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How the #FergusonSyllabus Can Help Teachers Talk About Race and Rights on the First Day of School

Teachers and educators collect ideas and resources for how to talk about Ferguson with students of all ages.

With the first day of school just around the corner, teachers across the country are wondering how to incorporate discussions of the violent clashes between the Ferguson, Mo., police department and protesters in the weeks after the killing of unarmed 18-year old Michael Brown. How can teachers lead classroom discussions on such difficult and emotional topics as racism and police militarization? How do these types of conversations change based on students’ age or socio-economic background?

A growing number of teachers have connected on Twitter using #FergusonSyllabus, to share suggested readings, discussion topics, and classroom activities for students of any age.  Marcia Chatelain, a historian of African-American life and culture and assistant professor in the department of history at Georgetown University, started the hashtag to encourage teacher-facilitated discussions on the events in Ferguson.

Regardless of a student’s age, Chatelain hopes that the resources compiled through #FergusonSyllabus will give students the opportunity to ask questions about what happened in Missouri and make sense of what those events mean for the country on a larger scale.

“A hashtag cannot address structural mistrust, public negligence, poverty and unemployment,” wrote Chatelain in a recent article. “But the incredible educators who have shared their resources and ideas with #FergusonSyllabus do have the power to move us closer to reconciliation, a greater commitment of justice and conversations that are long overdue.”

YES! connected with Chatelain to ask her a bit more about the #FergusonSyllabus and what else teachers and educators across the country can do to transform the difficult circumstances in Ferguson into positive discussions in the classroom.

Liz Pleasant: How did you come to launch the #FergusonSyllabus? Were there experiences in your earlier work that led to this?

Marcia Chatelain: I'm a college professor, but I've taught gifted high school in Missouri and I have spent a lot of time with young people in different settings. I launched the syllabus initially to encourage other academics to talk about Ferguson on the first day of class.

Slowly, as I provided resources and more people started using the hashtag, I realized that people of all grade levels across the country wanted to think about Ferguson in meaningful ways.

Pleasant: What are your favorite suggestions for the #FergusonSyllabus so far?

Chatelain: I am a historian at heart, and I loved the suggestions from artists, musicians, and literature folks about creative expression in response to and in times of crisis.

Pleasant: What are the benefits that come with talking about current events that include racial tension? What are some of the difficulties?

Chatelain: I think that we can sometimes get stuck on the details and lose sight of the bigger picture when we bring a debate before our students. Tensions are running high across many lines. I think it's important to take a step back and think of the larger conditions that lead to the tensions.

How does public policy shape a community? How does history play a role in our thinking about the present? How do we connect this with our own interests?

Pleasant: Besides readings and discussions, are there other activities you would recommend teachers use in the classroom to discuss Michael Brown's death, the Ferguson protests, and the investigations—issues that will likely last well into the school year?

Chatelain: That is up to the educators who want to see something productive come out of a national crisis. There are lots of resources and great ways to frame a class so that we move from our reactions to the tragedy to our responsibilities as citizens and community members.

The next initiative I would like to encourage is #FergusonFreedomLibrary, in which folks donate something from the syllabus to a school, prison, community center or homeless shelter seeking materials. Or, set aside funds to help an institution purchase social justice materials.

Pleasant: Are there different ways teachers and educators should talk about the police killing of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson based on their student's age? Location?

Chatelain: Yes. From the moment I realized that educators other than college professors were looking at and contributing to the hashtag, I was committed to providing age-appropriate and climate-appropriate suggestions.

Every school and community is not the same, and if teachers feel like they are taking a risk by teaching about Ferguson, we have material that can defuse concerns because they focus on the broader and structural questions that Ferguson raises in us.

For those who work with small children, we have recommendations for talking about feelings of confusion and anxiety, as well as children's books that address psychological and emotional issues. For older children and teenagers, I think the material that engages how they feel as citizens and readings about one's rights allows them to go deeper than the superficial analysis of why tensions exist in communities. And for college students, we have resources in the humanities, social sciences and physical sciences: This stretches their thinking about the value and interrelatedness of all the disciplines.


Liz Pleasant wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Liz is a graduate of the University of Washington's program in Anthropology, and an online editorial intern at YES! Follow her on Twitter @lizpleasant.

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