Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo., was complex and controversial, and I waited almost a week after officer Darren Wilson’s grand jury indictment before bringing it up in my social studies classes. When issues like these arise, teachers often feel pressure to approach topics immediately, in order to take advantage of students’ excitement. This time, I waited, and ultimately, I believe that waiting to approach this topic benefitted me and my students. Taking the time to wait allowed me to carefully consider several questions that are central to my teaching philosophy.
Blogs and thought-pieces vs. traditional journalism. Journalism has been undergoing an evolution over the past few decades, and I’m not entirely sure what the media landscape will look like when my students are adults. One thing that I can bet on, though, is that they’ll probably be getting their news from non-traditional sources, and that they’ll need the skills to weigh the value, accuracy, and limitations of new media. I don’t normally use opinion pieces or personal blogs as souce material in my class, but this time I felt my U.S. history students could learn a lot from blogs like this one that feature an emotional look at the response to Ferguson. History students read diaries and journals to understand personal perspectives on the past and soon they’ll use blogs for that same purpose. I thought this might be a good opportunity to get them started on doing that in a responsible and thoughful way.
How dangerous can an idea be? One of my biggest worries in putting together lessons on Ferguson was figuring out how to responsibly show different perspectives on police brutality. Officer Darren Wilson has his supporters, and some of those supporters believe that race played no role in the shooting. My personal opinion is that their viewpoint strengthens our racially biased justice system and undermines minorities’ safety and due process rights. When I introduce this (and other) viewpoints in my class, I have to be ready for my students to pick it up, play with it, mold it, shape it, and see if it fits them. I have to give them the space to reason with each other and debate these ideas, even if time limits us from getting to the bottom of everything. This scares me, because I’ve seen the effects that police brutality can have on my students and their families. But I have to trust that the conversations that start in my class will continue in the school’s hallways and on Tumblr and Instagram, and that my students will develop their own perspectives based on reason and empathy.
A time to emotionally process or a civil, academic debate? Students need both a space to vent and emote, and a place to reason and think. As a teacher you need to carefully consider which space you’re trying to provide for your students. There are lesson plans that are specifically designed for each purpose, and making this choice depends largely on your students’ maturity level and their ability to reason with emotional or controversial topics. My slight preference is generally toward a more academic discussion, because I know that outside of my classroom there will probably be opportunities for students to discuss how they feel, but that there may not be opportunities to research and probe the issue.
No matter how much I prepare, I’ll be going into these lessons with a heavy heart. The conversations will be intense, and I already know that they will end too soon for most students to reach a place of understanding or acceptance. In conversations like this, where students can easily feel defensive or vulnerable, reading their faces and body language can be harder. Are a student’s eyes glazed over because the reading level of our article is too difficult, or because she’s seen the police harass her friends and family and is lost thinking about them?
I’m bringing up emotional topics, and because of that it’s even more important that I carefully consider my approach. The most important aspect of the wait time I took was that it allowed me to process my own thoughts and feelings so that when students ask me the inevitable questions about injustice and safety, I can tell them something worth listening to.
The opinions expressed in Connecting the Dots: Ideas and Practice in Teaching are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.