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EUSXXX10.1177/0013124519889042Education and Urban SocietyFlores-Koulish and Shiller

Empirical Article
Education and Urban Society
Critical Classrooms © The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
Matter: Baltimore
DOI: 10.1177/0013124519889042
Teachers’ Pedagogical

Response After the

Death of Freddie Gray

Stephanie A. Flores-Koulish1
and Jessica T. Shiller2

The purpose of this article is to discuss the possibilities of public education.
We argue that public schools, despite their flaws, still provide necessary spaces
of civic engagement. When major social and/or political events happen, young
people have few outlets to discuss, process, and understand implications. In
this article, we share the experiences of Baltimore’s teachers after the death
of Freddie Gray, an unarmed Black man, who lived in Baltimore and died
in police custody. Following his death, the city exploded in protest, both
violent and peaceful. We interviewed eight teachers and collected curriculum
samples to make sense of how they used the public school classroom as a
space of critical care, social justice, cultural relevance, and anti-racism to
contextualize current events in their city. There are implications here for
school district professional development and teacher education.

critical care, critical pedagogical praxis, culturally responsive teaching,
social–emotional teaching, social justice education

1Loyola University Maryland, Baltimore, USA

2Towson University, MD, USA

Corresponding Author:
Stephanie A. Flores-Koulish, Education Specialties Department, Loyola University Maryland,
4501 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21210, USA.
2 Education and Urban Society 00(0)

By no means are public schools perfect. They are often spaces that are racially
segregated, struggle with limited funding, and narrowly focus on preparation
for standardized testing. That said, public schools are the last public institu-
tion that we have in the United States in which people can come together,
across class, ethnic, gender, and race lines to discuss what is happening in the
world. It is often teachers who are navigating conversations with students
about current events that are not discussed elsewhere, and, as such, play an
incredibly important role. Aside from family, teachers are the adults who help
students make sense of the broader world.
Despite their central role in students’ lives, teachers, especially those in
urban schools, are often underprepared to lead conversations about contro-
versial subjects or to facilitate impromptu dialogue about events that are hap-
pening in the world around us. Consequently, teachers can find themselves
thrown into discussions about topics with which they may have limited
knowledge and/or experience. Yet, that is exactly what teachers were expected
to do after the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed Black man that died in
police custody.
Following his death, the city of Baltimore erupted in both violent demon-
strations and in peaceful protest. Police in riot gear were in the streets, schools
closed, and a curfew was imposed on the city. In that context, teachers were
asked to go about their daily work of instruction. The city school district did
not give much guidance to teachers. There were no suggested activities or
discussion points. Rather, teachers were left to their own devices to address
their students when they returned to school.
In this current political moment, we can learn a great deal from how teach-
ers choose to deal with current events in the classroom, especially those who
focus on issues that divide our country like race and police violence.
Therefore, to contribute additional insight, this article focuses on the after-
math of the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland to learn
about the ways that a group of teachers engaged with their students during
and following the city’s unrest and uprising. In our study, the group of teach-
ers we spoke with shared empowering stories of hope and fortitude for the
ways in which they engaged in real conversations with their Baltimore City
students who were witnessing history in the making, inspiring them to engage
civically. We sought to answer the following research questions:

Research Questions 1: How were a group of Baltimore teachers prepared

for the difficult and critical circumstances and conversations that ensued
as a result of the death of Freddie Gray?
Flores-Koulish and Shiller 3

Research Questions 2: How did these teachers handle students’ and their
own reactions to this immediate violent act and resulting uprising in the

Drawing upon in-depth interviews with eight Baltimore public school teach-
ers, various email communication correspondences, and curriculum samples,
we attempt to make sense of how this group used the public school classroom
as a space of critical care, social justice, cultural relevance, and anti-racism to
contextualize current events in their city. There are implications here for
school district professional development (PD) and teacher education.

Baltimore, Spring 2015

The events of spring 2015 in Baltimore captured worldwide attention after a
phone video was shared on social media. That video showed a 25-year-old
African American man, Freddie Gray, being aggressively arrested and put
into the back of a police van, leading to a “rough ride,” and eventually, he
died from his injuries at the hands of the police, and people took to the streets.
There was violence and chaos, then marching and solidarity. Schools were
closed and residents experienced a week-long curfew, unprecedented for
Baltimore in recent times. For Baltimore students, experiencing such a mon-
umental event firsthand impacted their civic consciousness as never before. It
is a moment like this that a teacher’s job reaches beyond the norms today of
accountability regimes and content delivery and stretches toward the neces-
sary status of social worker, therapist, legal scholar, and the like. Teachable
moments, therefore, become inevitable; yet, for some teachers, they found
that they were ill-equipped to facilitate and navigate the complicated conver-
sations that arose. Still others heard messages of caution from administration.
But some teachers had a foundation that seemed to have grounded them for
moments like these.
We realized that Baltimore teachers would be at the forefront of social
understanding, and we were eager to support, listen to, and share their stories.
In this study, each teacher we spoke with comes from a different perspective
and approached classroom conversations in a different way, yet each one took
the opportunity to help students understand that particular historical, social,
and political moment. Some stepped outside their traditional roles and veered
away from the formal curriculum to engage in controversy with students. In
all of the cases, we found that teachers dealt with major social issues without
formal preparation, yet still they may invoke a set of practices that are drawn
from culturally responsive teaching (CRT), critical care, and critical pedagogi-
cal praxis (Camangian, 2013; Gay, 2000; Noddings, 1992; Valenzuela, 1999).
4 Education and Urban Society 00(0)

