09/02/2014 05:09 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

Why I Taught My Class About Ferguson


Many years ago a retiring teacher left me with a quote that has stuck with me all my years in education: "I don't care what adults think about me, the only concern I have is about the kids and what's best for them."

When she told me this I thought about it, but it did not resonate with me until many years later when I was called into the office for teaching a unit about genocide. During this particular unit, students were reading excerpts from two novels, Night by Elie Wiesel and Left to Tell by Immacule Ilbizaga. A parent was concerned that the content material was too traumatic for students to read. As I listened to my principal tell me about the parent's concerns, all I could think about was the quote from the retiring teacher the year before.

As we finished the conversation, I apologized for the parent being scared of the material, but I argued that there was a need for students to learn about genocide. While I agreed to be 'careful' I would not budge on skipping over certain parts to make parents feel better. I knew that my job as a teacher was to make sure that the students that were placed in front of me were more aware because of my class. My job was to not only teach them, but to expose them to lessons in social justice.

So every time there is conflict around the world (which is often) I make a choice to expose them to lessons in social justice. I did this:

• When I decided to have a unit on genocide, I covered the current historical events leading up to the conflict between Palestine and Israel.
• When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed, I used this as a teaching opportunity for all of my kids as we discussed biases and used this case as the basis of our argumentative unit.
• When 20 children and six adults were killed in Newtown, Connecticut we discussed mental health and the gun control needed to keep tragedies like this from happening again.
• When Jordan Davis was gunned down outside of a convenience store in Jacksonville, Florida we used this as we paralleled the fight for Justice with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Each time I gathered materials to teach these 'controversial' units, there was always a fleeting voice in my head that questioned if these were topics my sophomores and juniors could handle, but within minutes I pushed those thoughts to the side and decided that for the benefit of my students, it was important that I made my teaching and their learning relevant to the world around them. So I used newspaper articles, first hand accounts and videos to not only teach the children, but for them to have lively conversations about the world and more importantly social justice.

So imagine the horror, when I opened my Facebook account not even two weeks ago and saw a video (that a Ferguson resident shot) of a teen laid out in the middle of the street dead. As I followed the news reports that followed, I learned that this dead young man was Mike Brown, a recent graduate of Normandy High School. The more I watched of the protests and facts from the case, I knew that the majority of my kids could have been Brown and it was my duty to use this case as I taught a unit on argumentative writing.

As I opened up the unit with the facts from the fatal shooting all of my kids were attentive as they listened to witnesses of the shooting speak. The entire lesson my kids were engaged, accountable and willing to push themselves to limits that many of them were wary to do. When I left class that day, I was proud that kids were not only learning, but were becoming engaged in social justice issues that directly affect them.

As I went home to do more research, I was saddened that in several teacher groups I participated in were mad that other people would want to talk about this incident not only in class, but even as a topic of discussion. I saw people argue that the killing of an unarmed teen was not an issue to discuss in school, because the child 'had' to be doing something wrong to be shot. I even watched as fellow teachers had the nerve to describe the dead teen as a thug, without even knowing him!

Even on my own blog, a commenter had the nerve to say that because no one from Normandy High School had spoken up for Brown, it was evident that he was not a 'good' student -- just like in the case involving George Zimmerman. To say I was angry was an understatement.

When did teachers stop protecting students? When did students become the criminals? When did students become responsible for actions of adults? As teachers it's our job to not put opinions into our kids heads, but to be agents of reason. In our classrooms we have a duty to not only expose students but:

• To discuss issues that impact our students-despite our personal feelings.
• To be defenders of social justice, not upholders of the unspoken status quo that we see daily in our schools.
• To speak up for children, no matter what.

As I read more commentary on social media from fellow educators, I started to see the 'tide' turning and teachers defend the protesters in Ferguson and even begin to question the point of protesting for the breakdown of public education, if teachers couldn't protest the killing of children anywhere whether it was Chicago, Ferguson, Sanford, Gaza, Israel or Iraq. As teachers we defend children -- period. If we can call for the boycott of over-testing children, funding for our public schools then we should all be able to defend children.

In the coming weeks, months and years people will continue to debate the shooting of Brown, but as teachers we should be diligent in being defenders of social justice and exposing our students to the world. I know I will, will you?


Ferguson Protest