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How teachers can talk to students about Ferguson

November 27, 2014 at 8:25 PM EDT
The events in Ferguson have sparked discussions in homes and communities, including schools. Correspondent Jeffrey Brown speaks with #FergusonSyllabus creator Marcia Chatelain of Georgetown University and Liz Collins of Washington Latin Public Charter School on how teachers can use Missouri history and the role of the media to teach and discuss what is happening in Ferguson.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we saw earlier in today’s protests around the country, the fallout from the Ferguson decision continues to reverberate.  The shooting, the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson and the subsequent protests have all led to difficult discussions in many homes and communities, including among teachers and students in schools.

Jeffrey Brown talked to two people with advice for how to handle these talks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back in August, Marcia Chatelain, a history professor at Georgetown University, started a conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus.  It quickly grew into a way for teachers around the country to share thoughts, resources and strategies to address events in Ferguson in their classrooms.

In the last few days, that conversation has again taken off, with several thousand contributors.

Marcia Chatelain joins me now.  And also with us is Liz Collins, one of the teachers who joined in the conversation.  She teaches English at the Washington Latin Public Charter School here in Washington, D.C.

And welcome to both of you.

So, Marcia Chatelain, how did this come about? What did you see happening?

MARCIA CHATELAIN, Georgetown University: Well, I was — like a lot of Americans, I was watching television every day and looking at the unrest in Ferguson unfold.

And all I could think about were all the kids who weren’t going to be at school on the first day because of what had happened.  And so, initially, I started a conversation on Twitter to get other college professors to dedicate the first day of classes to talking about Ferguson.

And as I started to communicate with them on Twitter, people all across the country at all grade levels really wanted in on this conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was a hunger for it.

MARCIA CHATELAIN: There — absolutely.


And what — and what kind of conversation among teachers did it lead to?

MARCIA CHATELAIN: Well, initially, the conversation was, what do I teach?

And then it grew into, what do I say? How do I talk to students about issues that are contentious? How do I make sure that we reduce conflict in the classroom and really focus on what’s important? And so what #FergusonSyllabus has provided is an opportunity for teachers to not feel isolated or alone in this process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us, Liz Collins, about — before we get into your classroom — about the conversation among teachers who you know how to deal with this.

LIZ COLLINS, Washington Latin Public Charter School: I was really lucky, in that that was organized at my school.  We actually had faculty meetings set up to discuss it, where groups of us talked bout how we felt and about how we were going to teach it.

Different disciplines had different approaches.  And I started using this #FergusonSyllabus Twitter account to get ideas about what to do in my classroom.  So, I was lucky that, as a faculty, we all shared ideas about what to do and how to approach this.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, first was, how do we feel?


JEFFREY BROWN: And then, how do we teach it?


JEFFREY BROWN: And then using the resources, what kind of — what — what unfolded in the classroom? What kinds of things were you able to do?

LIZ COLLINS: Well, one thing that really interested me from that Twitter account was learning about the Missouri Compromise.  How did that affect what was going on? How did history change the context of what we’re looking at?

And that was one thing I talked about the American history teacher with.  He gave me some perspective about how to use that in my classroom.  I teach English, so I was focusing primarily on text, on media, on facts and interpretation and how can we discuss these things and determine what the truth is, whatever the truth — if that’s possible to determine, and the different perspectives.  How do the protesters feel? How do the police feel? Just looking at different views in the classroom.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, is that — what other kind of things? That’s history.  That’s contemporary media.  What other kinds of things that were being passed around?

MARCIA CHATELAIN: Well, I think what was most exciting was that teachers in all disciplines wanted in on this conversation.

And so some science teachers talked about tear gas and the health impacts of using tear gas on citizens.  I heard from a professor of fashion design who wanted to talk about the way that protest styles have influenced the shape of American fashion.


MARCIA CHATELAIN: Yes.  I heard from music teachers who said, we’re going to spend time looking at the elements of protest music and protest songs for different movements.