Positionality and Timeline

As teacher educators and researchers, we too lived through the experiences of
spring 2015 while mentoring future teachers at our respective higher educa-
tion institutions in and around Baltimore City, lovingly known as
“Smalltimore” due to its midsize. We also had children ourselves in schools
in Baltimore City, and thus, we were personally impacted by this story, which
is partially what drew us to this research project. We recall Sunday morning,
April 12, 2015, when Freddie Gray was arrested in West Baltimore after he
ran from police. We saw the video on our social media timelines. We remem-
ber that, while in police custody in a police transport van, he suffered major
spinal injuries from a “rough ride.” We read the stories about how he requested
help from the back of the van where he was not belted and secured. We knew
that Gray was transported to the hospital unresponsive. We watched on
Saturday, April 18, as protests began outside the local police station in Gray’s
neighborhood, and later, as protesters staged a demonstration prior to a Major
League Baseball game for the Orioles at Camden Yards where many fans
from outside the city displayed unsympathetic and racist interactions. On
Monday, April 20, Freddie Gray died from a spinal injury. That week, an
already-tense environment escalated.
Monday, April 27, local social media supposedly spread rumors of a
“purge” at or near Frederick Douglas High School in West Baltimore, in the
general area of the city where Gray was apprehended. A “purge” refers to the
2013 film of that name (The Purge), wherein during a 12-hr time period all
crimes are legal, and no authorities are present to intervene (Bay & DeMonaco,
2013). In a report following a qualitative study by the Poverty and Inequality
Research lab at Johns Hopkins University (2017) entitled, “Set up City: The
Voices of Baltimore Youth after the April 2015 Unrest,” youth reported that
the intent of the social media calls to gather at the Mondawmin Mall across
from Douglas High School was unclear. “Some were under the impression
that it was a call for a peaceful protest. Some believe gang members insti-
gated the event. A few assumed it would be an opportunity to ‘purge’ the
mall” (p. 7). At the high school dismissal, students met with a barricade of
police in riot gear who had also gotten word of the so-called, “purge.” Unable
to reach their transportation hub to travel home, some agitated students began
throwing rocks at police. Tensions erupted, leading to full-scale rioting and
ultimately, the burning of a CVS Pharmacy at nearby Pennsylvania and North
Avenues on a main thoroughfare that runs east to west. International media
descended on Baltimore, sharing images of acts of frustration and despera-
tion that often inevitably follow such events. On Tuesday, April 28, Baltimore
City public schools and many other independent schools were closed due to
Flores-Koulish and Shiller 5

the uncertainty of possible violence. On Wednesday, April 29, schools re-

opened and the mayor instituted a mandatory curfew for all city residents of
10 p.m. The Baltimore Orioles played a televised baseball game with no
attendees, a first in Major League Baseball’s 145-year history (Berman,
2015). Tensions were broken when on Friday, May 1, the State’s District
Attorney, Marilyn Mosby charged six police officers with murder and other
crimes. Peaceful demonstrations erupted that afternoon and early evening
with a major police presence. The curfew ended after 5 days.

Literature Review
There are several bodies of literature that inform our understanding of how
teachers play a critical role in making sense of controversy, current issues,
and the ways in which students might have a personal connection to them:
Critical care, which focuses on the ways in which teachers can be in authentic
relationships with their students; cultural responsiveness, which focuses on
the ways in which teachers can connect the curriculum and pedagogy to stu-
dents’ lives, and critical pedagogical praxis, which deals with the ways in
which teachers can bridge their practice to engage in social critique and advo-
cacy around issues of injustice, to inform our analysis of how teachers
responded to their students.

Critical Care
Critical care emerged as a critique of out of the work on ethics of caring in
classrooms by Nel Noddings (1992). Noddings’ ethic of care referred to car-
ing as constitutive to educational aims. Angela Valenzuela, however, argued
that what Noddings was talking about was too limited, an aesthetic form of
care, which did not build authentic relationships between student and teacher.
Authentic care, on the other hand, meant that while teachers cared about their
students’ academic achievement, they also cared about who they were beyond
the classroom and wanted to learn about their communities and their families.
In doing so, they would build a community of trust between students, com-
munities, and families (Valenzuela, 1999, pp. 269–271). Valenzuela called
this authentic or critical care and observed that most schools engage in only
an aesthetic form of caring. Valenzuela (1999) has noted that aesthetic care
“shapes and sustains a subtractive logic which results in a process of cultural
and linguistic eradication since the curriculum students are asked to value
and support is one that dismisses or derogates their language, culture and
community” (Valenzuela, 1999, p. 61). Consequently, it is vital that schools,
especially those that serve students of color, move to an authentic or critical
6 Education and Urban Society 00(0)

care model to ensure that their students feel part of a school community that
respects and understands them and that they are given the tools that will help
them navigate in school as well as in the world beyond school (Rolón-Dow,

Rich Milner’s (2014) study of a middle school social studies teacher profiles
Ms. Shaw, who came with a

Community-based orientation to her work, which was precipitated by the fact

that she was helped throughout her life, especially in the Black community. She
sees all of the students as her kids. For Ms. Shaw, she was “commissioned by
the Black community to especially contribute and improve the community . . .
but to all community. She wants her students to witness her purpose as she lives
and teaches it. (p. 10)

