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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of getting numerous requests for how I would approach a conversation about the events in Ferguson, Missouri and the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown. At first, I didn't have many words to say, especially since I covered much of this ground during the Jordan Davis proceedings (and helped develop a brainstorm around ideas then, too). With the cycle of violence continuing to permeate our young people and the speed at which news gets to them, it becomes even more important for educators to stay socially aware and ready to have conversations that might be uncomfortable for them.

Tools and Strategies for Necessary Conversations

But there's hope. More and more, people are willingly having these conversations in order to help end the violence and to help our students (and our country) progress. Educators of all backgrounds have jumped in bravely to tackle topics they may not otherwise delve into. Everyone from Melissa Harris-Perry to Christopher Emdin have chimed in, and a hashtag on Twitter called #FergusonSyllabus has been created to gather resources for those looking to teach on the matter.

If you're still at a loss for ways to approach the conversation, here are some tips for how to do so.

1. Open up the conversation with some ground rules.

Regardless of what we think about our shared experiences, we still come to these touchy conversations with different lenses. Because this conversation has so much to do with race and perception, it's important to lay some ground rules about respect and caring, because these conversations, intentionally or otherwise, can get personal. As educators, because our strongest lens is learning, we should establish that everyone involved in the dialogue is there to learn from one another and participate with intent to listen, not just respond.

2. Facilitate and ask questions to keep the conversation moving forward.

Something educators do on a daily basis is move a conversation by probing and asking questions that inevitably lead to a point of understanding. The same goes for even the tougher conversations. This sort of exchange requires that the adults put their need for control to the side -- but they should also monitor where the dialogue goes (or doesn't). Facilitating requires lots of knowledge about the material, too, but it's not a prerequisite. For instance, prompting everyone to contribute things they know about what happened and presenting all the facts first might make it easier to see the mindset of everyone in the room.

3. Bring it back to the individual.

We don’t often get the chance to reflect about our misgivings or perceptions of each other. Especially in diverse communities (and I do mean diverse and not just communities of color), we often dodge racial conversations because we pretend that avoiding the subject means peace. Instead, confronting our own prejudices head-on would make us better people and leaders. Understanding the lens through which we see the world and how others see the world will combine to grow a sense of empathy within our communities, so that when conversations like Ferguson do come up, everyone understands how to approach it.

A Critical Thinking Framework

In the last two weeks, my virtual professional learning community has inspired me to keep having these conversations, too. English teacher Heather Wheat, for instance, shared her own approach to the Ferguson conversation. She created a circular memorial to Mike Brown and prompted people to dedicate the circle to something or someone, a powerful symbolism that focused more on respect and peace than hate and vitriol. Grand Rapids, Michigan educator Michael Kaechele compared the Ferguson looting to the Boston Tea Party as a class exercise. I specifically liked this example because it weaves together America's own history of racism and protest with the current Ferguson on-goings.

Both of these teachers are Caucasian and did their lessons with fidelity and without my explicit prompting. We have other models out there, of course, but we need to recognize that we are all on the hook for these conversations, and owe it to ourselves to get better informed about these ideas. Because events like this happen so frequently, developing a framework for having these conversations is critical, even in districts that openly discourage critical thinking about world events.

How have you handled discussions about Ferguson (or similarly charged events and issues) in your classroom?

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Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Donald Pults's picture

As my high school juniors had completed a summer reading assignment by digesting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it seemed natural to discuss race with my students in the context of Ferguson as well as in the novel. I think it's important to discuss images, language, and media coverage in the context of such discussions (the Ray Rice situation and gender roles is another excellent example of this). I would humbly submit that our role as educators is to provide guidance and support to the discussion without being the one running it. The students need to see what an absolutely complex issue this is, and how there is also not a simple solution to it. But I agree with the tenor of the article about ground rules- if the environment feels safe for opinion and disagreement, students are far more likely to engage in the discussion.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Writer on education, teaching and learning. Chief Education Officer at The Writing Project

Jose, this is a really great piece! I think you're absolutely right in that we need to have these conversation in order to dismantle prejudice and misperceptions. Like you said setting some ground rules is very crucial especially when discussing this issue young adolescents. I teach adults, but setting these ground rules is still a necessity, because often times these discussions can get personal. For me as a teacher, I don't mind the discuss becoming personal because it's important for students to share their own experiences. You're right in that framing discussions through a critical thinking perspective is very important. I try to show my students the importance of questioning news, events and opinions. This framework can also help with starting the discussion in the classroom. Thanks for writing this.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

There's an interesting campaign that just launched around the education of leadership and the lack of diversity in the US that I just came across.

Some interesting facts to chew on:

* 71% of elected officials are men, 90% are white, and 65% are white men.
* White men are 31% of the U.S. population but hold 65% of all elected office.
* White men have 8 times as much political power as women of color.

This site has shareable infographics, stats, and resources to start the discussion about diversity in our current leadership: http://wholeads.us/.

SoundMind's picture

Should break down statistics more for example, how many women of color desire to run for office? How many do? Why, if they run, do they lose? (I imagine that one is $$) What number of elected officials were men 10 years ago? What percent of the population do women of color represent? How is Woman of color defined?
I have been to many places around the U.S. and Washington D.C. by far is the least diverse place I've ever seen. From what I see, the city itself may be diverse however, once you migrate toward the beltway that disappears. My feelings on diversity is that there are more questions to be asked, especially when it comes to statistics as these do not tell the complete story. North Dakota, likely has a large percentage of white people in most offices. Why is that? Hmmm probably because the shear number of white people in the state. Diversity is great however, in some ways, a "forced diversity" is unrealistic. What I am writing about is the situations where there are naturally occurring, largely homogeneous populations. To say that a place that is 98 percent Black NEEDs a white man or woman in office is rather odd. That would mean you are hoping that you can in fact find a white person more qualified than any person included in the 98 percent. Diversity is good, as the United States learned long ago when it became known as the "melting pot" but statistics need to be vetted and put into context.

Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman's picture
Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman
Adjunct Professor of Education

Hi Jose. I was delighted to read your blog here. I particularly am moved by point #2 regarding asking questions. I posted a discussion yesterday concerning the need to question our fears in why we stay quiet about Ferguson in our classrooms. Take a read if you can:


I firmly uphold your challenge that we are "on the hook" and have a responsibility to break the silence/stigma of discussing racial relations and equality.

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