It’s no exaggeration to refer to the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, the treatment of protesters and civilians by a militarized police force in in its aftermath, and the context of racial inequality in which they all happened as an American tragedy.
But there’s little time to mourn such a thing when you have to head back to a classroom and teach.
In the wake of the demonstrations—and in the midst of the still-unresolved quest for justice for Brown’s family—students across the country are heading back to school, and they’re undoubtedly expecting answers.
So what do we tell them about the at-once disturbing and deeply revealing set of events of August 2014 that are now simply referred to as “Ferguson”? Educators, activists and others have weighed in this week in a flurry of interviews, blog posts and articles. From their insights and from lessons from the past, here’s a set of dos and don’ts for teachers (as well as for parents who consider themselves their children’s most important guides to understanding the adult-sized issues in the world around them):
Don’t ignore it: One school district has mandated that teachers “change the subject” if the topic of Brown’s death comes up because there are “so many facts unknown.” But unless you’re a teacher there, don’t close your eyes and pretend this story or the issues that underlie it will disappear. As Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, told NPR, “What happened to Mike Brown—what is happening in Ferguson right now—will enter into our classrooms when the students come back one way or another.”
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Don’t try to make it colorblind: People who insist on looking at the world without acknowledging the role of race are the ones who end up being unable to understand their fellow citizens’ reaction to an event like this because “people get shot every day.” As Kristal Moore Clemons, a history-and-education scholar whose research focuses on topics including civil rights, critical race theory, social justice and education, told The Root in a 2013 piece on how to talk to children about the similarly high-profile case of Travyon Martin’s death, “Don’t preach colorblindness.” Eliminating the role of race and racism in an analysis of Brown’s death and reactions to it deprives students of a rich understanding of American history (especially when it comes to African Americans and law enforcement, as well as the forces that shaped Ferguson).
Don’t attempt to explain it to students before you explain it to yourself: Kristen Howerton, an adjunct professor of psychology at Vanguard University, in another piece of advice related to Trayvon’s death that’s applicable here, warned that adults should not talk to kids about these things while still "emotionally bleeding.” Do what you can to process the parts of this story that bother you the most before you get in front of the classroom. Anger has its place, but you want to be able to offer analysis, too.
Don’t be afraid to toss your existing lesson plan: “For some students, if we don’t talk about this, it will not be part of their memory of our country’s history. And for some students who will most certainly remember this time, we’ll have to explain why this particular event—and the tragic pattern in which it fits—that mattered so much to them was not worth our time, not considered educationally relevant,” David B. Cohen, associate director of the Accomplished California Teachers group, wrote in a blog post. In other words, whatever you had planned—which students are less likely to be talking about in 20 years—can probably wait.
Do ask students what they want to know: Huffington Post blogger and Columbia University professor Christopher Emdin suggests having kids fill out a KWL (pdf) chart—which tracks what a student knows, wants to know and learned—to help “unearth the facts, fiction and mistruths in media coverage of the events in Ferguson.”
Do use your materials: There are plenty of them. Thanks to a still-active #FergusonSyllabus hashtag, there’s a comprehensive list of materials for students of different ages compiled by a community of teachers, academics and parents. The Atlantic has pulled together a sampling of articles, short stories, books and blog posts, with something for every age and grade. The hardest part will be choosing the best ones.
Do take advantage of prepackaged lesson plans: You don’t have to start from scratch. Teaching for Change goes beyond proposing individual materials and offers a set of full-formed lesson plans relevant to the issues raised by Mike Brown’s death. (There are materials on everything from the militarization of police to human rights.)
Finally, do remember what education is for: As Jesse Hagopian put it at his blog, I Am an Educator, in a post on teaching about Ferguson, “If education is not dedicated to empowering our youth to solve the problems they face in their communities, in our nation and in our world, then it isn’t really an education at all—it is an indoctrination designed to reproduce oppression.” Whatever education means to you—and whatever you think its most important function for your students is—plan your Ferguson lessons accordingly.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is associate editor of features at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.