How #FergusonSyllabus Helps Teachers Discuss Police, Racism, and History

This past fall, teachers across the United States faced the daunting question of whether to discuss with their students the highly publicized killings of unarmed black men—like Eric Garner and Michael Brown—by police officers. And even if they knew they wanted to say something, how exactly should they go about it?


In response to those questions, Dr. Marcia Chatelain, assistant professor in the department of history at Georgetown University, created the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus. As YES! reported in August, teachers all across the country used the tag as a place to collect suggested readings, activities, and other course work to facilitate discussions on how prejudice, racism, and institutional violence have played roles in shaping American history.

In the wake of the news that the officers responsible for Garner’s and Brown’s killings would not be indicted, many educators have been entering the second half of the school year with a new challenge: How do you talk about the heightened levels of anger, sadness, and grief with your students in an appropriate and constructive way? And, especially when it comes to younger students, where do you draw the line when talking about disturbing topics surrounding violence and injustice in our country, both now and in the past?

In an effort to answer those questions, educators around the United States have again flooded #FergusonSyllabus with crowdsourced teaching material. The suggestions go far beyond typical academic readings. AmericanTheatre.org, for example, released the Ferguson Theatre Syllabus, a “list of plays that can catalyze the difficult but vital conversations we need to have now.”

“I believe young people need space to learn and practice positive ways of coping with and processing emotions,” wrote the poet and author Renée Watson in her recent essay “Happening Yesterday, Happened Tomorrow,” explaining how she incorporates real-life stories about racially charged killings in her poetry class. “Art can provide a structured outlet for them to express how they feel.”

Emotions surrounding these issues continue to be intense, with many in the movement calling for 2015 to be the “year of resistance to state violence against black lives.” With that in mind, YES! reconnected with Chatelain to hear how teachers have incorporated the Ferguson Syllabus into their classrooms, and to learn how she hopes to see the conversation evolve as students return to school.

***

Liz Pleasant: How have you seen #FergusonSyllabus evolve in the wake of the recent non-indictments and the protests that followed across the country?

Marcia Chatelain: I have seen an incredible evolution in the creative ideas teachers generate to address the issue of Ferguson and the most recent non-indictments. Teachers are better prepared because #FergusonSyllabus created a space for exchange among educators about best practices and materials for illustrating the best and worst of our democracy.

Pleasant: Have you come across any suggested #FergusonSyllabus readings that stand out to you as unique or especially relevant?

Chatelain: I think that the work of Colin Gordon on St. Louis’s urban history, as well as the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, and the actual grand jury proceedings from the Darren Wilson indictment process have all come to mind as particularly helpful and relevant.

Of course, so many journalists and intellectuals are writing great pieces in newspapers and magazines. I really like Michelle Alexander’s essay in the recent New York Times op-ed page on talking to her son about the Eric Garner case.

Pleasant: Are you aware of any challenges or backlash teachers have run into while trying to incorporate #FergusonSyllabus suggestions in their classrooms?

Chatelain: I know a few individual teachers who have been discouraged from engaging some of these issues in the classroom, but they persist in allowing students to express their frustrations and sadness about what is happening across the country. I think the real challenge in all of this is to get schools to understand what competencies they have, what they lack, and to get help from those who are most skilled to assist them in the process.

Pleasant: In an article posted on Edutopia.org, one teacher wrote that educators can “no longer continue the disingenuous role of taking neutral positions in matters that are about the life and death of our communities.” Do you agree? Or do you think there is a benefit to teachers remaining neutral when they facilitate these types of discussions?

Chatelain: I think that sometimes people are talking about two different things entirely. Talking about the impact these police brutality cases have in our nation is simply talking about an important moment in our history, reflecting on it, and asking students what they think about it—and what they want to know or better understand.

Education is never neutral. Education is always on the side of our best selves and greater compassion. Teachers do not have to say who or what they agree with to help students make these decisions for themselves.

Pleasant: Coming out of winter break (and the holidays), do you have any thoughts or advice for people holding grief during a time of year that is usually meant for joy, celebration, and renewal?

Chatelain: I would advise that we remember, all of us, that we are never alone. This break from teaching should be a time to recharge because there is a community of teachers and supporters of social justice who want to see a better world. So, grieve, but do not believe you are the only one grieving. And continue to wish for a better world, because you are not the only one wishing and working for that too.

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