classroom space teachers set up and the thoughtful conversations you facilitate help students engage in courageous conversations and develop the ability to really hear each other. As conversations unfold, consider the following strategies to foster open and honest dialogue.

Take care of yourself: As an educator who works with young people daily, you have both your own feelings to process about the shooting and its aftermath, as well as concerns for your students. Consider taking some time on your own to journal and reflect on your feelings, to talk with colleagues and family members, and to learn from others as they share their thoughts. Remember that you are not a neutral participant in your classroom, and take ownership of the lens that you bring to the classroom community. Students may have experiences that inform their responses that are similar or different from yours. Make space for their voices and help them to share and delve more deeply into their opinions and responses.

Contracting for a safe and reflective space: If you have not already done so in your classroom, create a contract that will guide conversations around difficult topics and help model for students how to engage in civil discourse with peers they may disagree with. Developing your classroom as a community space supports students to feel safe sharing their honest opinions and to respectfully challenge the thinking of their classmates. You may want to remind students that even if a space is safe, it may not always be comfortable. Discussing difficult topics, such as police violence and racism, may make people, including you, uncomfortable. Clear agreements for guiding our interactions and working through differences of opinion can help maintain an environment of safety.

Create space for silent reflection in individual journals: Journals provide a safe and accessible space for students to share thoughts, feelings, and uncertainties. Creating an opportunity for students to reflect quietly allows them to organize and process their thinking before being asked to talk with others. Start by asking students to respond to the incident in their journals in an open-ended way. Remind students that they may choose to keep what they write private. The goal for this activity is to help students slow down their thinking and process their emotions.

Define community: Is Chicago a community? Why or why not? Communities are distinguished from groups by the fact that they share a common interest, background, or purpose that gives them a sense of cohesion. Lesson 6, "What is a community?" from Facing History's "Identity and Community" unit can help students explore the meaning of the word community and reflect on how their classroom is a community with a shared purpose in promoting the learning and achievement of all its members. Helping students ask questions about communities more broadly, thinking about their neighborhoods and their city, may expand their thinking about their sense of responsibility to uphold their common values as members of those communities.

Listen and learn from others through small-group discussion: Use strategies such as Learn to Listen/Listen to Learn or Two-Minute Interviews to provide space for students to share their opinions and reactions among a small group of their peers. You may leave it open for students to share, start with a general question (such as What are your feelings about this incident? or How does it impact you as a person?), revisit an essential question, or ask students to analyze an article about the incident. Small-group discussions provide space for students who may be reluctant to participate in a large group, so they can benefit from hearing the perspectives of their peers and sharing their own. You may also wish to use a Big Paper strategy, a silent discussion activity that creates equity of voice and allows for students to process their thinking and dialogue with their classmates through writing.

Place your classroom and the community into a broader context using history: While one goal of Facing History is to help students make critical connections between historical and contemporary events, it is important to help them avoid facile comparisons and to stay away from stereotypes and generalizations. We want to guide students toward complex, layered connections and help them understand the nuance of each case. There is a long and complicated history of race in our country, and stubborn legacies of inequitable written and unwritten laws and cultural practices. Incidents such as those that took place in Chicago, Ferguson, or Baltimore serve as solemn reminders that, while much progress has been made, there is still a long way to go. A resource such as "Race, Justice, and Reconciliation," Facing History's collection of short videos hosted on the online platform Zaption, can help students to explore and better understand race today in the context of history.

Think about the spectrum of human behavior: After exploring the unique aspects of examples of racial violence and injustice, help students frame their thinking around universal concepts of human behavior. Have them dissect the choices available to the different people who played a role in this specific incident and others, an activity which brings to life abstract concepts such as bystander, perpetrator, and upstander, and helps students make universal connections to the ways that human beings interact with one another. Introducing the following terms to students supports them in considering the range of human behaviors:

  • Perpetrator: A person who carries out a crime or unjust action.
  • Bystander: A person who is present when an injustice is taking place but does not act.
  • Upstander: A person who actively opposes an unjust act or idea.
  • Ally: A person who is associated with another as a helper.
  • Victim: A person against whom a crime or unjust action is committed.
Consider how communities begin to repair and heal after collective violence: In studying history, students may come to realize that there are no easy answers to the complex problems of racism, no quick fixes for social injustices, and no simple solutions to moral dilemmas. Issues of justice, apology, forgiveness, collective responsibility, reparations, and reconciliation are multilayered and important for students to consider.

To explore these issues, share the following quotation from a 1944 speech by Judge Learned Hand, a federal judge and one of the most significant American legal thinkers of the twentieth century:

“I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”

Which does Judge Hand believe is a more powerful force in society, the law or the hearts and minds of citizens? What do you think? Ask your students to brainstorm responses to these questions in their journals, and then to choose a few words or phrases to share with the whole class using a wraparound strategy.

Close by reflecting on the process: As your class draws to a close, debrief your conversation by asking students to think about which of their classmates pushed their thinking the most—who offered an idea they had not previously considered or one that swayed their opinion on a topic? Affirm your students' value to your classroom community by helping them to positively acknowledge the contributions of their peers and think about how hearing others’ perspectives impacted their own.  

Topics: Teaching Strategies, Facing History Resources, Facing History and Ourselves, Teaching Resources

At Facing History and Ourselves, we value conversation—in classrooms, in our professional development for educators, and online. When you comment on Facing Today, you're engaging with our worldwide community of learners, so please take care that your contributions are constructive, civil, and advance the conversation.


Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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