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How Can Teachers Talk To Their Students About Ferguson?

A protester on Aug. 16 in Ferguson
Durrie Bouscaren
St. Louis Public Radio

Images from Ferguson are everywhere.

It’s difficult to avoid news of Michael Brown’s death and the community response. And with students returning to school, educators are likely to encounter the topics in the classroom and seek guidance on how to discuss them. As discussed on St. Louis on the Air, different approaches are required for different age groups.

The Response in Early Childhood Classrooms

When kids are trying to understand something that is traumatic for them, or something they do not fully understand, they will factor in fantasy aspects they can control. That’s according to Stephen Zwolak, executive director of the University City Children's Center.

One teacher at the center told Zwolak about a 4-year-old boy who was trying to make sense of the situation in Ferguson and the boy added three witches to story of how Michael Brown died.

“So what that told us is that (the boy) unleashed something he wasn’t sure about … and it was too much, too soon for him, so he went to his fantasy world in the same sentence. That is what early childhood kids will do. They will see it, let us know, and then go to a safe place.”

“In early childhood … the most important issue is safety,” Zwolak said. “They need to be physically safe, emotionally safe, and socially safe.

“And what’s happening is they see these images time and time again, and it projects that we’re not safe. What’s critical right now is for us to be able to say you are safe.”

Zwolak said he's talking with teachers about emphasizing lap time (for closeness) and facilitating child-to-child interactions differently to mitigate the fact that there is chaos outside.

Early childhood educators can also help children learn to accept those who are different from them. “The issues around diversity don’t start in kindergarten. They start in infancy. They start around nine months of age when babies understand others outside of self. So we have the foundations to build a responsible educational community in the world of early childhood,” Zwolak said.

The Response in High Schools

Tom Lawson is a teacher and chair of the social studies department at McCluer High School, in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. Students return Monday and educators are looking into how they can best address Michael Brown’s death and the aftermath.

“Today throughout our district we did a training called RISE which is response, intervention, support, and education,” Lawson sid. “We got a lot of information on how to identify (students who need support). He said the school’s usual staff of 24 counselors will be greatly increased.

Teachers talked about making sure they try to connect with students in a comfortable environment and create an atmosphere where students can share information if they think a friend needs help.

Lawson says he plans to have conversations with his students about the situation when school begins on Monday.

“One of the things [many of his students] are going to want to know is what is the process, what’s happening,” Lawson said. He said teachers in the social studies department can talk about due process and civic responsibility.

A Different Approach in Edwardsville

Conversations about the events in Ferguson have not been easy. In the Edwardsville, Ill., school district, superintendent Ed Hightower asked teachers to refrain from discussions around the issue because they were creating “hard feelings to the point that students and parents were contacting my office and the principal.”

Citing a potentially volatile situation, Hightower decided to postpone any attempts of trying to mediate, moderate or carry on discussions about what happened in Ferguson.

Hightower said the district is developing a framework with teachers of how best to talk about Michael Brown and the subsequent events. He said he expects teachers to have guidance on Monday.

After High School

Gregory Carr Sr. said he knew his students at St. Louis Community College–Florissant Valley were going to be particularly pained so he purposely showed up early to his first class to assess the emotion on his students’ faces. “I just opened up by introducing myself and saying what we wanted to do, but I said I wanted to acknowledge the moment. I said ‘Let’s have a moment of silence to recognize what happened.’ … I said ‘We’re going to have a moment of silence not only for Michael Brown but also for Darren Wilson because they are inextricably tied now, and these families are both grieving over what happened.’ ”

Carr, who also is an instructor at Harris-Stowe State University, told his students about his experiences of living close to and working in Ferguson. He also had them write down their feelings about the situation and discuss what they wrote in pairs before continuing with his previously planned class.

What’s the Takeaway?

“As a professional you have got to be objective about the facts, you’ve got to be objective about the situation, you have to be empathetic, and you also have to canister all the diversity that goes into it. … But as an educator we have to have these discussions,” Lawson said.

Lawson said that a lot of growth and learning can take place in conversations that happen at school.

Help inform our coverage

Even before the recent incidents in Ferguson, race has been an issue that's bound to come up in many homes and classrooms. What kinds of conversations are you having? Please click on the following link to respond through our Public Insight Network: Parents, educators, students: How do you discuss race in your home/classroom?

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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