Rebekah Shoaf is an adjunct professor, founding member of the Digital Literacies Collaborative, and Teacher Development Coach with the NYC Department of Education. In a post for the Writers Who Care blog, excerpted below, she writes about how her experience watching Fruitvale Station caused her to think critically about her students’ interests, and whether texts like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aligned with those interests.
I was watching Fruitvale Station. It was July 21, 2013, a week after the George Zimmerman verdict was announced and four months after a student at my school was killed by the police in Brooklyn. As I sat there, overcome by this true story of a young Black man losing his battle against oppressive social forces, I decided that I would not—could not—assign The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my twelfth grade English class again. That realization began to unravel the way I thought about my course as a whole, from the texts we read to what my students wrote and for whom.
Fruitvale Station is a feature film about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III, a young Black man who was killed by a police officer in an Oakland train station on January 1, 2009. He was unarmed, handcuffed, and lying face down on the ground when he was shot in the back. At the time that I saw the film, I was an English teacher at a small public high school in New York City. Roughly ninety percent of our students were Black and/or Latino/a, more than two-thirds of them were male, and more than eighty-five percent qualified for free or reduced lunch. They could have been Oscar Grant III, Trayvon Martin, or any of the other young people of color who have been tragically killed by police officers and armed civilians. They were–quite literally–Kimani Gray.
I assigned Huck Finn several times in the ten years that I was a teacher. I thought it was a worthy text for twelfth graders to read because I believed it had a decidedly anti-racist, anti-slavery message and because it is a foundational work of American literature. My students wrote required essays comparing and contrasting the novel with other texts we studied. Everyone—they, me, parents, administrators—seemed content enough. Fruitvale Station opened my eyes.
Read the full story at the Writers Who Care blog.