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!

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