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ARTICLE

Students Are Watching Ferguson

At a time like this, educators can’t afford not to discuss Ferguson in the classroom.

The world is watching Ferguson, Missouri. Tuning into daily reports of unrest. Weighing in on (or avoiding) conversations about the role of race in Michael Brown’s death. Speculating about who’s to blame. Worrying about what will happen next.

But we’re not hearing much about what it’s like to be a kid in Ferguson, a kid who was supposed to start school two weeks ago, but couldn’t because of the volatile atmosphere, broken glass and tear gas canisters that would impede his walk to school. (School buses do not run in the Ferguson-Florissant School District.)

Educators in Ferguson, however, didn’t forget about the children who should have been starting school. Some teachers held classes at public libraries, and a handful of school cafeterias opened so they could provide lunch to low-income students. Many educators also stepped up and used those “days off” to clean up the debris and restore Ferguson to what it was before the rioting—for their students and for the community as a whole.

Students stepped up, too. They joined clean-up efforts and continued to peacefully protest because they understand the historical significance of this moment. As 12-year-old Leslie Adams told NPR, “At first I was absolutely, absolutely scared … [b]ut then, since I was watching the news, I understood that it was history that was going on.”

Teachers around the United States also understand the historical implications of this moment and know it would be a mistake to assume the events in Ferguson haven’t had an impact on their students. That’s why a number of educators, collectives and educational organizations are sharing resources for addressing Michael Brown and Ferguson in the classroom. For those educators who are nervous about facilitating what certainly will be uncomfortable, difficult conversations, NPR offers some guidance, including a syllabus that teachers created and shared in the wake of Jordan Davis’ murder and perspectives from teachers who have already made lesson plans addressing Ferguson.

Here is a small sample of the growing list of resources available to educators who want to help their students understand what happened in Ferguson, contextualize its place in our nation’s history and empower young people to work for a more just, peaceful world:

Unfortunately, Ferguson has also inspired some missteps that are harmful to students, like the incident in Selma, Alabama, where a teacher had her sixth-graders reenact the shooting deaths of Brown and Trayvon Martin. But perhaps the most harmful approach of all is simply ignoring Ferguson altogether, which is what Edwardsville, Illinois, teachers have been directed to do.

At a time like this, educators can’t afford not to discuss Ferguson in the classroom, but it must be done in safe, supportive ways. Our students are watching along with the rest of the world, and they need us to be real with them about what they’re seeing. At the heart of it all is the goal of education: to prepare students to engage in the world and to equip them with the skills they need to make it better for everyone.

Editor's note: For more resources on similar topics, visit our Web package Teaching About Ferguson: Race and Racism in the United States.

Bell is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.