This led her to a teaching practice in which she has built relationships with
students; teaches her students about their community, their role, and respon-
sibility in it; and asks her students to think beyond their community as well.
Ms. Shaw does what Geneva Gay would call CRT. Teachers who do this
“acknowledge cultural legacies, incorporate multicultural content, facilitate
multiple learning styles, transition between community and academic con-
texts, and foster intra- and inter-cultural dignities” (Gay, 2000, p. 29). Many
teachers who practice CRT do it in an attempt to engage their students more
in the curriculum, which can be distant from students’ everyday lives.
Curriculum is steeped in White, European perspectives that can also be alien-
ating to students of color (Milner, 2012; Sleeter, 2001). Moll et al. (1992)
suggest that teachers build on the funds of knowledge that students bring to
the classroom, not only to increase on their intellect but also to connect to
what they are learning. This is a critical step in understanding and valuing the
students that they serve and to reversing color-blindness (the notion that race
and ethnicity play no role in the relationship between teacher and student and
can be ignored) and context neutrality (the notion that the political, social,
economic, and cultural environment around the school does not matter to
teaching and learning; Milner, 2012, pp. 14–15). Chris Emdin has called this
kind of practice “reality pedagogy,” in which teachers use the tools of com-
munication that are valued in their students’ communities. They leverage
those tools to teach, help students learn content, but also connect with them
and to help them critique the world around them (Emdin, 2016). In this way,
teachers and schools can cultivate trusting and respectful relationships with
Flores-Koulish and Shiller 7

parents and community that begin to position the school as a community

center that values families as well as students (Milner, 2012; Noguera, 2001;
Warren et al., 2009).
One well-known example of this kind of teaching was the ethnic studies
curriculum, which began in Tucson, Arizona in the 1990s to build on the
strengths and assets, the funds of knowledge (Moll et al., 1992), of the
Mexican American students who made up most of the students attending
schools in Tucson. The curriculum taught students to examine their Mexican
indigenous heritage as part of a larger program to empower students, give
them pride in their heritage, and make them agents of their own learning and
in society (Acosta & Mir, 2012). Acosta writes,

I was less concerned about presenting a historical perspective of literary

movements than with finding literature that would inspire dialogue and
generate ideas so powerful that my students felt compelled to write. It was my
belief that the literature could be the tool used to create a liberated class, where
I became one voice of many in the discussion of the art and the social political
context of the story. (Acosta & Mir, 2012, p. 20)

While the curriculum was very successful, Tucson’s school district elimi-
nated the Mexican American Studies program in 2012 as result of a 2010
Arizona law outlawing curricula which were, among other things, “desig-
nated primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” (State of Arizona,
House of Representatives Forty-Ninth Legislature, 2010, p. 1). In 2017, the
law was overruled as unconstitutional after an attorney brought suit against
the state of Arizona on behalf of the city’s teachers (Kiefer, 2017).

Critical Pedagogical Praxis

Many teachers who engage in CRT do not extend their work with students to
critical consciousness-raising and/or “transformational pedagogy.”
Transformative pedagogy was defined by Harrell-Levy et al. (2016) as sev-
eral processes at once: “(C)onsciousness raising (...cultivating an interest in
key issues in the community...), critical reflection (...identifying and decon-
structing personal experiences...), development (the way students make sense
of their...experiences...), individuation (...integrating the emotional and spiri-
tual aspects of learning...),...(and) role modeling” (p. 76). In many ways, this
is what Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) calls “socio-political consciousness
and is about helping ‘students use the various skills they learn to better under-
stand and critique their social position and context’” (p. 37). It can also be
thought of as a critical pedagogy (Freire, 1972) which focuses on
8 Education and Urban Society 00(0)

. . . the role of education in reifying existing power relations in order to

transform them. Its educational aims are to teach students to become critically
conscious so that they think they already know in order to exercise their agency
to disrupt oppressive social, political, and economic relations at the
interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels. (Camangian, 2013, p. 3)

In our own context, understanding the beliefs of teachers has been critical to
understanding how teachers responded to the events following the death of
Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015. Depending on those belief systems,
teachers were more or less willing to engage students whether with formal
curriculum or simply guided discussion. Some had been teaching from a cul-
turally relevant perspective all along, and understanding the events and ensu-
ing protests was easily placed within a context of empathy for students’ lives,
the life of the city, and the social, economic, and political inequity faced by
Black people in the local context. Others believed that their work was simply
to provide a space for students to understand multiple perspectives, but that
each had equal merit and led to a different kind of engagement with the
events. Their approach looked at the events unfolding around the death of
Freddie Gray as a “teachable moment” (Lipscomb, 2002), but not much

Given our research questions, how were a group of Baltimore teachers pre-
pared for, and how did they handle, the difficult and critical circumstances
and conversations that ensued as a result of the death of Freddie Gray? We
knew that we wished to understand the meaning that teachers made in reflect-
ing on this past situation, which is best accomplished using qualitative
research (Creswell, 2018). Qualitative methods were best given our explor-
atory intentions, as well as our interests and connections with critical teach-
ing, especially in the context of Baltimore City. Specifically, given that we
spoke with multiple Baltimore City teachers, we utilized a multiple-case
study that was instrumental and collective. That is, we wanted to “gain insight
and (a deeper) understanding of a particular situation or phenomenon”
through the examination of more than one case (Baxter & Jack, 2008, p. 550).
After institutional review board (IRB) approval, we utilized snowball sam-
pling to connect with eight Baltimore City public school teachers for in-depth
interviews. In addition, we collected relevant documents (e.g., emails
exchanged between teachers and students, lesson plans, etc.) from the partici-
pants. Table 1 describes the participants we interviewed, using pseudonyms.
Interestingly, the teachers who volunteered for our study were women of
Flores-Koulish and Shiller 9

Table 1.  Teachers Interviewed in Response to the 2015 Baltimore Uprising.

