Education

Illinois School Bans Discussions of Michael Brown's Death

Prohibiting students from talking about events in Ferguson offers them exactly the opposite of what they need.

Photo Credit: wavebreakmedia via Shutterstock.com

When faced with tragedies like the shooting of Michael Brown and the community unrest that followed, there are many hard questions to be asked. Why did this happen again? Who should be held accountable? How do we prevent such injustices?

But among the hard questions, few are so pressing, or essential, as this: What do we tell the children?

For educators, that question weighs heavily, and in the Brown case all the more so because Brown’s death occurred just as the new academic year begins.But in Edwardsville, Illinois, the answer is chilling: What do we tell the children? We tell them nothing.

From the local CBS affiliate in St. Louis:

A new directive has been issued in Edwardsville schools: Don’t talk about Ferguson or Michael Brown in class.

Superintendent Ed Hightower says normally there would be an open discussion of current events.

“However, this situation in Ferguson-Florissant has become a situation whereby there are so many facts that are unknown,” he says.

He says teachers have been told not to discuss it and if students bring it up, they should change the subject.

This is inexcusable for many reasons. The shooting is grounded in racial issues we already refuse to discuss in the U.S., despite the fact that they impact all of our lives, students’ included. Failure to confront a topic certainly won’t make it go away, and how students feel about the world impacts how they learn about the world.

But we also cannot ignore that this banning of a difficult topic is related to both the traditional view that education should be “objective” (i.e., absent emotion and opinion), and the current high-stakes environment plaguing our schools. Schools have long been driven by a workplace model honoring “time on task” over relevance to students’ lives, but the current “accountability” era has rendered schools places where nothing is relevant unless it is tested—including tragedies.

Whatever the policy changes driving such a shift, schools and teachers must hold themselves to a higher standard. They must allow, and even embrace, discussions of Brown’s shooting, among other tragedies, because formal school settings and the support educators can provide often represent the best possible avenues through which children can confront complex issues like these.

Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., concurs that banning the topic of Ferguson in schools is exactly the wrong approach. Instead he argues that precisely what is needed is a focus on bringing the real world into the classroom:

Beginning as early as the latter elementary years, schools should offer — no, require — age-appropriate cross-cultural studies that would, in effect, introduce us to us. Meaning not some airy fairy curriculum of achievements and accomplishments designed to impart some vague intra-cultural pride, but a hard-headed, warts and all American history designed to impart understanding of who we are, where we’re from and the forces that have made us — inner-city black, Appalachian white, barrio Mexican, whatever.

Children’s lives, including their schooling, have never been absent the weight of social tragedy. While we shouldn’t be nostalgic about a golden time when schools attended to each student’s every need, we must consider how the high-stakes environments of education have created almost no option for addressing the real world, which students cannot avoid, and must navigate first, in order to be successful students. Formal K-12 schooling must equip our youth for more than work and college; it must prepare them for living lives that can create a better world.

Reclaiming Civic Duties of Schools

During my 18 years teaching public high school English, tragedy interrupted our sacred commitment to “time on task” often enough—notably on Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, and on Sept. 11, 2001. Since these tragedies consumed media coverage, most teachers throughout my school turned on our classroom TVs and watched dark moments of history unfold before us with our students. I taught throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when accountability based on standards and high-stakes tests was in its evolving years, but even then, teachers were directed and monitored for keeping students on task, teaching standards and preparing students for the tests.

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, schools have increasingly become places where focus never strays too far from standards or tests, leaving little or no room for the reality of daily existence, even when that reality imposes tragedies onto teachers’ and students’ lives. This approach has also had the effect of shifting public education away from its foundational civic and democratic purposes and toward narrow functions such as college and career readiness.

Allowing and encouraging students to engage with the real world must be central to that lost purpose of schooling. As John Dewey asserted as far back as 1897:

I believe that this educational process has two sides—one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.… I believe that knowledge of social conditions, of the present state of civilization, is necessary in order properly to interpret the child's powers.

How children and young people feel impacts directly how they think. Despite our best efforts to keep children and teens focused purely on intellectual pursuits, their emotional responses to everything in their world drive not only their ability to think, but also what they think.

#FergusonSyllabus: Learning to Address Our Inadequate World

Teachers must find a way to offer students a reasonable amount of time to reflect and then express how they feel about the complicated issues surrounding what happened in Ferguson: the death of a young person, issues of racism, conflicting messages about authority figures and law enforcement, and safety.

Classrooms that seek to be intellectually engaging must be emotionally and physically safe; the shooting of Brown has fueled fear in young people that cannot be addressed by banning conversations and topics. Instead, teachers should manage safe discussions that begin with emotions and then move toward multiple opportunities for students to explore how becoming better informed helps them address their feelings, as well as come to terms with how they view the hard issues of racism, police use of force and civil unrest.

The shootings of young, unarmed African American males in the U.S. are fraught with many complex questions that require careful consideration and solid facts. One of the most important aspects of formal education is introducing children to the wide range of disciplinary ways of coming to understand our often inadequate world.

All disciplines can find ways to help students address real-world tragedies through academic practices that serve them against their current fear and confusion. School should be a safe harbor against the often misleading media world. Once tragedies are granted the space and time needed for our hearts to begin to heal, they offer powerful opportunities to teach that cannot be anticipated by standards or tested—ones that require careful study, credible evidence, and complex considerations of difficult ethical questions. One of the best places for students to confront the topic of Ferguson is in their classrooms with their teachers. Understanding this, some educators have already begun to develop curriculum and lesson plans to address the tragedy.

#FergusonSyllabus has emerged on Twitter, begun by Marcia Chatelain, a history professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Chatelain spurred an ongoing series of Tweets inviting teachers to consider not only how to address Brown’s death with students, but also why they should. 

James Netters of Memphis Theological Seminary has blogged about integrating the Brown tragedy into course work, compiling a reader. Netters continues to write about the importance of teaching about Ferguson:

Today, as the events of Ferguson unfold, we need less Niebuhr and more Baldwin. We need fewer sighs and more plans; we need less complacency of an immoral world and more actions of moral women and men. If we don't, then we won't have "the fire next time." We'll have the fire right now.

Chatelain and Netters highlight the importance of bringing racial consciousness into the classroom during times of tragedy as a way to heal student fears and as a path to address social unrest and prevent further tragedies. These efforts are essential because the tragedy of Brown’s shooting has roots in exactly the sort of refusal to address hard topics that the Edwardsville schools are now mandating.

But the path to a real education lies to the contrary: students must learn to ask hard questions in order to change the world, and school is the place to learn those lessons. 

Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.