(Re-posted from: Facing History and Ourselves. April 20, 2021)
On April 20, 2021, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder and manslaughter. Almost a year before, while on duty, Chauvin killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes. George Floyd’s death sparked massive protests across the United States—and around the world. Floyd’s death and Chauvin’s trial amplified the demands for justice and healing in response to racial bias in policing, the disproportionate use of excessive force against Black Americans, and more broadly, the history of racial injustice in the United States.
This Teaching Idea is designed to help guide an initial class discussion on the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial. The activities below prompt students to explore the complicated concepts of justice, accountability, and healing, while supporting them to process their feelings before engaging in a deeper study of policing and the legacy of racial injustice.
Start With Yourself
Self-reflection is important preparation for facilitating emotionally challenging conversations. As educators, we have to make time to process our own feelings and become aware of the way our own identities and experiences shape our perspectives. Read the “Start with Yourself” section on page 2 of our Fostering Civil Discourse guide. Then reflect on the following questions:
- What emotions does the news of the guilty verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial raise for you? What questions are you grappling with? How might your personal identity and experiences impact your response?
- As you enter the conversation, how will you take into account your racial identity, your students’ racial identities, and what your students may or may not understand about racial dynamics in America?
Initial Classroom Response
The activities below will help students process their thoughts and feelings in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and the Derek Chauvin trial verdict. Note: You may want to begin your conversation by revisiting your classroom contract, or use our Contracting teaching strategy to establish one.
1. Introduce Derek Chauvin’s Trial
Begin by providing your students with a summary of the trial. The overview of this Teaching Idea provides context you can share with students, or you can share a trusted news source. Starting with an overview of the facts can help ensure that students enter the discussion with background knowledge.
2. Start with a Journal Prompt
Ask students to reflect in their journals on the word justice using the following prompt:
What does justice mean? How might you define justice?
3. Introduce Key Concepts
After giving students an opportunity to think generally about justice, you will go deeper by exploring the definitions of justice, accountability, and healing.
Give students the following definitions:
Justice (n.): The moral responsibility to do what is right
- become sound or healthy again
- alleviate (a person’s distress or anguish)
- correct or put right (an undesirable situation)
Accountable (adj): To be held responsible
Ask students to reflect on what they notice about the three definitions:
- What similarities do you see in these definitions?
- How are they different?
4. Explore and Discuss
Place students in pairs or small groups, depending on what’s possible given social distancing requirements, and ask students to discuss the following questions:
- In the wake of tragic events like this, communities eventually need to heal; what do people need from each other to heal?
- How does justice help communities to heal?
- What role does accountability play in healing and justice?
5. Create Space for Student Reflection
Next, read these two excerpts from Minnesota’s Attorney General Keith Ellison’s statement immediately following the verdict of the trial:
I encourage everyone to continue the journey to transformation and justice. It’s in your hands now [. . .] I also want to address the Floyd family, if I may. Over the last year, the family had to relive again and again the worst day of their lives when they lost their brother, their father, their friend [. . .] Although a verdict alone cannot end their pain, I hope it’s another first step on the long path toward healing for them.
Rodney King, Abner Louima, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Laquan McDonald, Stephon Clark, Atatiana Jefferson, Anton Black, Breonna Taylor, and now Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo. This has to end. We need true justice. That’s not one case. That is a social transformation that says no one is beneath the law and no one is above it. This verdict reminds us that we must make enduring, systemic societal change.
After reading Ellison’s statement, ask students to participate in silent discussion using the Big Paper teaching strategy.
6. Return to Journals
Finally, return to the concept of justice. Ask students to return to their journal about the idea of justice. Consider the following questions to guide a closing discussion:
- How did the definitions and the Big Paper conversation impact your original thinking?
- How might you modify the dictionary definition of justice?
- How does this conversation impact your thoughts about the verdict?
- What was the impact of the verdict on your own community and family?
Remote Learning Note: The Big Paper teaching strategy was originally designed for use in a face-to-face setting. For tips and guidance on how to use this teaching strategy in a remote or hybrid learning environment, view our Big Paper (Remote Learning) teaching strategy.