Teacher Race/gender School level Subject

Erin Bi-racial female High school Social Studies
Jacque White male Middle school English/Social Studies
Jane Black female Elementary Fifth grade
Marlon White male Middle school Social Studies
Mike White male High school Social Studies
Patricia Black female High school English
Tia Black female Middle school Social Studies
Toni Black female Middle school English

color and White men, which differs from the typical demographics among
teachers, which are mostly White women. The majority of the teachers we
interviewed were secondary teachers as well, which was unsurprising as they
were highly engaged in discussions about police violence with their older
students. We conducted lengthy semi-structured interviews off school cam-
puses with each teacher participant lasting 1 to 2 hr, using a pre-determined
list of approximately 15 questions to guide our conversation to cover the
teachers’ biographies, both personally and professionally, and then more spe-
cifically, we asked questions about their teaching in the spring of 2015.
Participants shared curriculum materials and anonymous emails that they uti-
lized and/or wrote in the spring of 2015 as well.
We transcribed each of the interviews and discussed our initial emerging
findings, but to analyze our data more in-depth, we utilized Grounded Theory
processes (Charmaz, 2006) to code the four themes below that emerged from
the interviews and documents, leading to our theory that administrators can
be better prepared for a future community crisis with staff who are primed to
engage their students in critical teachable moments:

Pivotal personal experiences in their (the teachers’) lives made them either
aware of privilege and/or racial identity and/or inequality in society.

Each teacher allowed students to express their feelings first and foremost.

Each teacher allowed for multiple perspectives, whether from the students and/
or from the media.

A continuum emerged going from a clinical, balanced critical thinking approach

to a critical social justice approach.
10 Education and Urban Society 00(0)

As we listed above, four themes emerged from the data that support the the-
ory that culturally responsive critical care and pedagogical praxis should be
nurtured in teachers for its effectiveness in times of trauma or even on a daily
basis in some urban school environments. In other words, this group of teach-
ers shared with us stories that demonstrated their abilities to address the stu-
dents’ reactions to this particular community crisis in sensitive, meaningful,
and authentic ways. In these ways, the data responded to our second research
question: How did these teachers handle students’ and their own reactions to
this immediate violent act and resulting uprising in the city? At the same
time, through their explanation of their pedagogical decision-making, we
also gained insights that responded to our first research question: How were
a group of Baltimore teachers prepared for the difficult and critical circum-
stances and conversations that ensued as a result of the death of Freddie

Pivotal Personal Experiences

Most of the eight teachers in our study exuded an empathic nature, which
many elaborated on when we asked them what life experiences had influ-
enced their teaching. They shared stories with us about what inspired them to
become urban educators specifically. The connections between social justice
teaching and empathy became quite clear from our participants, and what we
learned from them was that their empathic nature often derived from some
pivotal past experience. Many of the participants described experiences from
their past that amounted to awakenings that propelled them into urban educa-
tion often with a social justice focus. By and large, the sense of empathy or of
social justice was not learned in any teacher preparation program. Rather,
these teachers gained a grasp of these ideas through pivotal personal experi-
ences that they brought into the classroom.
For example, Jane, who is African American, discussed the ways in which
she felt compelled to stand up for the Spanish-speaking children she went to
school with as a child at her all-black elementary school in North Carolina.
Intuitively, she sensed the injustices they experienced as people of color, as
well as their vulnerabilities in her school, and she found herself drawn to these
peers, to reach out, to assist them, and even to protect them at a very young age.
She described herself as a person who is in touch with others’ emotions. But
Jane was older before she realized Black people also deserved special consid-
eration and attention for the historical legacy of racism in our society. In fact, it
was a particularly pivotal moment that led to her awakening:
Flores-Koulish and Shiller 11

(G)rowing up as an African American, I didn’t really understand the issue of

race. I remember sitting in my work-study office with my supervisor, and I
said, “I don’t know what the big deal is. I don’t really see color; what’s the big
deal?” She was taken aback, but she didn’t jump down my throat. But she said,
“Why don’t you see color?” She started to speak to me about a lot of the things
that had happened in history to African Americans or the civil rights movement.
She posed questions to me and told me that “this is why you should see race,
and if anyone tells you that they don’t see race or they don’t see color, that’s a
problem because that means they don’t see you.” Sometimes we think that
when someone says, “I don’t see color,” they are not racist, but you need to see
color, because with that color comes a whole cultural background that you are
not considering when you don’t see my color; and when you are not considering
it, when I do something out of the norm, you may punish me for that through
discrimination or through ignorance or just lack of understanding; and when
we talk about the classroom, you discipline me through disciplinary actions.
That was an experience that was very important.

To contrast Jane’s awakening, Jacque’s experiences were quite different.

