For Ferguson, History Matters

In general, I and everything I write, create, think, and say, all of it, is a work-in-progress. Regarding the horrific events in Ferguson, MO, I am far from finished. I spent the first two weeks of August far, far away, the Internet a distant dream. When the plane touched down in New York, I switched my Facebook back on, and unleashed the nightmare of the killing of Michael Brown, the terror of militarized police, the hateful words slung back and forth. It was like being in the ocean, trying to keep my head above the waves and find land on the horizon, and the water swallowing me under again and again.

The next day, I began a week-long seminar with Facing History and Ourselves, and I had something to hold onto. A lot of people -teachers, parents, community leaders, students – are having the important conversations about how they should/can/will teach about what is happening in Ferguson, and for me, the route is through our nation’s history.

After two intense days delving into the history of race and eugenics in the United States, our group of 30 educators were asked to fill in a blank: I feel _____ when talking about race with students. We shared in a whip, each person filling in the blank before the next person spoke one single word. The range was impressive; we felt anxious, eager, under qualified, excited, responsible, comfortable, uncomfortable, ready, hesitant. Overwhelmed, in my blank, and then some.

Talking about race in our country is painful. There are so many days – moments – when I think, “How can this be happening? How can nothing have changed?” And it is difficult, and scary, and uncomfortable, and overwhelming to bring painful things to my students.

This week with FHAO did so much for me. It showed me the inadequacies of my own education – in “good” schools, among the children of the dominant culture, our US history curriculum was shamefully incomplete. It revealed perspectives rarely considered when discussing slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. It placed in my hands a treasure trove of primary source documents and strategies to help the critical reading of them. And it reminded me that, overwhelmed or not, I cannot afford not to talk about race and rights with my students. This is the world they live in, the world they have to navigate, survive, and change. If I don’t allow them to examine that world, and see the patterns and connections in our nation’s past and present, I have failed.

Nancie Atwell says that if teachers don’t make time for reading during the school day, then it won’t happen for many of their students. Penny Kittle says the same about independent writing. “If we value something enough, we’ll make time for it,” Kittle says. What do I value more than my students’ lives? More than their safety? More than giving them opportunities to make the best choices for themselves and their community?

This responsibility is still overwhelming, I know. If you are looking for some starting places, or flotation devices, I can’t recommend enough a Facing History and Ourselves workshop (around the US and online). I also greatly appreciated Mary Hendra’s post on creating a reflective classroom to help students process Michael Brown’s killing and the historical context of race in the US. Katherine Schulten, a wonderful, thoughtful educator and editor of the NY Times Learning Network blog, invites teachers to share their thoughts and ideas in preparation for a collection of planning ideas to be published on September 2nd. This NPR blog post offers words of encouragement and a link back to a teacher-created syllabus around the killing of Jordan Davis. And, as I’ve written in the past, Twitter is my favorite source of PD, so check out #FergusonSyllabus to see what other educators are thinking of bringing into the classroom. If you are looking to give, please consider this list and Michael Brown’s family.

Above all, please, make time for this.


How are you planning to talk about Ferguson in your classroom? How were events like this discussed in your school or community? Which blog posts, articles, or ideas are inspiring you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!


2 thoughts on “For Ferguson, History Matters

  1. Thank you, Priscilla. I teach slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement every year to a very privileged, almost homogeneous group of students. We read novels and non fiction, talk, and they do various research projects. Is there anything that you particularly recommend based on what you learned this week? By the way, do you use interactive notebooks?

    • Rachel, thanks for reading & thank you for your comment. I appreciate you bring the conversation over here, too.

      I am so glad you bring these lessons to your students. What novels do you read on the topics? I’d love to hear more about your research projects, and what your units/lessons look like.

      I find the most valuable things I’ve brought to students, and that I encountered in this great FHAO workshop, to be the uncommon or unheard voices. One thing I really loved about this week was the emphasis on beginning & returning to the individual, so that students are encouraged to connect with the people of these historical periods. The emphasis on personal narratives and the fact that individual people lived through these times was very important. It also helped me see connections throughout history. This week was about integration in Little Rock, but we began with the settlement of Jamestown and slavery. Before the workshop, I “knew” about systemic racism, but this week helped me to really see and understand how race was created and manipulated to suit the needs of the dominant culture. I also had no idea how pervasive and accepted the “science” of eugenics had been, and seeing the lasting effects of eugenics-based teaching on American society was both horrifying & illuminating.

      Re: interactive notebooks, I have limited understanding of the term because every time I’ve talked about it with someone, it seems to be a slightly different thing. My students and I keep multipurpose writer’s notebooks for responding to read-alouds, quotes, prompts, or content. I know some teachers who have had their students “reinvent the textbook” through interactive notebooks. I’d been poking around this blog at the beginning of the summer to learn more: How do they work in your classroom?

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