How to Teach Kids About What's Happening in Ferguson

A crowdsourced syllabus about race, African American history, civil rights, and policing

When the unrest in Ferguson erupted, my husband made an observation that broke my heart: “The kids were supposed to start school today.”

For me, the perfume of synthetic fibers and freshly sharpened pencils always signals the start of a new school year, and it makes me ecstatic. As a child, the ritual began with a trip to the uniform store. My older sister and I trekked onto Clark Street via a city bus. Each year, we found ourselves before the counters of what had to be the world’s largest purveyor of Catholic school uniforms. “St. Margaret Mary, please,” we would say. The elderly salesman would fetch my mostly polyester wardrobe for the upcoming school year—a plaid jumper, pleated skirts, Peter Pan-collared blouse, acrylic cardigans—carefully folded in individual plastic bags.

I loved the preparations for the first day of school so much that I became a college professor. I’ve spent most of my 34 Augusts anticipating a school year.

From the beginning of the situation in Ferguson, news reports alerted the public that Michael Brown was to start college soon. Before surveillance videos and photographs of protestors with their hands up were available, people saw a stoic Brown in a bright orange, probably acetate graduation gown. He will not have a first day ever again. And for the children of Ferguson, who have yet to have their first day, they may remember the smell of death, the odor of tear gas, the stench of an American tragedy.

In this kind of situation, people all say, what can I do? I have few talents in a crisis, but I do know I’m pretty good at teaching, and I knew Ferguson would be a challenge for teachers: When schools opened across the country, how were they going to talk about what happened? My idea was simple, but has resonated across the country: Reach out to the educators who use Twitter. Ask them to commit to talking about Ferguson on the first day of classes. Suggest a book, an article, a film, a song, a piece of artwork, or an assignment that speaks to some aspect of Ferguson. Use the hashtag: #FergusonSyllabus.

From a children’s book about living with someone with PTSD to maps of St. Louis’s school-desegregation struggles to J. Cole’s “Be Free,” the Ferguson archive was tweeted, re-tweeted, mentioned, and favorited thousands of times. A small community has formed; the fabric of this group is woven across disciplines and cultural climates. Some of us will talk about Ferguson forcefully, others gingerly, but from preschool classrooms to postdoctoral seminars, Ferguson is on the syllabus.

The following list was compiled by a community of teachers, academics, community leaders, and parents to teach about some aspect of the national crisis in Ferguson, Missouri. This is a snapshot of the recommendations that has been edited. The contributions continue on Twitter.

Teaching About Race and Ferguson

The Danger of a Single Story” 
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, TedTalk 

“A Talk to Teachers,” in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985 
James Baldwin

Constructing a Conversation on Race” 
Charles M. Blow, New York Times

Ferguson Killing Inspires Young Black Activists” 
Frederica Boswell, NPR 

On Recognizing My White Privilege as a Parent in the Face of Ferguson
Elizabeth Broadbent, xoJane

5 Ways to Teach Michael Brown and Ferguson in the New School Year” Christopher Emdin, blog

Kathee Godfrey, blog

Teaching About Ferguson” 
Julian Hipkins, Teaching for Change

#FergusonSyllabus: The #FergusonFiasco and Teaching African American Theology” 
Andre E. Johnson, blog

What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying? #MichaelBrown"
Chris Lehman, blog 

What White Children Need to Know About Race
Ali Michad and Eleonora Bartoli,

Between the By-Road & the Main Road: Curated Bibliography on Whiteness, Silence & Teaching
Mary Ann Reilly, blog

Reading Ferguson: books on race, police, protest and U.S. history” 
Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times

Educators Use Twitter To Teach About Ferguson, Build Syllabuses"
Erica Smith, "St. Louis on the Air," St. Louis Public Radio

Healing Days: A Guide For Kids Who Have Experienced Trauma
Susan Straus

12 Things White People Can Do Now because Ferguson” 
Janee Woods, Quartz


African-American History/Civil Rights in the United States

SNCC Women, Denim and the Politics of Dress
Tansha Ford, Journal of Southern History

100 Years of Lynchings
Ralph Ginzburg

Anthony Grooms

African-American Identity in the Gilded Age
The Library of Congress

Stalking the Angel of Death: The Lynching Calendar

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Alex Haley

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America
Melissa Harris-Perry

Black Power
Speech delivered by C.L.R. James, 1967 

How the Children of Birmingham Changed the Civil-Rights Movement
Lottie L. Joiner, The Daily Beast

Black Liberation in the Midwest: The Struggle in St. Louis, Missouri, 1964-1970
Kenneth Jolly

Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Ferguson, Missouri: History, Protest, and 'Respectability'
Clarence Lang, Labor and Working Class History Association blog

March: Book One
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

Learning from the 60s
An address by Audre Lorde, 1982

Presented by

Marcia Chatelain is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of the forthcoming book, South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration.

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