Based on his interview, he described a variety of professional experiences that
led to his pursuits in urban education. His initial interests came from teaching
university students whom he found lacking in skills and worldly experiences.
From that experience, he explains, “As a graduate student (in a Philadelphia
university), I taught recovering addicts and ex-cons who were trying to get the
basic skills to get through to school (at this university). I did that for two years,
so I thought, ‘I want to teach in the city.’” Jacques’ experiences were more
subtle than Jane’s pivotal experience, more cumulative in informing his
Like Jacques and Jane, an experience in higher education drew many of
our participants in the direction of acknowledging inequities in society and
thus becoming more sensitized to the needs of students of color in urban
environments. Erin’s experiences came not from teaching or teacher prepara-
tion, but instead from other university undergraduate classroom encounters:

Most of (my consciousness on social justice issues) came from my undergraduate

experiences (not in teacher education) . . . I had some really good courses like
psychology of racism, human relations, and social work . . . I was (in love with)
the conversation that we would have in those classes.

Similar to Erin, Mike’s undergraduate university experiences were also

foundational. He told us,
12 Education and Urban Society 00(0)

What it (undergraduate courses) taught me more than anything else is the

practicing of reflection and self-reflection: acknowledging my whiteness, the
privileges that come with that, my maleness, and the privileges that come with
that. I’m not sure that I’ve come to any significant conclusions or findings, but
it’s something that I reflect on pretty frequently.

Mike also shared with us that he had been raised in a rural, more working-
class area in Maryland, but attended college in the Mid-West with more afflu-
ent students, which he felt began his journey of consciousness, setting himself
apart from others who had a privilege that he lacked.
Participants also discussed the fundamental texts they read that made a
difference, such as Marlon, who told us he read Blockbusting in Baltimore by
W. Edward Orser (1997), a history of “redlining” in Baltimore that led to
racial and socioeconomic class divisions, changing the way he thought about
the current racial divisions in Baltimore. Still others learned or developed a
social justice mind-set on the job. Tia, for example, spent time early in her
career at an urban charter school that had a theme related to social justice.
There she was mentored by an administrator who fronted this justice mind-
set, and that viewpoint and the necessary prerequisites became foundational
in Tia’s teaching.
The awakenings that the teachers experienced varied from single
encounters to more sustained occurrences. The incidents left marks on
these individuals who were open to hearing and empathizing with such
messages and did not approach complicated histories with defensiveness
and arrogance. This series of epiphanies led these teachers to develop a
critique of structural racism and to connect that critique to a stance or an
approach in their teaching that included a need for cultural responsiveness
as well as a critical care.

Critical Care: Classrooms Where Feelings Were at the Center

After learning about the teacher participants’ past experiences and urban
teaching motivations, we also learned about the ways in which the teachers
discussed social justice issues with their students in the spring of 2015. In
particular, we heard numerous stories from the teachers related to the ways
that they felt an emotional bond with their students during that tumultuous
time, and how they provided safe spaces for the students to express their own
feelings, despite how strongly these feelings sometimes came out. For exam-
ple, Toni relayed the following story to us:

I am very flexible when it comes to my students’ needs, and so we had a student

who was related to Freddie Gray. He’s in the class and says, “That’s my cousin.
Flores-Koulish and Shiller 13

I don’t know what to do.” There were times where we would just go in, sit in a
circle and talk. I did my best not to overpower the discussion or take it over. I
don’t want to say I was facilitating the discussion because I was asking the
questions and they would just take it away. They were able to bring it back to
our text that we were reading—this is what happened in Baltimore and this is
what happens in our book. It was a very hard year.

We found Toni’s passage particularly meaningful in the ways that she demon-
strated sensitivity to her students’ emotional needs, but also in how she dem-
onstrated the ways in which the material she was teaching inherently
connected with the students’ lives. It is especially challenging for a teacher
when a tragedy is so close to their students; in this case, the victim’s cousin
was one of her students, and so, it became even more difficult to navigate the
emotional landscape in her classroom. But Toni did not shy away from the
necessary processing she felt her students needed. Given the geography of
Baltimore, Toni’s example was not isolated; other teachers we spoke with
also had students with personal connections to Freddie Gray or even to mem-
bers of the Baltimore Police Department, and they too explained how they
entered into classroom discussions in sensitive ways.
Other teachers told us remarkable stories that their students shared with
them about the personal impact of the uprising. They heard that students
were afraid of traveling home on busses that week, unsure of whether there
would be spontaneous violence along the way. Still another teacher shared
the realities of one worried student who told her that his little brother’s
asthma medicine was unavailable because the damage to their local phar-
macy during the uprising shut it down. Mike shared an email he had written
to his students on the day that the schools were closed that read as follows:
“I am writing to check in with each and every one of you. Please reply back
to let me know you are okay and, if you would like, share stories, share
inspiration, share love”. Just reaching out to show he cares so much for his
students showed us that he views his job as one of connecting with students
not only on an academic level but also on a sincere emotional and personal
level. His genuine concern for their safety is evident. That, we found, was
powerful at this time when many city residents wondered if they might find
themselves suddenly mired in violence whether through active protesting
or simply traveling through the city.
More profoundly, Tia shared with us her insights about how her students
may have differed in their perceptions of the uprising based on their race, and
she considers the ways that this poses emotional challenges to teachers and
students. She said,
14 Education and Urban Society 00(0)

I want my students to know who they are as people of color; I also want them
to understand what other people feel—people who are not in (their) shoes. I
don’t have any white students right now, but I’ve had them in the past, and we
are still very close. We(‘ve) talk(ed) about guilt but we also talk about shame.
The guilt that you may feel is the shame that black people feel. I was afraid to
have these conversations during the Freddie Gray stuff. My friends who
understood things a little differently would say that my white students were
having guilt.

