During the first few weeks of school, both teachers and students are going into classrooms unsure about what to expect from each other. Teachers are looking to establish norms, create routines, and develop a positive learning environment for the upcoming academic year. Students are trying to identify whether or not they have a teacher they want to learn from and are waiting for cues from the teacher about how they are expected to engage over the course of the year. For educators, one way to establish norms with young people and set the appropriate tone for the school year is to focus instruction on events and issues that mean something to students. This is particularly important for youth of color, given the Michael Brown shooting and the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.
Over the last few weeks students have been inundated with news on the events in Ferguson. Even when young people are not directly looking for information about these events, updates flash across their television and computer screens hourly. These updates are shaping the ways that youth make sense of media, the police, their lives, and their future. For this reason it is imperative that teachers find a way to bring this issue into the classroom. The best educators know that if there are issues that students are deeply engaged in and with but their teachers choose to ignore those issues, we are loosing opportunities to make powerful connections and doing students a disservice. These educators also know that it is much more beneficial to create the space for critical conversations about an issue than it is to allow youth to jump to hurtful conclusions and develop deep psychological issues surrounding it. When educators ad parents ignore events that affect students' lives, the effects emerge later on in the academic year and influence not only teaching and learning but the students' views on the world and their place in it. Bringing the events in Ferguson to the classroom is not only best teaching practice but a way to establish powerful expectations for the academic year.
1. Ask students what they know, and what they want to know.
Once students are in the classroom, the best way for teachers to spark a powerful discussion that sets the tone for the school year is to simply ask what they heard or know about Michael Brown and Ferguson. Once this question has been posed and students begin to respond, they can fill out a simple KWL chart. On this chart students can write down what they know about Michael Brown and Ferguson, and what they want to know. The teacher can then utilize the information on the chart to assess what students have gathered over the last few weeks and plan a future lesson that helps students unearth the facts, fiction, and mistruths in media coverage of the events in Ferguson. The teacher can bring in news stories from different media outlets and work with students on understanding how and why there are so many different angles to how the story is being covered. Once this has been done, students can complete the KWL chart by writing down what they have learned.
2. Help students make connections.
It is important for young people to learn how to make connections between the Michael Brown shooting and similar cases that have emerged in recent history. While a discussion of the Michael Brown shooting and the current events in Ferguson are powerful, conversations about Michael Brown with a consideration of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Renisha Mcbride and other cases that involve similar scenarios place the events in Ferguson in proper context. After introducing these cases, the teacher can ask students what connections, if any, exist across these cases and allow students to discuss the connections that they make. This not only allows students to be more sociopolitically aware but develops their critical and higher-order thinking. By bringing articles written about cases that bear a resemblance to the Michael Brown shooting to the classroo and then providing students with the appropriate space to make sense of them, students learn to make connections, make inferences, and synthesize and evaluate information. Most importantly, they develop skills related to emotional awareness, empathy, and other skills necessary to be informed citizens.
3. Ask students to write letters.
One of the chief ways to engage youth in the first few weeks of school and also develop their sociopolitical awareness is to give them an assignment to write letters to all those who are involved in the shooting. This includes politicians, police officers, the families of victims of the violence, and even the deceased. Having students write letters early in the school year gives them a task that helps them engage as soon as school begins. The teacher can ask students to write different letters to different people involved in the shooting and riots and frame the letters differently based on the person they are writing to. During this activity students lean how to write while conveying emotion, referencing text and other media, and how to approach writing from multiple perspectives. Writing these letters becomes a therapeutic exercise that concurrently helps students develop their writing skills.
4. Create a classroom memorial.
During the first few weeks of classes, students can create a memorial to Michael Brown on a classroom bulletin board. This activity involves having students use whatever they feel skilled in to create something that would honor Michael Brown and other people who have been victims of police and other violence. Students may choose to draw, write poetry, design art pieces, paint, or collect news clippings. Students can use this opportunity to create a counternarrative to negative stories and images about Ferguson and Michael Brown, or even to document stories and images they have seen in the media about the case. Engaging in this type of activity allows teachers to understand youth strengths and form classroom solidarity.
5. Carry the theme for the rest of the year.
Once the teacher has engaged in the activities identified above, a theme has been established, and expectations have been set. Students realize early in the school year that this class goes beyond meaningless assignments like writing and talking about what they did over the summer. Without you mentioning your expectations or giving rules, students begin to see the classroom as a space where the teaching affects real life, and where assignments have meaning. At this point the teacher has to continue to maintain a high level of rigor and support students as they become more active learners.
To learn more ways to being Ferguson and Michael Brown into the classroom, follow the #HipHopEd and #FergusonSyllabus hashtags on Twitter.