Preparing for a Conversation about Policing and Racial Injustice

Last updated April 29, 2021.

This is the first Teaching Idea in a series designed to help students think critically about the long and troubling history between law enforcement and Black Americans. Use these Teaching Ideas to help your students bring a historical lens to these complex issues, engage with nuanced sources that reflect a range of experiences with policing, and consider ways to build a society that ensures the safety of all people.


Students bring personal experiences with the police into discussions about policing and racial injustice. Some students may have had negative or even violent interactions with police, or know someone who has. Some students may have family members or loved ones who are police officers. It is important to acknowledge the prior experiences students bring into the conversation. This Teaching Idea gives students an opportunity to reflect on the emotions and experiences that they and their classmates bring into this conversation, asks students to revisit their class contract and co-create norms to guide the discussion, and introduces the issue of racial injustice in policing and the disproportionate use of force against Black Americans. This Teaching Idea also helps students make room for complexity in their conversations about policing.

For more information that may help you address these topics with your students, view our Note to Teachers: Dispelling the Myth That Crime Rates Can Explain Disparities in Policing.

Note: If you have not already discussed issues around race and racism with your students, we recommend that you begin by teaching one or more of the following resources before using this series:

Additionally, our guide Fostering Civil Discourse: How Do We Talk About Issues that Matter? offers guidance on how to hold meaningful conversations on sensitives issues.

Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

  1. Acknowledge the Emotions Surrounding This Topic

    Begin by providing students with an overview of what you will be discussing throughout this series of Teaching Ideas, such as the following:

    Over the next few days, we are going to be learning about policing and the legacy of racial injustice. . Talking about policing can bring up strong emotions, and it’s important to keep in mind during our discussions that we don’t always know who in our class has been impacted by this issue or who has family or loved ones who are police officers. We will start today with a journaling prompt to allow you to reflect on the emotions that you bring into this conversation.

    Provide students with a list of feeling words, such as the following:

    • Angry
    • Confused
    • Curious
    • Nervous
    • Numb
    • “Nothing”
    • Eager
    • Reluctant
    • Frightened
    • Sad
    • Frustrated

    Then, ask students to complete the following phrase using one of the feeling words you provided or another one.

    Knowing we are about to discuss policing and the legacy of racial injustice, I feel _______.

    Tell students that they can choose to keep their response private.

    Once students have finished, tell them that you are going to do a group brainstorm. Ask students to volunteer to share examples of feelings people might have when discussing policing and the legacy of racial injustice . They can choose to share the feeling they wrote down or another feeling they imagine others might experience. Students should not be required to share and if they choose to share, should only name the feeling, without an explanation, at this time. Create a list of the feelings that students have mentioned.

    Then, ask students to read the list of feeling words and discuss the following as a class:

    • What do you notice about the words?
    • How might you explain this range of feelings? Where do you think they come from?
    • Do you have any other reflections?

    Remote Learning Note: Students can share the feeling words through a word cloud generator or by typing into the chat during a synchronous session. Ask students to discuss the feeling words their classmates shared first in small groups in virtual break out rooms and then as a full class.

  2. Consider How Individual Identity and Experiences Shape Our Responses to Police Violence

    Note: In this activity, students explore how their identities and experiences shape their responses to police violence using an Iceberg Diagram. If your students have not already had an opportunity to explore the components of their identity in your class, consider asking them to complete an Identity Chart before they complete the rest of this activity.

    Ask students to draw an Iceberg Diagram in their journals. At the tip of the iceberg, ask them to write the emotions they listed in response to the journal prompt in the first activity (Knowing we are about to discuss policing and the legacy of racial injustice, I feel _______.).

    Then, ask students to elaborate on what gave rise to the feelings that they expressed in response to the prompt from the first activity. Their answers will likely be wide ranging and might include personal experiences, racial or other aspects of identity, family history, or knowledge of current events. Students should write these causes beneath the surface of the water on the diagram.

    Give students an opportunity to anonymously share aspects of their identity or experiences that they wrote on their iceberg diagrams by asking them to write their responses on a piece of paper, which you can collect and rewrite on the board. Some students may wish to keep their responses entirely confidential, and no one should be required to share.

    Remote Learning Note: You can give students the opportunity to share aspects of their Iceberg Diagram responses with you through a private message, which you can then share anonymously with the class.

  3. Contract with Your Class

    Before discussing policing and the legacy of racial injustice more deeply with your students, it is important to revisit your classroom contract, or create one if you have not done so already. You can use our Contracting teaching strategy to co-create class norms with your students.

    Review the norms in your contract with your students. Then, ask them:

    • Consider the feelings—and the aspects of our identities and experiences that contribute to those feelings—we shared during the first two activities. What do we need from each other to create a safe and brave space for us to have conversations about policing and racial injustice?
    • How can our classroom norms help us hold meaningful conversations on this topic?

    Remote Learning Note: If you are teaching remotely, use our strategy Contracting for Remote Learning, and in addition to the discussion questions above, ask your students:

    • How does remote learning impact the way we discuss sensitive topics?
    • What can we all do to ensure that we can have meaningful conversations while we are learning remotely?

    You can ask students to complete this activity during a synchronous session or asynchronously during a defined time period in an online discussion forum.

  4. Introduce the Problem and Make Room for Complexity in the Discussion

    Share the following quotation from historian Jill Lepore to introduce students to some of the current problems and complexities surrounding policing:

    The crisis in policing is the culmination of a thousand other failures—failures of education, social services, public health, gun regulation, criminal justice, and economic development. Police have a lot in common with firefighters, E.M.T.s, and paramedics: they’re there to help, often at great sacrifice, and by placing themselves in harm’s way. To say that this doesn’t always work out, however, does not begin to cover the size of the problem. The killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, cannot be wished away as an outlier. In each of the past five years, police in the United States have killed roughly a thousand people. (During each of those same years, about a hundred police officers were killed in the line of duty.) . . . To say that many good and admirable people are police officers, dedicated and brave public servants, which is, of course, true, is to fail to address both the nature and the scale of the crisis and the legacy of centuries of racial injustice.1

    Then, ask students to reflect on the following prompt in their journals:

    • Based on your own experiences, or stories you have heard, what parts of the quotation feel familiar to you? What parts feel new or surprising?
    • According to the passage by Jill Lepore, “many good and admirable people are police officers” and yet there is also a “crisis in policing.” How can both of these statements be true at the same time? How can we keep this complexity in mind as we continue to discuss this issue?

    Remote Learning Note: You can use the Slides for this activity to share the passage from Jill Lepore’s article with your students. They can read the passage and reflect in their journals asynchronously as homework or during a synchronous session.

View the next Teaching Idea in this series: The History of Slave Patrols, Black Codes, and Vagrancy Laws


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