Tia stops short of providing suggestions for how to travel through such emo-
tional quicksand.
Jacques’ approach to teaching had already paved a smooth path for an occa-
sion such as this. He described for us the ways in which he frequently teaches
his students to disagree with each other. He told us, “Tempers flared occasion-
ally but everyone handled themselves very well.” The tense emotional reac-
tions occurred because most of our teacher participants explained that students
were anything but a monolith in their understandings of the situation. That is,
some believed that the police were to blame, while others expressed to their
teachers that the protestors (some of whom took a violent turn) were to blame.
At Patricia’s school, she shared that their students typically have the opportu-
nity each Friday to express their feelings in a variety of media, whether poetry,
journaling, rapping, and so on, and during this week, she chose to move that up
to the day after they returned to school following the violence that had occurred.
Marlon shared that teachers from other cities, including Ferguson, MO, reached
out to him to offer him and his students sympathy and solace. In the end,
Jacques summed up the need for providing his students emotional spaces at
times like this and in general by saying, “You had to keep in mind that a lot of
our kids are in trauma all the time, and this is just another trauma. There has to
be a safe, very calm place for them to talk about this.”
These examples show the ways in which the teachers developed and
enacted an approach to authentic, critical care. They did not just care that
students’ attendance was regular or that they were handing in their homework
on time; they took an interest in the lives of students outside of school. They
also shared their own stories and became vulnerable in the classroom. They
were able to connect with students and to respond to the experiences that
students were encountering around race and social violence.

Culturally Responsiveness: Responding to the Context of the

The teachers we spoke with taught social studies and English. As such, the
goals of their classrooms were building student skills around understanding
Flores-Koulish and Shiller 15

multiple perspectives, providing spaces for free expression of how students

felt about the events around them, presenting a variety of sources, and/or
examining historical contextual details with students, which provided them
with an important baseline for analysis. One would expect that these skills
would be taught in any social studies or English classroom, but these teachers
used the context of Freddie Gray to work with the skills that students would
have learned in another lesson. They responded to the larger context of stu-
dents’ lives and incorporated that into the curriculum to engage students in a
set of skills vital to any critical thinker.
Marlon used “reality pedagogy” in his classroom and had students define
the content that they discussed (Emdin, 2016):

The kids (typically) choose articles to bring in. They bring in something and
analyze it. We look for biases within them. This time the big international story
was in our backyard. We looked at articles from Fox news and other media and
looked for the differences . . . I never share my opinion though. I want them to
have their own opinions.

Nowhere in the curriculum does it guide teachers to ask students to bring in

resources or to discuss the international story of the day, but this teacher
decided that this was going to be an important lesson for students. As Jacques
explained, “We need people who are prepared for the rigor of being a citizen,
for handling decision making, thinking about and expressing their own opin-
ions and being opened to other opinions”. Thus, it was important to look
analytically at a variety of media texts and to understand what kind of stories
were being told about the city that spring. Toni had her middle school stu-
dents produce a video on their love for Baltimore to show a different side of
the story, producing a counter-narrative to the predominantly negative stories
that were being generated by large corporate media outlets.
In addition, focusing on the students’ identities became paramount as well.
As an English teacher, Patricia found that the Common Core standards’
practice of connecting nonfiction with fictional texts can easily connect to
students’ lives. Tia explained,

I want my students to know who they are—as people of color—I want them to
understand what other people feel, people who are not in their shoes. So, we
talk. We talk about guilt, but we also talk about shame. The guilt White people
feel may be the shame that Black people feel.

Jane went so far as to learn that many of her Black students had not been told
(i.e., given “the talk”) that they should act in different ways when they
16 Education and Urban Society 00(0)

encounter authority figures like police officers, and she found that to be prob-
lematic and frustrating.
In their descriptions, the teachers aimed at instilling in their students a
deeper sense of self and others through an examination of a variety of per-
spectives. From learning how to navigate through difficult conversations to
examining the ways that the media puts forth a variety of perspectives, to
finally understanding the importance of how students of color come to self-
identify, engage in self-love, and navigate themselves successfully through
the world, these teachers took advantage of this teachable moment to expand
upon what many had already been doing in their classrooms. They did not say
that they were engaged in culturally responsive practice, but they certainly
did what Jackie Jordan Irvine (2003) describes when she defines CRT:
“Respecting cultural differences, believing that all students are capable of
learning, creating a sense of efficacy for students, incorporating students’
cultures into the curriculum, and recognizing the cultural resources that stu-
dents bring to class” (p. 74).

From Critical Thinking to Critical Pedagogical Praxis

We found that among the teacher participants with whom we spoke, their
perspectives ranged along a continuum that balanced out, with one side aim-
ing toward a cerebral, critical thinking approach and the other end aiming
more toward education for liberation or a critical justice approach.
Marlon’s quote best illustrates the more clinical approach when he stated,
“Debate has shown me both sides of every situation. This really helped me in
the classroom. I always try to be the devil’s advocate . . . You really have to
think about both points of view in any situation”. We characterized his per-
spective in this way especially in light of his dichotomized understanding of
knowing. He painted arguments in broad dualistic stripes and asked his stu-
dents to see both ends. In addition, as we noted above, Marlon described
himself as intentionally leaving out his own opinions. Still others felt that
their students were too young developmentally to understand nuances. Jane,
for example, described her fourth graders in this way: “My students do think
in black and white; they see (the Baltimore Uprising) as a white and black
thing”. She followed this up by contributing her thoughts to hearing that no
one in her students’ lives was having discussions about what was happening
in their city at that time, whether parents or teachers, and she expressed sur-
prise and frustration. Thus, for her, a clinical approach was as far as she could
take her students.
At another end of the continuum that emerged from our data was Toni.
Interestingly, Toni teaches at one of the few schools in Baltimore city with
Flores-Koulish and Shiller 17

