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How to talk to students about Ferguson

BY Dr. Marcia Chatelain  August 29, 2014 at 10:48 AM EST
A child uses a rag to shield her face from tear gas being fired by police who used it to force protesters from the business district into nearby neighborhoods on Aug. 11 in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo by Scott Olson and Getty Images

A child uses a rag to shield her face from tear gas being fired by police who used it to force protesters from the business district into nearby neighborhoods on Aug. 11 in Ferguson, Missouri. Protesters gathered near the spot where a local police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed, on Aug. 9. Photo by Scott Olson and Getty Images

Teachers’ Lounge, a blog where teachers can discuss the issues that affect them, is back from summer break. Our series starts the school year with a discussion of how to address Ferguson in the classroom by an educator who began an online conversation forum using the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus.

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I watched the unrest in Ferguson unfold while preparing for the start of a new academic year and began to think about the various ways I could talk about the crisis with my students. That’s how #FergusonSyllabus was born.

As I shared more resources, I found that educators from the early childhood level to those who work with adult learners were all searching for material to use to make a tragic moment more meaningful. As in any online conversation, detractors emerged to argue that it is too difficult, too controversial, or too hasty to talk about Ferguson with students. I remain firm that with some preparation and thoughtfulness, you can effectively help students answer their questions and address their fears associated with Ferguson. A collection of teacher-recommended materials and teaching strategies are gathered in this collaborative online document. Here are some tips:

Pre-K-Grade 4
For younger children who may or may not be aware of the scope of Ferguson, I recommend engaging them in identifying and being comfortable with emotions like anxiety, fear, anger and disappointment. The #FergusonSyllabus includes a number of children’s books about sudden change and national events as well as conflict. Although parents may shield their small children from media, they still may sense that adults are uneasy or preoccupied around them. At this age, it is also important to reinforce the value of maintaining relationships across racial, ethnic and cultural differences.

Grades 5-8
For junior high students who may be more aware of the details involving Ferguson, more honest conversations about race are appropriate. These conversations can be framed in terms of America’s racial history and can emphasize what has changed and what remains a challenge. The Ferguson crisis is also an excellent way of introducing students to the principles of governance, public servants and leadership challenges.

High school
High school students undoubtedly will have very strong feelings about Ferguson, and they are equipped to address broader philosophical questions about the nature of protest, the social contract and ethical leadership. Students may become distracted by debating right versus wrong or emphasizing sides in talking about Ferguson; in this instance, teachers could provide open forum spaces for students to share their own experiences of racism, discrimination and injustice. Using that conversation, teachers can then ask students to imagine how to be good citizens and leaders in their own community.

College and beyond
At this level, I recommend educators focus on the structural problems Ferguson brings to the forefront. The #FergusonSyllabus includes interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work that can help students understand many dimensions and facets of Ferguson. Additionally, colleagues working across academic disciplines to incorporate Ferguson into their teaching can demonstrate how scholars can work together to address social issues.

Regardless of where and how you teach, I hope you consider accepting the challenge of helping students understand how to be better citizens and to better to each other.

Dr. Marcia Chatelain is Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown University, where she researches African-American history.