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Helping Students Make Sense Of A Young Black Man's Death In Missouri

Jeremiah Parker, 4, stands in front of his mother, Shatara Parker, as they attend a protest in Ferguson, Mo. Nights of unrest have vied with calls for calm in the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by police.
Jeff Roberson
Jeremiah Parker, 4, stands in front of his mother, Shatara Parker, as they attend a protest in Ferguson, Mo. Nights of unrest have vied with calls for calm in the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by police.

The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., is likely to raise questions for kids at home and playing in parks, but also in classrooms where students and teachers are heading back for the first day of school.

The 18-year-old's death Saturday — and the circumstances surrounding it — have laid bare the intersections of race and class and social justice, not just in the 70 percent black suburb, but in the national response to it.

"What happened to Mike Brown — what is happening in Ferguson right now — will enter into our classrooms when the students come back one way or another," says Chris Lehmann, the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.

But how do parents and educators talk about what happened there, and if you do, how do they do it well?

"If we are intentional and thoughtful in our own planning and work," Lehmann says, "we have a better chance of being the adults our kids need us to be to help them deal with their own thoughts."

Ignoring the shooting and sticking to the syllabus, Lehmann wrote in a blog post, isn't an option.

On the parent side, of course there's "the talk." Not about the birds and the bees or where babies come from, but the conversation many black parents have with their kids about what it means to be black in America, and how to get out of the experience alive. It's the kitchen-table, real talk about what to do when you're confronted by police.

But in many places in America, the conversation about Michael Brown might be more likely to happen in the classroom than around the dinner table.

And teachers need to be ready for that, says Lehmann. "To pretend that this does not enter our classrooms, our schools, is to run the risk of allowing ourselves to be complicit in the system that left Mike Brown's body in the street for hours," he wrote.

Erin Stevenson, a high school history and law teacher in Rhode Island, said she's excited to hear what her students are thinking about the events in Ferguson.

"One of the things that struck me when I started reading about Ferguson via Twitter was protesters using 'I Am a Man' signs," she said, noting that it's a phrase that grew out of the Memphis Sanitation Strike during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. "I wondered how many younger people — my students especially — know the historical significance of that phrase."

Stevenson says this will definitely come up in her law classes when school begins in September.

"When students can compare and contrast a social issue today to the text of the First Amendment, that's when they actually understand it, and it's applicable to their lives," she says.

What Does The Conversation Look Like?

Part of knowing how to talk with students about killings like Brown's is a willingness on the part of educators to engage in a dialogue that might make them uncomfortable.

"It highlights one of the crises that schools are facing right now where we're seeing the changing demographics of students in the classroom, and the teaching population remains overwhelmingly white," says Audrey Watters, a former college teacher who now writes about education. "Many educators are unfortunately deeply uncomfortable, and perhaps even unwilling to address their white privilege, and have a hard time addressing the lived reality of their students."

She concedes that talking to students about violence and racial issues is never easy.

"It can be really hard to create a safe space where you want people to feel comfortable," Watters says. "One of the jobs of a teacher is to push students to think more critically, to challenge them to evaluate themselves and the world around them. But you don't want to double the trauma."

Brown's death certainly isn't the only time educators have had to confront questions from kids that speak to the intersection of race, class, law and justice.

Think back to the 2012 killing in Florida of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was later acquitted in Martin's death. Or the outrage later that same year over the murder of Jordan Davis, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed near a Florida gas station after an encounter in which the shooter, Michael Dunn, felt his life was threatened.

Davis' death spurred more than a dozen teachers from across the country to organize and create a syllabus for helping "young people grapple with and address the messiness of the world around them."

Melinda Anderson, a self-described "parent activist" and education writer, was among the group. After Davis' death, Anderson recalls, many teachers said they wanted to have meaningful conversations with students but didn't know where to start.

"We said, let's give them a resource. Let's break down the resistance or the lack of information," she says. "Students should have the opportunity to express and to wrestle with what they are seeing. Teachers have a responsibility to help kids find their own voice and to really empower them with strategies for changing this messed-up world we inhabit."

Who's In The Room?

One thing the curriculum suggests — which isn't unique to Davis' death — is that teachers should pay attention to who's in the room, and tackle the conversation accordingly.

"If it is a predominately white classroom, please don't use the minority student as the 'expert informant' whose job it is to 'tell it like it is,' " they write. "That's a whole lot of pressure to put on a kid. On the same note, if you teach in a school where students are mostly African-American (or students of color in general), share how you feel about it, how it makes you angry and sad. Then give them space to talk about it."

Anderson is a parent too, and she says she expects to hear her son's teacher address Brown's killing when school begins in less than two weeks.

"To me, one of his teachers can't walk into his classroom with the lesson plan that was developed August 1 and not talk about Mike Brown in Ferguson," she says.

Of course, that's not always so easy. Teachers and schools at the start of the school year face all kinds of demands on the limited class time they have with students.

Erin Stevenson says even so, it's a conversation that needs to happen.

"Ultimately, I care more that my students are informed, engaged, active citizens of the world," she says. "If they don't care to pay attention or don't feel it affects them, then I haven't done my job."

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.