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Open Letter: How to teach students about Ferguson

Host Melissa Harris-Perry sends an open letter to an Illinois school superintendent could use some help learning how to teach students about events in Ferguson.

Among those asking questions about the police shooting of Michael Brown and the militarized response that followed, are young people hoping to pose those questions in a space where they are used to getting answers--the classroom.

So, I was all ready this week to send a scathing letter to a school superintendent in Edwardsville, Illinois who not only told his teachers not to discuss Ferguson if it comes up in class, but to change the subject if it does!

But he later went on to send a letter to parents assuring them that his directive was meant to offer the students clarity, not censorship, saying:

"It was not our intent to ignore the educational relevance of these events. However, we felt it was important to take the time to calm a potential situation at the high school and to prepare administrators and teachers to approach this critical issue in an objective, fact-based manner."

Sounds like he just needs a little help with lesson-planning around Ferguson. And since I'm already in full professor mode preparing for the fall semester, I am more than happy to oblige in this week's letter.

Dear Superintendent Ed Hightower:

It's me, Melissa.

I know it's not easy helping teachers to help students navigate the emotionally-charged events that unfolded in Ferguson. And it's not like there is a ready-made curriculum for racial justice. One Alabama teacher has already shown how misunderstanding how to teach Ferguson can go horribly, horribly wrong. But it is crucial that you make the effort.

Because the classroom is exactly the space where young people should be examining their assumptions, exchanging ideas, and engaging in democratic deliberation over the complicated questions of race invoked by the events in Ferguson. Fortunately, Twitter has already provided teachers with a great headstart with the #FergusonSyllabus hashtag.

Educators around the country are using the hashtag to share resources--readings, topics for discussion, and activities to help students at every grade-level join meaningfully in the national dialogue about Ferguson. And Ed, I'd like to add to that list, and offer your teachers a few syllabus suggestions of my own.

History teachers looking to spark a dialogue about the complicated relationship of African-Americans to their American identity will find an invaluable assist in the words of Frederick Douglass from his 1852 speech making the case for abolition, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?"

English classes can spend an entire semester reading Richard Wright's Black Boy, and discussing how Wright's reflections of his early life in the Jim Crow South still resonate today in the lives of Michael Brown and the protesters in his community.

In social studies, teachers looking to help students make sense of the activism in response to Brown's killing can use PBS's documentary about the murder of Emmett Till to get them thinking about how a single death can launch a movement.

Science teachers may want to consider sharing this historical document with their students. In his 1851 article, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, at the time a widely published and well-respected doctor, discusses his discovery of "drapetomania," a mental disorder he claimed caused slaves to run away. After reading the article, students can explore the history of scientific racism, and how it continues to influence our thinking even today.

Now, some students may already be engaged with hip-hop music's exploration of racialized violence. But music teachers can help them trace these themes across decades and genres of music by having them listen to and discuss everything from Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" to Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit."

So, see, Ed? There's no need for your teachers to change the subject. Because what we do as teachers is to offer guideposts, context, and space for disagreement. We can teach our students not to be afraid of the unknown and the complicated, by confronting the hard topics as well as the easy. Now is the time to teach, not to hide.

Sincerely, Melissa

P.S. #nerdland, we would love to hear more suggestions for "teaching Ferguson." Please share your thoughts in the comments to your right, and on Twitter using the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus.