Brooke Harris was a teacher at the Pontiac Academy for Excellence Middle School in Pontiac, Michigan. When her eighth-grade class — many of whom are black — asked her about “the kid who was killed over some Skittles,” Ms. Harris attempted to “bring her students’ lived experiences into the classrooms.”
Her efforts included organizing a “dress down” fundraiser, similar to the One Million Hoodie marches that have taken place throughout the country. Students would pay one dollar to participate, and all proceeds would be donated to the family of Trayvon Martin.
The principal of Pontiac Academy signed off on the proposal. Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell, however, refused. When Ms. Harris’s students asked to make their case for the fundraiser to Superintendent Cassell directly, Ms. Harris passed the request along to Ms. Cassell. Harris says that Cassell suspended her for two days. When two days stretched to two weeks, Ms. Harris asked for clarification regarding the basis for her suspension, and Cassell fired her.
What do you do with a teacher who provides students with authentic learning opportunities? A teacher who invests her own resources to support students? A teacher who was voted Teacher of the Year two of the last three years?
If you’re Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell at the Pontiac Academy for Excellence Middle School in Pontiac, Mich., you fire her.
When Brooke Harris contacted us last week, her first concern was not her career—it was her students. She worried that she had let them down by not fighting harder for her job. She worried that their essays on Trayvon Martin would no longer be included in the school newspaper. She worried that the superintendent in charge of their education would continue to underestimate them.
We’re worried about Brooke’s students too.
Last month Brooke Harris’ eighth-grade class asked her about the “kid who was killed over some skittles;” she seized the opportunity to bring her students’ lived experiences into the classroom—a strategy we and other experts advocate.
Brooke’s students identify with Trayvon Martin. Many of them are African American. Many have been stopped by police who thought they looked suspicious.
In fact, her students engaged so deeply with the issue that they asked to take it beyond essays and class discussions—they wanted to take action to help Trayvon’s family.
They, like many students across the nation, wanted to show their support by wearing hoodies. Each student who participated would pay $1. Proceeds would be donated to Trayvon’s family.
Again, Brooke saw a teachable moment. She and her students began the formal process of organizing a school event. Students wrote persuasive letters to the principal and superintendent. Brooke and a co-worker filed the necessary paperwork. The principal immediately signed off on the fundraiser.
Superintendent Cassell was less enthusiastic. She refused to approve the proposal, despite having supported many other “dress down” fundraisers. Brooke’s students took the disappointment in stride, but asked to present their idea to Cassell in person.
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