The Workshop was founded on the core belief that an artistic education should be viewed as a basic human right and a vital part of developing a compassionate, fair and just society. We sometimes get asked how these social justice values show up in our classrooms. We offer this vivid example, from spoken word artist/teaching artist Natasha Huey on a class she taught in 2014-15.

The news of Darren Wilson’s no indictment hit on a Thursday night, and my spoken word poetry class (at Visitacion Valley Middle School) was the following morning. After some hours of wrestling with different options for how to address this with my students, I contacted my partner teacher, Mr. Bandy, to let him know I would be doing a whole new lesson plan discussing how word choice, an element of composition in poetry, can contribute to potentially fatal stereotypes.

After a powerful class full of questions and troubling discoveries about how we misrepresent each other, Mr. Bandy and I sat down to plan the next few weeks. Mr. Bandy, who was always down for a challenge and trying new things that would be relevant and engaging for students, came up with the idea of a class project to have students make altars to Michael Brown and Eric Garner. We collaborated on the project guidelines to integrate poetry and source-based essay writing.

For the poetry components, students were asked to write through the point of view of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or any other fictional characters they could imagine that witnessed either’s death. Some students wrote through the point of view of a little kid (“‘Mom, when is this going to stop? I’m tired.’ Mom said, ‘I don’t know sweetheart.’”), police officer, grandmother, person who filmed Eric Garner’s death (“I was really scared to go back down there again because of what I saw. I told the interviewer that I said to put an oxygen mask on him when I heard him say, ‘I can’t breathe.’”), and more.

Lastly, students were asked to describe the world they wanted to imagine into existence—a world in which Michael Brown and Eric Garner would still be alive. Many students used the opportunity to “rewind” the scenarios they wrote about in their personas and “replay” them where conversations or advice happened with police instead of violence. On the first day of class, we worked on persona writing, and after weeks of working on specific detail and “show don’t tell,” we were ready to bring personas back and apply these new skills to the projects. But this was more than an exercise to get students to make cardboard altars or write pretty poems. This was an exercise in empathy.

Empathy was particularly urgent because many different classes featured students bullying each other and groaning, “Why are we still talking about this? What do these people have to do with us?”

We began to answer this each week when we tried to step into the shoes of another more and more effectively. What would this person’s hands be doing while they watched what was happening? What words would they choose to describe it? How would a child and a police officer see the scenes differently? To what and whom would they go home to afterwards? What does their home look like?

Mr. Bandy and I hoped that these altars could offer a sense of honor for the black lives lost that were not honored by the justice system or media. We also wanted to provide a space in class for students to work through these timely conversations and explore personal connection with the topic through poetry. So does specific detail and persona writing affect empathy? With this project, we just began to dig below the surface, but it certainly planted some seeds.

By the end of our residency, several students chose to write source-based pieces about social justice, and leaders in the classroom took an active role in encouraging their peers. How these seeds will continue to grow, I may never personally witness, but I find hope in a classroom full of students walking in the pain of someone else’s shoes and imagining love in its place.

Superstar Teaching Artist (and 2016 Showcase Emcee) Natasha Huey with her students from Galileo High School. Photo credit: Robyn Navarro.