As I look forward to returning to school and greeting a new set of students, there is a shadow hovering over my heart and mind. While I would very much like to ignore it, the death of Michael Brown and the police response happened between the time when I last held class and this start of a new year. Like so many, especially so many other white teachers, there is the question of what to say or do about the events of our summer. It is so tempting to act like it didn’t happen, that school is back in session and this is the only time and place upon which we need to focus. It would be so easy act as if Ferguson, Missouri isn’t even part of the United States.
A good part of me wants to avoid the challenging questions to which there are no easy answers. An ostrich and I have much in common! But I know that I must face it. I must present the American history that my students will learn this year in light of the events of this summer, both because the events themselves are important but also because they are indeed part of the history of our country. It is my job, even with middle school students, to be honest and challenge them to look at the country that we have and to work to make it a better place. They cannot do that if I hand them a pasteurized version of what the United States has been and what it is today.
Before tackling the specific issue of Ferguson, there are actions that I can take to create a school environment where my students feel safe. I have to start with what I can control. I must model a deep respect for each student and for every colleague, inside and outside of the school building. Students need to see behavior that is different from what they witnessed on the streets of Ferguson. It is important to avoid making careless or negative comments about colleagues or students. I must refuse to use sarcastic remarks to my students, which demean or embarrass them. For right now, I cannot change the world, but I can make sure that I model the best behavior that I can where I am.
I want to make sure that I learn about each of my students, so that they know that I care about each one of them. I cannot create a safe place for them if I don’t really know who they are. This can be done as easily as by having them write a letter to me at the beginning of the year. What is your favorite ice cream flavor? What is your favorite holiday? What can you do that would surprise me? I want to have a Concerns Box where they can leave anonymous notes that can be discussed in an Advising or homeroom time. I want to create times when they know that their lives will be recognized and supported.
Now for the more difficult areas! It is important for students to see the adults in their world tackling real challenges without calling names and bullying. They need to understand that working out problems can be difficult, but that it can be done. We have to be willing to acknowledge with them that the world is a complicated place with few easy answers and invite them into the conversation, encouraging them to help us make the country a better place.
This is an area where some fabulous PBL work could be done. How would our students answer the question, posed to me by an African-American mother, “How can I keep my children safe?” That is a real and valid question, one that their own parents might well be asking. We should invite our students into the challenging conversations. These conversations obviously cannot happen until after a sense of security has been created in the classroom. Students need to feel safe as they take on the issues in the world.
For the next step, I want to pose to my American history course the question: Why did Ferguson, Missouri happen? The events of this summer did not spring up from nowhere. Where did they come from? What was behind the actions of all of the people involved? I want to challenge my students to wrestle with the questions that these events raise, looking beyond a quick sense of Right and Wrong. Who are the people involved and why did they act in the ways that they did?
History is made up of people who, no matter how much we disagree personally with their actions, usually believed that they were Right. They did not wake up each morning and see a monster in the mirror; they saw a person whom they believe understands the world in a clear and correct manner. How did the people involved in Ferguson and in many other racially charged events in our history come to act in the ways that they did? I want my students to consider the priorities of each side, role-playing, debating and wrestling with a variety of viewpoints. It is only when they can understand those they consider “Other” that they will be able to work with them towards a solution.
Here’s to a year of creating safety and challenge within our classrooms!