By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
In addition to the excitement and apprehension about tests, read alouds, and recess, there was tension as the school year got underway in many cities and educators wondered if and how to address the police killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the civil unrest that followed. Do we have one conversation and then “move on”? Schedule a town meeting and then get on with the business of learning? As a parent and children’s author who regularly visits with children in a variety of school communities, I firmly believe that schools should take on the responsibility of engaging students around this story, and do so on an ongoing basis; it’s necessary, it’s relevant, it’s learning.
Some might disagree, with understandable concerns about escalating conflict, and fanning flames of prejudice and fear. It was reported that middle and high school educators in Missouri’s Edwardsville school district were initially advised to “change the subject and refocus the students” if Ferguson was brought up. The Superintendent later clarified his position via a letter to parents, as reported by the Edwardsville Intelligencer, writing “It was not our intent to ignore the educational relevance of these events. However, we felt it was important to take the time to calm a potential situation at the high school and to prepare administrators and teachers to approach this critical issue in an objective, fact-based manner.”
Please, let’s take the time to engage our children in ongoing conversations about race, justice, and power. The reality of the 24-hour news cycle and the ubiquity of social media most likely mean that children and teens know something of these stories. And what we know, we can unpack and discuss. Even if they are not aware of the specific events in Ferguson, what are we educating children for, if not to engage productively with the world they live in? And when that world goes horribly wrong, how do we help them move toward making things right?
Teachers can play a positive role by helping students gain a better understanding of troubling events, creating a safe environment where students can think critically about difficult issues, engage in respectful conversation, and think about what they can do to address the problems they see in the world,” write Laura McClure and Tom Roderick of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, via email. The Ferguson story offers “…an opportunity for them to learn history, better understand current political realities, consider multiple points of view, think about possible ways to address problems and injustices, and perhaps become more aware of their own biases. It’s a chance for students to develop the ability to express their views and listen respectfully and open-heartedly while others share theirs. It’s part of educating young people for participating in a democratic society.”
In a blog post, Dr Shaun Harper wrote “Most school-age children in Ferguson are Black. They and Black youth across the U.S. need supportive spaces in which to process what happened. Likewise, youth from other racial groups (including Whites) deserve opportunities to talk about Ferguson, particularly what the implications of this tragedy are for their lives and our nation. Young people need to know the truth: Ferguson wasn’t an isolated incident, but instead is connected to a longstanding, more systemic set of structural problems and judicial errors.”
Of course we want teachers doing their best to ensure that all students are educated in a welcoming and safe environment. I’d suggest that that includes demonstrating to students that they, and their ideas and opinions matter. “To keep conversations productive, we encourage teachers to work with students to develop some ‘community agreements,’ starting at the very beginning of the year,” add Roderick and McClure. “This can set the stage for a more caring classroom where it is safe to discuss difficult issues, and safe to disagree.” These agreements include a ‘one mic’ policy (speak one at a time), agreeing to disagree, speaking from one’s own experience, and avoiding sweeping generalizations.
“You may not live in Ferguson, but we all must live with what has happened in Ferguson. Let’s find ways to talk about this,” wrote Dr. Marcia Chatelain in an August 20 Twitter post. Dr. Chatelain, a writer, historian and assistant professor of history at Georgetown University created the #FergusonSyllabus hashtag and initiative, and saw immediately that these conversations can happen in all kinds of communities. “It’s never too early or too late to help a student grapple with the issues that also trouble us…At all ages, students will have questions about why people are so tense and why they are so upset,” she points out in an email. “The best way to respond is to be honest that some people are upset, hurt and frustrated and engage them on how they can prevent making others feel this way through being honest and fair to others. You don’t have to get mired in the murky details of the killing of Michael Brown if you don’t believe you can handle it. Rather, you can talk about the range of emotions, the societal challenges, and the questions this moment elicits.” #FergusonSyllabus has become a compendium of resources across disciplines for early childhood to college classrooms, with contributions from educators, artists, activists, librarians, parents, writers and more.
And then there are books. Literature one of the richest, most productive ways of all to frame these conversations. By helping our children understand that Black Youth Matter and we need diverse books, we teach and learn in critical and transformative ways. Books like
Rita Williams-Garcia’s ONE CRAZY SUMMER and P.S. BE ELEVEN,
Kekla Magoon’s THE ROCK AND THE RIVER and HOW IT WENT DOWN,
Tanita S. Davis’ MARE’S WAR,
Sharon Dennis Wyeth’s SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL,
Jaqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING,
Zetta Elliott’s BIRD, and A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT
MARCH: Book One by John Robert Lewis and Andrew Aydin with artist Nate Powell,
Julius Lester’s LET’S TALK ABOUT RACE,
Shane Evans’ WE MARCH,
and our own Crystal Hubbard’s THE LAURA LINE and Don Tate’s IT JES’ HAPPENED share the stories of struggle, triumph, creativity, beauty, and more that make up our past, present, and future. Even when not explicitly focused on “big” events, stories can be a vehicle for examination of our culture, values, and systems. In my own 8th GRADE SUPERZERO, essentially a contemporary ‘school story’ that involves a middle school election, puking, and Dora the Explorer, characters are challenged by the questions of who and what they stand for, and what they will do about it. Resources like Notable Books for A Global Society, RIF, Sarah Park’s Social Justice in Children’s/YA Reading List, Mitali Perkins, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, Just Us Books, The Pirate Tree, American Indians in Children’s Literature, and of course The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days Later campaigns offer a wealth of ideas and titles to add to classrooms and libraries. Studies suggest that reading fiction can cultivate empathy, helping us to understand and respect each other. By connecting our students with a variety of rich, vibrant stories of and about justice, we can educate to empower and inspire.
Clearly, these conversations won’t be easy and will likely be, at the very least, uncomfortable. But we don’t educate simply for comfort. Discomfort can mean that there is authentic teaching and learning going on. As students examine not only the events but also the narratives that are presented to them, they can learn to think and act responsibly in many areas of their lives. “One lesson is to beware of misinformation coming through social media about upsetting world events, especially as those events are unfolding,” write Roderick and McClure. “Students need to learn how to evaluate the information they are getting and avoid jumping to conclusions.”
If we claim to be preparing our children for that real world “out there,” let’s recognize that ‘out there’ is our homes, our classrooms, our lives. And these conversations need to continue, need to grow and evolve along with our students during the school year — this is not a “one and done” situation. Let’s give students room to reflect on and navigate many stories in it. Just as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” wove a fascinating narrative of the links between slavery, Jim Crow, and public policies of the past and present, we can use our classrooms to examine how and why Michael Brown is part of the same larger, complex story of race, power, and privilege in America. We can work with our students to look at what we’ve done, and work toward doing better. It’s a matter of life and death.
“How To Talk To Students About Ferguson” by Dr. Marcia Chatelain
“What Happened in Ferguson and Why” from the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility
“Challenging Stereotypes: Michael Brown and If They Gunned Me Down”, from the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility