Reflecting on the Jason Van Dyke Trial

Help Students Emotionally Process the Police Shooting of Laquan McDonald and the Trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke

This teaching idea is designed to give students a structured space to process their thoughts and feelings in response to the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and the trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke. On October 5, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting of McDonald. Everyone in the Chicago area, with varying degrees of proximity, has been and will continue to be impacted by the shooting and its aftermath, including students. The issues at the center of the shooting and trial are complex, disturbing, and likely to elicit a range of responses from students. With this in mind, the activities that follow are intended to help students share their initial responses to the trial and the verdict in community with each other, and to give teachers guidance in creating a safe and reflective classroom that will help facilitate this process.

Below are some considerations for how to approach teaching this challenging material, but please reach out to us at [email protected] for additional support and guidance.

Teaching Notes

  1. Prepare to Teach Emotionally Challenging Content

    Consider the following before teaching this emotionally challenging content:

    • Take time to process and reflect on your own thoughts and feelings in response to the trial. What is surfacing for you? How might your personal identity and experiences impact your response? How might this self-insight help you when thinking about how to facilitate classroom discussions on this topic?
    • Be prepared for a variety of responses from students. Students often react to emotionally challenging content with sadness, anger, or frustration, yet it is also possible that some students will not exhibit a visible emotional response. Experience has taught us that it can take time before students are able and ready to make sense of this material. In the meantime, journals have proven to be an effective strategy for students to process their emotions and ideas, which is why you will see a variety of journal prompts in the activities below.
  2. Contract with Students

    If you have established a classroom contract, this is an important time to review it with the class. If you have not already established one, you should do so before discussing the shooting and trial, using the Contracting teaching strategy (steps 4, 5, and 6). In addition to these steps, here are some other questions to consider when preparing students for difficult conversations:

    • How will I help students appreciate that everyone brings a different perspective, often informed by experience, to an issue? How will I help students be curious, rather than reactive, about the perspectives and experiences of their fellow classmates?
    • How can I impart to students the idea that we are all on a learning journey together, and that their perspective or the perspectives of their classmates might change as we discuss and learn together?
  3. Create Space for Students to Reconvene

    It is important that students feel that they have the opportunity to continue discussing and processing this topic should they choose to do so. You might want to coordinate with another teacher, school guidance counselor, or social worker to establish a safe place for students to continue processing with another adult or trained professional. In addition, you might want to think about optional, structured events within your school that could give students a safe venue to express their emotions or opinions. These might include a panel discussion, small-group conversations, a teach-in, or a vigil.

  4. Additional Resources

    For background information on the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and the trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke, we encourage you to listen to WBEZ’s podcast, 16 Shots, or to read reporting from the Chicago Tribune.

Activities

The activities below will help students grapple with their thoughts and feelings about the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and the Van Dyke trial. You can choose one or more of the following activities to use in your classroom, but note that Activities #2 and #3 can be taught sequentially.

Remind students about the critical role and voice of young people and activists. Explore questions like these: What is motivating young people to speak out about police shootings? What are young people asking for? What strategies are young people using to press for change? What impact are young people having now? What else do you think it will take to create lasting change? You can also introduce your students to powerful frameworks for thinking about civic participation and social change. Political theorist Danielle Allen’s Youth Participatory Politics Framework can help students examine youth activism and can inform their own sense of agency. Allen suggests that when people choose to take action, they should consider ten important questions: Why does it matter to me? How much [about myself] should I share? How do I make it about more than myself? Where do we start? How can we make it easy and engaging? How do [we] get wisdom from crowds? How do [we] handle the downside of crowds? Does raising voices count as [civic and] political action? How do we get from voice to change? How can we find allies? After introducing the Youth Participatory Politics Framework to your students, discuss the following question: How does this framework help you reflect on the issues you care about in Chicago?

  1. Facilitate a Structured Reflection and Discussion

    Ask everyone to write what they are feeling and thinking in response to the trial. After about three to five minutes, use the Wraparound strategy to get students to share one word that captures what they’re feeling or thinking. Acknowledge what you have heard, and remind students of your classroom contract and expectations for students to safely share their ideas. Then, transition into a discussion. To ensure equity of student voice, you might consider using the Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn discussion strategy.

  2. Acknowledge the Emotions in the Room

    Start with a journal prompt: Tell students that the following writing exercise is a private journal entry that they will not be asked to share with anyone, so they should feel free to write their most honest reflection. Have students take several minutes to complete this sentence:

    I mostly feel ____________ when discussing the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and the trial of Jason Van Dyke, because _________.

    Now that students have gathered their thoughts, tell them that you are going to do a group brainstorm. They should not make “I” statements or share how they feel or what they wrote. Tell students: Let’s put words on the board that represent the feelings that we have or that we think may be in the room. At this point, we will just list and not comment on them. Then, ask students to come up with words that represent the perspectives that might not be present in the room.

