School started last Wednesday. Since I only teach seniors, I had planned on helping them brainstorm, review, and revise their college essays for a week. Although we’ve already made some progress in that area, we’re taking a break from the application process to discuss Ferguson and Michael Brown.
I asked my students on day one what they needed from me to be successful this year. Their responses all had a similar refrain: they want me personally to be fair, interesting, compassionate, and passionate; they want what we read, discuss, and write about to be relevant. I also asked them what they needed from themselves. Interestingly, their expectations for themselves dovetail with their expectations of me. We had a great discussion of what it will mean to support one another.
To hold up my end of the bargain, I need to pivot from my intended plan. They want to talk about Ferguson.
I’ve spent a good part of this weekend thinking about how we should go about doing that.
I watched Jay Smooth’s Ted Talk “How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Discussing Race.”
I re-watched the Daily Show clip of correspondents’ Samantha Bee and Jessica Williams “The ‘R’ Word.”
I read articles and blog posts of educators grappling with this story:
- NPR’s education site: “Helping Students Make Sense Of A Young Black Man’s Death In Missouri”
- Rafranz Davis’ blog post “Conversations with My Son Regarding the Mike Brown Murder”
- Jenna Shaw’s blog post “Just Start”
- John Spencer’s blog post “If This Is the Goal of Education…”
- Chris Lehmann’s blog post “What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying?”
I asked two black colleagues for advice. Not because I expect their experience to represent the whole, but because I admire and respect them as educators and wanted to hear their perspectives.
In the end, I think I have a plan.
Our school’s primary norm is “Start With Questions.” The wisdom in that imperative was fully brought home to me by reading Warren Berger’s excellent book “A More Beautiful Question.”
Here are the facts. I teach in a private school in Atlanta attended by students who are predominantly upper class and white. There are no black students in either of my AP English classes. There are only a few in my British Literature classes.
I began the process by asking myself a question: “Why do I want to talk about race in my classroom?” The answer is simple: because I’m a teacher. I want my students to see themselves as active players in the continually unfolding drama of life – as playwrights, directors, actors, and spectators. I don’t want them to plant their feet in one spot and claim that place and perspective for all time. Instead, I want them to remain agile in both mind and body, eager to empathize with others, willing to share their outlook, inclined to view the world through multiple vantage points, and intent on imagining what role they can play to make the world a better place to live.
I then wondered how they would answer the question, “Why is it difficult to talk about race?” That is a good starting point for me. I plan to let them engage in a think, pair, share activity that focuses on that question.
I realize not everyone will have the same set of facts to work from regarding the Ferguson story, and I don’t think I want to ask what they understand the facts to be. Facts are statements. I want them only to inquire.
To that end, I’m going to give them Charles Blow’s editorial “Michael Brown and Black Men.” There were 762 comments to the article before the comment section was closed. Of those the New York Times highlighted 52. The New York Times describes their picks as “a selection of comments that represent a range of views and are judged the most interesting and thoughtful. In some cases, NYT Picks may be selected to highlight comments from a particular region, or readers with first-hand knowledge of an issue.”
I plan to post six of those comments on large white sheets in my room, give each student a Sharpie, and ask them only to respond with questions. No dialogue, commentary, or opinion. Just questions. They can also ask questions of peers’ questions. But no declarative sentences.
For this initial foray into the topic, we’ll discuss the value of starting with questions.
Although I recognize that this is not necessarily the message students have been receiving all their lives, I want them to consider how wondering might be more valuable than knowing.
From here, I’ll assess the temperature of the discussion, whether we are ready to dive deeper, whether we are willing to employ our inquisitive spirits, and what our next step should be.
“The word ‘why’ not only taught me to ask, but also to think. And thinking has never hurt anyone. On the contrary, it does us all a world of good.” – Anne Frank