White students who are a significant proportion of the population. Centered

in an upper middle-class enclave of the city, students from other neighbor-
hoods attend the middle school given the district’s choice options, and so, the
population of the middle school is mixed racially and socioeconomically.
Amid this environment, Toni sometimes struggles with the parents and teach-
ers at her school for the ways that she allows all of her students to come to a
critical social justice understanding and express themselves. She told us,

I believe that my job is to make sure that students leave my classroom not just
better writers or better speakers but better people. I’m not just preparing them
for 7th and 8th grade or high school; I’m preparing them for life, so I feel as
though my job is to teach them how to navigate the world that we live in—
using education to get them where they didn’t think they could be.

Specifically, before and during spring 2015, Toni allowed her students to
express themselves through the curriculum by analyzing Beyonce Knowles’
music video, “Formation,” as well as the Black Lives Matter movement and
similar material. Toni discussed how she offers her students multiple oppor-
tunities to engage in powerful critical understandings of how race plays a
part in our society. So too can Patricia’s sentiments fall toward this end of
the spectrum with her beliefs stated as such:

(W)e have to empower students to be engaged in what’s going on and how

these things impact their world; and that they do have power to change it. They
have real power to change it other than reacting violently. Their voice can
matter, but we have to empower them to know that you have to voice it and be

Mike, who teaches law classes at his high school shared, “We spent the whole
fall (of 2015) kind of developing advocacy projects, teaching students the
steps to advocacy, to creating change”. At least two of the other teachers
described the ways in which their charter schools encouraged teachers to
engage their students in critical social justice understandings through the

Limits of the Study

We realize that we had a small sample size and the teachers were a self-
selected group. Because these teachers opted to participate in the research,
we knew that they would have an approach to teaching that they were excited
to share and which they believed was good practice. There would need to be
much more data collected to understand how representative these teachers
18 Education and Urban Society 00(0)

were of teachers as a whole throughout the district. That said, their insight is
instructive. The teachers who shared their responses to the death of Freddie
Gray show what they believed would be an appropriate response. The
responses ranged, depending on the context, but in all cases, teachers’
responses were based on strong relationships with students and a belief that
they should, indeed, deal with the context in which their students lived, both
hallmarks of good teaching.

“Everything is reactive instead of being proactive and really preparing for
situations, and even empowering people to deal with adversity. I don’t think
that we handled (the post-Baltimore uprising) in a way that made kids feel
empowered.” Patricia was referring to what she feels happens at her school
and in the district on a regular basis. This singular quote also implicitly
illustrates responses to both our research questions that sought to better
understand how teachers were prepared (i.e., reactive over proactive con-
notes under-preparation) and how they handled the post-Freddie Gray
uprising in their classrooms (i.e., little student empowerment). In fact, the
district sent out a memo following the students’ return to school in spring
2015 requesting that schools quell students’ anger to avoid further protest.
Patricia’s advice sums up what can be our paper’s outcome: For schools to
be proactive and prepared to have students contend with our complex world
means teachers and administrators must be prepared to have on-going, sus-
tained dialogue on difficult topics and to think through creative ways that
insert these topics in curriculum and instruction.
To accomplish this will require a new mind-set by many involved parties.
First and foremost, school districts should not suggest simply quelling emo-
tions. Processing emotions through dialogue and/or other means of expres-
sion is crucial. Second, educators must move beyond neutrality, guilt, shame,
and disregard when it comes to historic systemic racism (Dunn et al., 2019).
To aid in our understanding of this mind-set, educators must rely on an array
of resources. For example, in-service PD education should aim to enhance
teachers’ sensibilities and skills related to institutional racism and anti-racism
given teachers’ own developmental trajectories. Less vapid skill develop-
ment, and more enhanced, authentic processing could go a long way in pre-
paring a stronger teaching force that can handle complicated, sensitive
moments like what Baltimore experienced in the spring of 2015. Teachers
could more likely help students better understand the historic institutional
forces at play that lead to similar situations across our nation. In addition,
Flores-Koulish and Shiller 19

teacher education might play a bigger role in helping to educate the next
generation of teachers to better understand socio-historical contexts as well
as elements of racial identity development and enhanced counseling skills.
Furthermore, it seems that if we wish to have effective and critical teach-
able moments during and following a community crisis, it requires careful
preparation by administrators to ensure that staff is prepared to provide on-
going critical authentic care (Valenzuela, 1999). It would follow that this can
start in the hiring process so that administrators consider questions of teacher
applicants about their past inspirations and preparation for complex chal-
lenges. Urban administrators especially should be looking for teacher candi-
dates who demonstrate an awareness of and inspiration from social justice, as
we heard from the most passionate teachers in our study. Specifically, such
teachers should be similar to Milner’s (2014) Ms. Shaw in the ways that she
has a “community-based orientation.” Similar to many of our participants,
school districts could specifically seek to hire teachers who have had a piv-
otal experience in their lives that has awoken them such that they have entered
into the “cycle of liberation” (Harro, 2010).
School districts should not suggest simply suppressing feelings after a cri-
sis. “(They) must balance the need for children and staff to deal with the
emotions and reactions aroused by the crisis, against the compelling desire to
‘get things back to normal’” (Lichtenstein et al., 1994, p. 23). At the district
level, administrators should have in place policies and practices that enable
best practices in social/emotional learning (Lichtenstein et al., 1994).
Processing emotions through dialogue and/or other means of expression is
crucial. Administrators should be preparing teachers to help students work
through a crisis like the events Baltimore experienced in the spring of 2015.
Actions by teachers like Mike whom we interviewed should be standard; that
is, all teachers should be checking in with their students on a personal level
during and following a crisis, to ensure students understand that teachers care
about their emotional and physical well-being following a sudden commu-
nity crisis.