    Now look at the list. Ask students:

    • What do the words have in common? What else do you notice? (e.g. The words are not just surface observations; they are deeply personal feelings.) Do you have any other important reflections? (The words represent a wide and varied range of responses.) Where do these feelings come from? (Personal experiences, racial identity, family history, etc.)
    • It’s important for teachers and students to acknowledge that these feelings are in the room and that they need not be afraid of them. Each person should be allowed to enter this conversation wherever he or she is without being judged or shut down.
  3. Reflect on How our Personal Identity and Experiences Shape our Responses to the Trial

    Tell students that they will be exploring how their identities and experiences shape their responses to the trial, using something called an Iceberg Diagram. This teaching strategy helps students gain awareness of the multiple causes that give rise to a specific event, that may seem to happen quite abruptly but is in fact the result of complex forces and longstanding processes.

    Distribute copies of the Iceberg Diagram handout for students to complete independently. At the tip of the iceberg, ask students to write their emotions in response to the prompt:

    I mostly feel ____________ when discussing the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and the trial of Jason Van Dyke, because _________.

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

    You might ask students to post and share their iceberg diagrams using a Gallery Walk strategy, or you might allow students to keep them private. If you choose to ask them to share, be sure that students are aware of this before they complete their diagrams. Seeing how others completed their iceberg diagrams might help students further articulate their own responses. So if you provide time for students to share, then follow up by allowing them time to add to or revise their initial responses on the iceberg diagram.

  4. Use Art to Help Students Process Emotions

    Color, Symbol, Image: Ask students to think about the most important theme, idea, or emotion that has surfaced for them in response to the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and the trial of Jason Van Dyke. Then, have them reflect on how they can communicate the essence of what they feel using a color, a symbol, and an image. You can either choose to keep students’ responses private or use the Gallery Walk teaching strategy to help students reflect on the patterns, similarities, and differences in how they are responding.

  5. Reflect on the Verdict Through the Lens of Justice

    After giving students an opportunity to express their initial responses to the trial and verdict, you can go deeper by exploring the concept of justice.

    • Begin by asking students to reflect in their journals about the word “justice.” What does “justice” mean to them? How might they define it?
    • Next, select several quotations and Twitter responses from this Chicago Sun Times article, that capture a range of perspectives and responses to the recent verdict in the trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. Using your selected quotes, create a “Thought Museum:”
      • Hang the quotations/Twitter responses on the wall around the classroom.
      • Give students several self-stick notes each and provide sufficient time for them to visit and respond to as many exhibits as possible: after reading the quotation(s) at each exhibit, students can add a note to the exhibit with a comment or question that it raises for them. They might also post a connection between a quotation and another historical event, current event, or personal experience.
      • Once students have spent sufficient time exploring the exhibits, assign two to three students to “curate” each exhibit by choosing two to three notes that seem particularly important or clarifying.
      • While the curators are working, everyone else should return to their seats. These students can talk in pairs and discuss the following questions:
        • What perspectives do these quotations offer about justice?
        • What voices or perspectives might be missing from these accounts?
      • When the curators are finished, they should each report to the class, sharing the notes they chose and explaining their reasoning.
      • After each curator finishes his or her report, allow time for questions, comments and reflections from the whole group.
    • Finally, return to the concept of justice. Ask students to return to their opening journal about the idea of justice. How did the conversation in the Thought Museum impact their original thinking? How might they modify their definition of justice? How does this conversation impact your thoughts about the verdict?
  6. Discuss the impact of youth activism and choosing to participate

    • Remind students about the critical role and voice of young people and activists. Explore questions like these:
      • What is motivating young people to speak out about police shootings?
      • What are young people asking for?
      • What strategies are young people using to press for change?
      • What impact are young people having now? What else do you think it will take to create lasting change?
    • You can also introduce your students to powerful frameworks for thinking about civic participation and social change. Political theorist Danielle Allen’s Youth Participatory Politics Framework can help students examine youth activism and can inform their own sense of agency. Allen suggests that when people choose to take action, they should consider ten important questions:

      1. What does it matter to me?
      2. How much [about myself] should I share?
      3. How do I make it about more than myself?
      4. Where do we start?
      5. How can we make it easy and engaging?
      6. How do [we] get wisdom from crowds?
      7. How do [we] handle the downside of crowds?
      8. Does raising voices count as [civic and] poitical action?
      9. How do we get from voice to change?
      10. How can we find allies?

After introducing the Youth Participatory Politics Framework to your students, discuss the following question:  How does this framework help you reflect on the issues you care about in Chicago?

 

Want more teaching tips and strategies to address current events with your students?

Visit our Current Events page to see our latest teaching ideas and strategies for connecting breaking news stories to your curriculum.

Search Our Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.