Teaching Trayvon Martin: The Power of Words & Symbols

Tonight I took my 2 1/2 year old son and my 4 1/2 year old daughter to the Million Hoodie Rally/March for Trayvon Martin at Union Square here in New York City. It was their first rally/march and my kids were–let me brag here–awesome. Nico chanted “No peace!” in his darling, somewhat slurred voice and Alexandra, upon going to bed tonight, said, “Mommy, that felt good. I hope that bad man gets in trouble for hurting that boy.” Me, too, baby girl. Me, too.

But as we rallied and marched, the English teacher in me was struck by two teachable moments: potential lessons on the power of words and the interpretation of symbols.

In the English classroom, vocabulary is often taught to either increase a student’s general number of known/usable words or in the context of a text for better understanding of the text. I have used the recommended method of “Word Walls” for a unit of study or for a whole class text.  I have also had many a “Word Cemetery” posted in my room to weed out the use of what I called “lame words” (and would largely gesture the “L” on my forehead when a student used them in class) such as “good, bad, nice, slow, fast” and so forth. Additionally, I have given extra credit when students implemented SAT words that I had introduced and quizzed them on–totally out of context–once a week. All of these methods had moderate to low success in the acquisition,  retention, or implementation of new vocabulary.

But whenever we talked about the power of words in class, there was always interest. When reading Heart of Darkness in AP Literature, we explored the use of the word “nigger” in the text and in society past and present. We read excerpts from Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, students brought in songs and song lyrics that used the word, and we questioned Joseph Conrad’s usage of the word in the novella. We also talked about how words can change–the English language is fluid!–and how powerful that can be for some…and how disenfranchising that can be for others. Students talked and wrote about the word so eloquently and passionately that I moved the assignment around in the curriculum to other books/plays so that more students could be exposed to the powerful experience of dissecting a word. Security guards, parents, and other students were drawn to our N-word bulletin board and would stand there, reading. Then an AP made me squash the assignment, saying it was inappropriate. Insert sigh here.

In the Trayvon Martin case, the word at play in my mind is “suspicious.” What does that word mean? Of course there is the dictionary definition, but what was the subtext in George Zimmerman’s use of the word? Did he mean Black? Did he mean urban youth? Did he mean a teenager? All of the above? Has the word held different meanings at different times? What power structures does that word infer? who is suspicious? Who gets to claim that another is suspicious? Great questions for classroom discussion.

Tonight I dressed the three of us in hoodies with the word “suspicious” and a question mark (also a lesson on the power of punctuation!) taped onto our backs and folks went crazy. I am not exaggerating when I say my kids had their photo taken perhaps 200 times. My colleague and her daughter joined us, and I gave her daughter my sticker so the kids could all match. Three kids, under the age of 5, holding hands and walking down the streets of NYC wearing hoodies that read “suspicious?” created mayhem. Everyone loved them. The power of ONE word. Amazing.

And symbolism: Often taught within the context of a literary work, I had students recall symbols in their life (The Statue of Liberty is an easy one here in NYC, or, in my student population, we often discussed how the Star of David is both a symbol of the Jewish culture/faith as well as the Crips gang). The lessons often ended with me explaining a symbol and what it means in a text–the green light in Gatsby symbolizes money and envy! The spot of blood on Lady MacBeth’s hand symbolizes her guilty conscience!  Students would then generate their own ideas of what symbols were in the text and their meanings. Some students got it, but often on a surface level. It’s a must-do English literature lesson. Check it off the list for Regents prep.

But tonight–the hoodie–what does it symbolize? Why was it the Million Hoodie March? I think this is an important testament of the dynamism of symbols, how they are created, and how what the referent symbolizes can change in various contexts. What does the hoodie symbolize to me? To my students? What does that symbol say? To me? To my students? How can one symbol hold multiple meanings based on the reader’s/audience’s interpretation? Who has the power to create/maintain symbols?  Oh, the complexity! I feel we often teach symbol as this static concept: In this text, this means that, period. Not so.

I guess all these ideas boil down to the use of critical literacy skills in the classroom. Did those who wrote the new National Common Core Standards for College Readiness include critical literacy skills in their pages of standards and benchmarks? Nope. And then they (meaning education experts) complain that Americans have no critical thinking skills. Again, insert sigh here.

Just some thoughts on things that could be used in the classroom to connect this important current event to a traditional English classroom…standards, testing, and other obstacles be damned.

Post Script: Just found this article on the history of the hoodie!

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5 thoughts on “Teaching Trayvon Martin: The Power of Words & Symbols

  1. Thank you so much for this. I’m teaching a literature class at Lehman College, about to launch into a discussion on the power of symbolism and metaphor and I intend to use this image as part of the discussion! It sounds like you are doing powerful work in your classroom.

  2. This beautiful image speaks volumes…thanki you so much for speaking up and helping your children to know what it means to stand up for a better world at such a young age.

    It make me hopeful at a time when HOPE is at a premium

    • A friend told me once, when I was pregnant with my daughter, that the best act of social justice is to raise socially conscious children. I think of that all the time. If not them (the kids), whom?

      (That whom sounds weird, but I just looked it up and I think it’s grammatically correct…I’m a horrid grammarian. I hope my kids will be better than me in that, too!)

  3. I just stumbled across your blog, and I’m so glad that I did. Bookmarking it to read more later (it is a school night, after all). The power of words and symbols is partially why I became an English teacher.

    Just last night, I had a brief discussion about this case with my parents. My dad said that a boy with his hood up walking down the street may have seemed suspicious to him. I said it would have looked like one of my students. A hooded boy seems to symbolize different things to us.

  4. Pingback: Gift from Trayvon | readwriteteach

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