Sunday, August 24, 2014

How do I teach kids of all colors about #Ferguson?

My great-great grandmother

I am white.  Even though my great-great grandmother was a person of color, I can't claim to understand what it is like to be disenfranchised because of my race.

My father was a civil rights advocate.  He was the editor of the Star Democrat newspaper in Easton, MD in the late 60's and was the first editor to force a change in the policy that forbid the printing of photos of African-Americans in the paper.  He attended an historically Black church.

I state these things not as a liberal pedigree but because it is my history.  I grew up thinking and talking about race.  In spite of this, I have no answers right now. Maybe no one does.  Surely no one does. But tomorrow morning, kids of all colors will walk into my school, ready to talk, and willing to express their emotions.

How does a white teacher teach kids of color about Ferguson?  We will start the school year with 22 students.  20 of them are kids of color.  18 of them are boys of color.  By year's end, our rolls will have grown to 30+ students, as kids of all colors are expelled from their home schools and make their way to my school, an alternative school.

So the issues are compounded.  These are kids who have been in trouble.  They are already angry. They have already been targeted.  They have complex lives, have made bad choices, and many have already been involved with the criminal justice system.  On a "normal" day, I fear for them.  They are frustrated, frustrating, sometimes learning disabled, emotionally disabled, abandoned, traumatized.  But also smart, creative, beautiful and energetic.

On these days, far from "normal" days, as Ferguson and other protests about race and the police light up my screen, I am terrified for them. I want to teach them all - white, Black, Hispanic - how to protect themselves, how to make good choices, but also how to protest and make change happen.  I want them to first seek to understand.  I want to show them this video.

Much of this is not necessarily my place.  But I feel the weight of in loco parentis.  I hear the law when it states that "educators...have the duty to act like the parent when protecting students from foreseeable harm."  I understand that the intent of the law is not that I teach about political dangers. But I see foreseeable harm in so many places.  Do I ignore it and put a myopic lens on Common Core State Standards?  I have always thought educators should present both sides of issues and let students make up their own minds.  And I know it's not that simple.

Can I do this, present both sides, in the current minefield, with wounds literally so fresh and so painful?

This article shows that teachers will be pressured to mitigate the issues: "In many ways, the recent chaos in Ferguson is perfect fodder for high school discussions about the judicial system, civil disobedience, racial divides and the role of media. But in the Edwardsville School District, teachers in the middle and high schools have been told by principals to 'change the subject and refocus the students' whenever Ferguson comes up."

Is this prudence or misdirection or censorship?

Teachers like this one aren't making this issue any easier.

But these teachers are inspiring the country: "School is out for many Ferguson students, but teachers are still holding classes at local public libraries." And this one raised $130,000 for Ferguson students.

What is the purpose of education, and therefore, my purpose as a teacher?  Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in his Morehouse College Student Paper, "Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate." And Jonathan Cohen in an article for the ASCD has described the purpose of education as being "to support children in developing the skills, the knowledge, and the dispositions that will allow them to be responsible, contributing members of their community—their democratically-informed community."

All of this rattles around in my head as I move toward the first day of school tomorrow.

Life is messy and beautiful and painful.  People do great things and horrid things.  Can I show my students of all colors this bloody, broken kaleidoscope in a fair and balanced way?  Should I try? Can we piece it together?

Either way, we'll all be there tomorrow.  Ready, set, go.

Post Script - TedTalk worth watching: The Danger of Silence


  1. I will be working with a different population than you, but I've been asking myself the same questions, especially when I think about my American Lit class. I start with works by Transcendentalist writers. How can I not bring this up? But how exactly do I bring it up. Thanks for your thoughts and the links.

  2. I appreciate the thoughtful reflection. I'm just as concerned about the issue-- and think that perhaps the kids will lead the conversation. We have a counselor available. We shouldn't ignore it, but how do we help with answers? Start with questions? Questions that will lead to possible connections to those who can lead us forward, according to the questions asked, because what we think students want to know, may not be accurate to their true concerns. We need to use care and listen.

  3. I am going to be open to questions. I am going to have students read closely pix/vids/text/songs. What kinds of projects might work in conjunction with this? Sample project: how can the people of Ferguson (hence, everywhere) change the world they live in for a better future? That could be a year long project perhaps collaborating with other schools in other towns. There is not one right answer. And the only one that is wrong is to shup up about it.

  4. 'Shup. is abbrev for shut up. I meant to do that.

    1. Of course you did, Terry. :)

      I took a long walk today and the more I think about it, the more I believe that it is in the gray areas of this that the teaching moments lie. The fact that there is not one right answer. Many will clamor to state otherwise. I like the idea of close reading.

  5. I think of my connection probs as first world whining compared to yours in the alt school setting, but then it occurs to me that connecting at any level is an absolute. It doesn't matter a whit, it cuts across all conditions, it is a universal. We just find it in different spaces and in different ways.

  6. You know what, Terry? You are absolutely correct in saying that connecting is an absolute. You teach college kids, I teach young teens, they all have stories and struggles, and they all need connections first and foremost for any deeper learning to truly occur.