Although the participants in our study shared very little if anything at all
about their teacher education experiences related to their knowledge of teach-
ing urban students, we feel that teacher education can play a pivotal role.
Teacher education can help pre- and in-service educators move beyond neu-
trality, guilt, shame, and disregard when it comes to historic systemic racism.
However, as Hayes and Juárez (2012) note, teacher education has a long way
20 Education and Urban Society 00(0)

to go to overcome the “systemic privileging of Whiteness” that is normalized

in schools of education (p. 6). They provide a series of lessons for teacher
education to follow for authentic CRT:

Ensure that teacher candidates fully realize that racism is widespread and
pervasive across and within our nation.

Colorblindness should have no part in teacher education.

Teacher educators should duly unpack and underscore the meritocracy myth.

Teacher education should more widely uphold the experiential knowledge

from people of color.

Students in teacher education must understand the many ways that White
supremacy has impacted and continues to impact our nation. (Hayes & Juárez,

Perhaps if teacher educators more frequently sought out teachers like Tia to
provide experiential knowledge combined with her determined CRT peda-
gogy, we could provide our students with the type of education that Hayes
and Juárez suggest needs to happen. For example, Tia could share the ways
that she tied together the unit she wrote on “Abuse of Power” that typically
teaches students about World War II and Nazi Germany with the abuse of
power happening locally with law enforcement. Furthermore, in this same
unit, she was able to help her students understand the differences between
rioting and protesting, all quite relevant and timely, but typical for the type of
CRT Tia engages in in her classroom. In addition, based on our data, we
found it is crucial that teacher education is the best place for teachers to learn
about racial identity development, regardless of race (Durden et al., 2016;
McAllister & Irvine, 2000). Mike was one of our participants who gained a
lot from his teacher education in this regard: “What (teacher education)
taught me more than anything else is the practicing of reflection and self-
reflection: acknowledging my whiteness, the privileges that come with that,
my maleness and the privileges that come with that.” Teacher education can
and should collaborate more frequently with urban school districts for more
empowering pre- and in-service teacher education.
Empowering PD can also aid in helping staff facilitate meaningful, effec-
tive classroom discussions that reach toward Harrell-Levy et al.’s (2016)
“transformational pedagogy” as we describe in the literature earlier and hear
from some of our teacher participants herein. Specifically, teachers in our
Flores-Koulish and Shiller 21

study found most value when PD was flexible and open to topics that teachers
most wanted. For example, Toni discussed the value in the “Edcamp” model
when her colleagues chose to look at topics of “cultural competency,” while
Tia enjoyed experiential PD at her school. With “Edcamp,” educators deter-
mine the topics they want to learn about, and it is participant-driven (“Tenets
of Edcamp,” n.d.), which could be empowering if a critical mass of teachers
at the school have interests in CRT, but that is obviously not guaranteed.
However, Erin shared that, for her, hearing the famous educator, Jaime
Escalante speak during a PD she participated in when she taught in AZ pro-
vided the “consciousness raising” she desired (Harrell-Levy et al., 2016).
Erin shared that she especially valued that he discussed the ways that he cre-
ated community in his classroom.
In these times, we see multiple instances of the challenges present in dia-
logue across ideologies and beliefs (Dunn et al., 2019). If teachers can build
community by helping students facilitate dialogue by first laying out one’s
feelings in a safe environment, as well as by sensitively considering multiple
perspectives, and fully CRT toward critical pedagogical praxis, then perhaps
we would have a society that is better equipped to engage in controversy and
opposing opinions, but more, as Jacques noted above, to become active citi-
zens in our democracy. In other words, these are illustrations of what could
be proactive education, for empowering classrooms that are able to nimbly
process through events as they inevitably arise.

The authors would like to thank the eight Baltimore City teachers for their generosity and
time in sharing their expertise with us in a most forthcoming and honest way. We would
also like to thank Mary Kate Miller and Elizabeth Leik for their editorial assistance. Our
names are listed in alphabetical order given that our collaboration was equitable.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publi-
cation of this article.

Stephanie A. Flores-Koulish
22 Education and Urban Society 00(0)

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Author Biographies
Stephanie A. Flores-Koulish is an associate professor and director of the Curriculum
and Instruction for Social Justice MA program. Her primary area of expertise and
research is within the field of critical media literacy education, but she also conducts
research on identity and Latinx adoptees.
Jessica T. Shiller has been an assistant professor of education in the Department of
Instructional Leadership and Professional Development at Towson University in
Maryland since 2011 when she was named an Emerging Educational Leader by Phi
Delta Kappan. She is a graduate program director for the department and works to
ensure a quality program for future educational leaders.