Unpacking Ferguson: Teachers Must Talk with Students about Violence Against Youth

Although Hines wrote this 1971 poem about the memorialization of Dr. King, its message is tragically relevant 43 years later. Its second verse challenges the reader “to build a better world”. Teachers have the power to do just this through the life lessons they share in their classrooms.

I would challenge every teacher returning to school this fall to unpack the events of Ferguson and related crimes against young people. For many of us, the scope and tragedy of Michael Brown’s death is overwhelming. We ask ourselves – How can I teach this the right way? As now-controversial illustrator Mary Engelbreit poignantly states: “No One Should Have to Teach There Children This in the USA.” However, while we adults have the privilege to see these events as news – something that sadly happened to someone else – our students, especially our young men of color, inevitably see themselves. As I myself watched these events unfold in the news, I could not help imagining if this happened to Quddus or Clayton.


Engelbreit’s Controversial Illustration

To avoid teaching this topic carries little consequences for the teacher – we will still receive our paychecks and most likely a good evaluation whether or not we address meaningful and relevant content in our classrooms.

However, to find a way to unpack this for one’s students sends them a powerful message – I care about what matters to you, and I will guide you through this trauma. Even better, we can encourage our young people to problem solve alongside us about how to “build a better world”.

I am convinced that ignoring and avoiding the events in Ferguson reinforces to students that school is, in fact, completely disassociated from reality. And this message is one that many of them know to be true already.

Following the lead of my colleague Paul Tritter at the Boston Teachers’ Union, I have created a pinboard with links to articles and information relevant to the events in Ferguson:

(Thank you, Paul, for sharing many of these links in a Google Doc!)

I will continue to add to the Pinboard over time. Additionally, here are several other resources for classroom use:

PDF of A Dead Man’s Dream

Brown Teachers’ Guide from the DC Public Schools (Thank you for sharing, Kenny!)

Ferguson Racial Profiling Data

I hope that you will find these resources useful for these difficult discussions. Despite the cynicism that social justice educators and leaders often face, I do believe that teachers and students hold the power to meet Hines’ challenge.