And so I think what was most inspiring about #FergusonSyllabus is that it wasn’t the usual cast of characters who were having a conversation about race and about conflict and about policing, but people across all fields really wanted to engage their students thoughtfully.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, Liz Collins, you just said something a minute ago about determining the truth.

When information is coming at us so quickly, especially in social media, there’s misinformation, right? How do you — how have you dealt with that?

LIZ COLLINS: That’s so tricky and something that teenagers deal with all the time, because they love Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram, and the information moves faster than the fact-checking.

So, I think that’s an important lesson for them to learn across the board.  Just because you’re getting this information, who’s the source? How trustworthy is it? What’s that person or organization’s bias? What do they want you to think and why?

And I think teaching them to challenge that and think about that goes beyond this issue, but also gives them a lens with which to approach this issue as more and more facts come out.  And every day, we’re learning more and more about what happened and having to sift through all those facts.  And I think teaching that skill is valuable in any subject and easily transferable.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about, Marcia Chatelain, differences in ages? You have to deal with — teachers obviously have to deal with that, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: So, how do you deal with age-specific type of lessons?

MARCIA CHATELAIN: So, one of the things that was really important for me to do in this conversation is to say that some information is age-appropriate and also climate-appropriate.

Every school isn’t the same.  Every school doesn’t want to delve into this issue in the same way.  And so for younger kids, I think we really needed to focus on feelings, what is it like when people are anxious or afraid or scared, and a lot of resources on children’s books that talk about emotions during times that are overwhelming.

For slightly older kids, I think that the paradigm of fairness, what happens when people feel like something is unfair, what happens when people feel like their rights aren’t being respected, you can engage in that conversation.  And for older kids, I think that this is an amazing civic lesson about the various responsibilities people have in a community and what happens when that trust is broken.

JEFFREY BROWN: I suppose, in every school, there’s the question of how much do the children already know, how much do we want to bring it into the — it sounds like, in your school, there was no question.  It was brought in as a conversation because it was there.

LIZ COLLINS: There was no question at our school.

And I know some schools have been nervous about talking about it, but we have a really strong foundation in talking about justice.  That’s really important at our school.  And we go from five to 12.  So there’s a whole range of different levels.  What do kids know? What can they handle?

In my own classroom, we started with the KWL chart.  And so every teachers knows.  What do you want to know? What did you know? And then what do you want to learn when we’re done? So, we start with, what do you know? And how do you feel about it? How are you feeling right now?

And you get a lot of misinformation out there, but you also get their feelings out.  Kids correct each other.  No, I heard that wasn’t true.  No, I don’t know.  And then when you read articles or learn more, they can correct the facts they initially had.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have parents become part of this as well? What — what do you — what do you see as the role of parents in this, or what do you tell them?

MARCIA CHATELAIN: Well, I would tell parents, talk to your child, but especially listen to your child.  Listen more than talk.

How do they feel? What do they think is going on? Listen to them as much as you can and get a sense of what they’re seeing and feeling.  In D.C., in our school population, we have a mix of different races.  And some students are taking this more personally than others and feel frightened or upset.

And I think they need to be heard.  They need a place to express those feelings.  And that should happen at school.  It should also happen at home.  Their parents should give them that audience to talk about any feelings they have about this situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just finally, Marcia Chatelain, what — what — what do you — to the extent it’s a teaching moment, to use the cliche, and literally it’s a teaching moment here, what do you want to bring out? What do you hope comes out?

MARCIA CHATELAIN: I hope what comes out is that nothing bad happens when we’re honest and when we talk to each other.

Nothing terrible has happened because we have had an open conversation about race and about communities and policing.  And I also want to understand that we keep teaching because Ferguson is continually in the struggle and that, by bringing attention to what’s happening — happening in Ferguson, we give more power to our own communities to make the change that we want to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marcia Chatelain, Liz Collins, thank you both very much.

LIZ COLLINS: Thank you.