On Teaching Ferguson Part One

on Dec 30, 2014 in Blog by

Recently, a University of Iowa grad student invited me to speak at a panel titled Teaching Ferguson: Race, Riots and Critical Reflections for Classroom Teachers. The invitation was timely, as I’d just read an editorial from Michelle Alexander, an author and criminal justice reform advocate. Michelle describes challenges she encountered as she told her 10-year-old son about Ferguson. Several questions popped when I finished the editorial. How can adults best facilitate a conversation about Ferguson and related topics with youth, some of who are too young to grasp the dimensions of this issue? And for those who can grasp the gist of Ferguson, what can educators do to accurately convey the subject in a manner that is respectful and values differences of opinion? Another event required my attendance, so I was unable to appear at the panel. This blog captures my talking points. Part one shares a personal experience that I would have referenced to reinforce why this type of conversation can fail. Part two share tips, collected from the experience and interaction with Ferguson, for leading a successful dialogue.

My American history high school teacher briefly discussed black history other than to note well-known artifacts (slavery, civil rights, and well known figures like Rosa Parks, MLK, and Malcolm X). As February approached, I and a few other black students asked if he planned anything around black history month. He nonchalantly responded: “I have a course plan that I follow, and I can’t exclusively focus on black history month.” A little surprised, we asked the question but used slightly different wording: “What from Black history will the course outline cover during the month of February?” We received the same answer but with slightly different wording: “Black history appears throughout the course and not specifically during black history month. During February you are studying a subject that doesn’t directly relate to Black history.” Students were less than satisfied with both answers. Each of us had friends in each of his class periods, so we asked them to raise the same questions and demand that something be presented. He gave the same answer to each. However, the teacher toward the end February said three periods would honor black history month. We’d watch part of Roots, the story of a young teen who was captured from Africa and taken to America for slavery, Glory, a movie about an all-Black platoon that fought during the Civil War, and view a documentary on the final day. The class viewed the movies and a documentary on black plight during the 1980s.

Although I preferred something more than Roots and Glory, I was less offended by the movies than the documentary. In fact, I after viewing the documentary decided I’d never felt so much disrespect from a teacher. He selected parts of a film that documented issues in the black community during the 1980s: blacks and the AIDS crisis, blacks and the prison boom, blacks and fatherlessness, blacks in poverty, blacks and drug use, specifically the use of heroin and crack, blacks and public housing, and blacks and public assistance. The documentary, or at least the parts shown by the teacher, depicted nothing and I mean nothing positive about blacks. I literally fought back tears led by frustration, anger, and hurt. Did the teacher understand my tears also came from attending a school that was at times less than welcoming to the few students of color? The documentary only worsened this feeling. Did he realize the class I viewed the film with mirrored the high school population, meaning it too was nearly all white, which only heightened the embarrassment I felt? I cried when I got home, vented to my parents, and hopped online to find anything that contextualized, verified, or countered the information. I printed what I found and came prepared to discuss the film and conditions that shaped black plight in the 1980s. To my surprise the teacher planned no discussion around the film.

He started class as usual, with a summary of the agenda. I interrupted: “We should discuss the documentary.” Once again, I was told we didn’t have enough time. I was less interested in discussing what was missing from the video and instead wanted to voice my frustration. He and I debated why his commemoration of black history month was ultimately a failure and offensive. The poorly chosen messages lacked balance, a clear explanation, and overall purpose. The core of his message, “this is history, and we have to accept the good and bad,” only fueled my emotions. By the end of the week many black parents called the teacher and school administrators. They wanted to know why he’d given little thought to the black history curriculum and questioned his intent when he decided to show the documentary. The teacher apologized to students and specifically to me thereafter.

Because of this experience, I shunned the idea of bringing Ferguson into classrooms. There’s simply too much room for offensiveness and error. However, as I read Michelle Alexander’s editorial and saw so many young faces at Ferguson protests, I couldn’t help but note young people will react to this subject even if it’s never discussed in classrooms. And students can benefit, and even feel empowered, if given the opportunity to share their reactions to this polarizing subject. For part two of this blog, I considered what went wrong during my American history class and turned these negatives into positives. I give five tips for educators to consider as they prep for productive conversations about all of the issues that fall under the umbrella of Ferguson.


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