August, 2014: An unarmed black teenager shot dead by a white police officer. Angry citizens marching in the streets. Violence from protesters and a militarized police force retaliating with more violence. It’s likely that your students have heard about the killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing events in Ferguson, Missouri, or that they saw it on TV or the internet. Children are returning to school now with these intense images still fresh in their minds. Your students may have questions, anxieties, and uneasy feelings. They might wonder why are there different rules for people of different races? Or why did the police turn on demonstrators and arrest journalists? Why was Michael Brown killed in the first place?
How do we have difficult conversations with children about race, racism, inequality, police tactics and social justice?
We agree that these are difficult subjects to acknowledge and confront. In the Edwardsville, IL school district across the river from St. Louis, teachers have been instructed to not engage with their students about what happened in Ferguson. But how can we not talk about it? Children are watching these events. They need adults to be willing to talk about real problems that are unfortunately a part of our history and our world today. Silence shows children that we would rather not talk about uncomfortable subjects and that somehow that will make them go away. Silence makes us part of the problem instead of being part of the solution. Perhaps this tragic series of events will galvanize a new movement for social justice, racial awareness and police reforms. The children of today can be the force of change in the world tomorrow. Talk with your students on the first day of school and keep the conversation going throughout the year.
Here are some guidelines for talking about difficult subjects in the classroom. Please also read some of the resources linked to below before you begin a discussion with your class.
• Be age-appropriate. A discussion with 2nd graders about racism does not resemble a discussion with high school students. Respect your students and think about the maturity level of your least mature students, not your most mature students.
• Lay down ground rules. Students can help you come up with simple ground rules, such as “No name calling” and “Listen to others”. This creates a safe space where students feel like they can talk.
• Listen to what children have to say, but also guide them. As adults, we have more experience, know more history and have more maturity. Keep the discussion moving forward.
• Inspire. We bring about change through education, discussion and action. Major social change does not happen without youth involvement. Help channel students’ energy and anger into making positive changes.
Here are some resources that can help educators talk about Michael Brown’s death and the events in Ferguson with their students:
• Preparing to discuss Michael Brown in the Classroom from the District of Columbia Public Schools
• How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson in The Atlantic
• Five Ways to Teach about Michael Brown and Ferguson in the New School Year by Christopher Emdin
• #FergusonSyllabus. Marcia Chatelain, a professor at Georgetown, started the Twitter hashtag to connect teachers and share suggested reading, discussion topics and classroom activities for different ages.
• Talking to Children about Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers from the National Association of School Psychologists
• Teaching about the Jordan Davis Murder by Chris Lehmann, school principal. (Black teen Jordan Davis’ killer was acquitted of his murder in Florida. These guidelines and curricula are appropriate when talking about Michael Brown’s case with older students.) Giving students time to reflect and write before the discussion begins is a great suggestion.