Teach About Mike Brown. But Don’t Stop There.

By Renée Watson

by flickr user: no scream @ the end

by flickr user: no scream @ the end


This time last summer, I researched articles and collected poems about police brutality, racial profiling, and the murders of black men in the United States. The George Zimmerman verdict was fresh on my mind and I wanted to talk about it with my students once school was back in session. I revised a lesson I had taught six years prior on the murder of Sean Bell that asked young people to turn their pain into poetry (http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/23_01/sean231.shtml). And now, here I am again, swapping out the articles I used last year on Trayvon Martin with articles about Mike Brown. I have accepted that I may have to teach this lesson every school year.

I am moved by the Twitter handle, #FergusonSyllabus. It gives me hope to know that educators are willing to have difficult conversations with their students, that poetry and essays will be written to honor the lives of those we’ve lost to senseless murder, that healthy discussions will happen across the country between young people. But I hope we go past one lesson, one unit. I urge us to think about how our classrooms and curricula challenge or support stereotypes, how they liberate or stifle our young people. It is not enough to teach one “social justice” unit. My hope is that we move from isolated lessons and units and commit to creating classrooms that intentionally and consistently provide opportunities for learners to not just know about injustice but fight against it and begin creating a just world.

As educators, we are not just teaching science, math, or English. We teach culture and norms. Our students notice the jokes we laugh at and the ones we don’t. They pick up on our low expectations when we overly praise them as if we are surprised they could actually complete the assignment we gave them. They are learning whose stories matter by the books we assign. They see who we kick out of class and who we give second and third chances to.

Black students are three and a half times more likely to be suspended from school than white students (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/tsr/education-under-arrest/school-to-prison-pipeline-fact-sheet/). The school-to-prison pipeline is a very real epidemic and I believe it has common denominators with the issues of police brutality and racial profiling. Some of them being the assumptions, fears, and dehumanizing beliefs we have about black boys and men. So when educators ask, “What can I do?” and “How do I teach about Ferguson?” My response is don’t just teach about Mike Brown and Ferguson. Take time to comb through your syllabus, to look at the posters hanging on your wall, to review and maybe revise your classroom management strategies and practices. Make sure your classroom represents the world in which our young people live. Make sure your policies mirror the values you hold as an educator. Address the assumptions you have about your students and be intentional about getting to know them as individuals.

This is not advice for black teachers only or for teachers who teach students of color. I believe these are good teaching practices, in general, and just as important for teachers who teach in all white or predominantly white schools. On the blog, Manic Pixie Dream Mama, a white mother writes:

My boys will carry a burden of privilege with them always. They will be golden boys, inoculated by a lack of melanin and all its social trapping against the problems faced by Black America.

For a mother, white privilege means your heart doesn’t hit your throat when your kids walk out the door. It means you don’t worry that the cops will shoot your sons.

It carries another burden instead. White privilege means that if you don’t school your sons about it, if you don’t insist on its reality and call out oppression, your sons may become something terrifying.

Your sons may become the shooters.

This mother thinks about the possibility of the shooters being in her home. I think of the possibility of the shooters being in our classrooms.

That is why I so adamantly believe that social justice pedagogy is not for students of color only. We need all young people to examine our world, critique it, and vow to change it. I believe children should be nurtured to practice empathy, to not judge one another based on the color of skin. I believe teachers should commit to exposing our young people to a variety of stories, that we vow to take a personal inventory and deal with our own biases and not be confined to what Chimimanda Adichie calls the “single story.” (http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story).

I am grateful for movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and publishers like Lee and Low Books who understand that young people—all people—need to read a “mix of ‘mirror’ books and ‘window’ books…books in which they can see themselves reflected and books in which they can learn about others.” Lee and Low’s checklist for creating diverse libraries asks the following questions: Do all your books featuring black characters focus on slavery? Do all your books about Latino characters focus on immigration? Are all your LGBTQ books coming out stories? Do you have any books featuring diverse characters that are not primarily about race or prejudice? The list also reads, “Consider your classic books, both fiction and nonfiction. Do any contain hurtful racial or ethnic stereotypes, or images…If so, how will you address those stereotypes with students? Have you included another book that provides a more accurate depiction of the same culture? (http://blog.leeandlow.com/2014/05/22/checklist-8-steps-to-creating-a-diverse-book-collection/ ).

These are important questions. And no, I don’t believe that diverse books alone is the magical answer to America’s race problem. But I do believe that sharing stories is one way to humanize marginalized people, it is a way of seeing past labels.

I believe we are gatekeepers. I believe that what we bring into the classroom, in both content and attitude, will impact our young people in ways we might never personally witness.

As we think about teaching about Ferguson, let us remember to share with our young people stories of courage, hope, and solidarity.

Here are four activities that can help young people learn about the historical context while also giving them an opportunity to take action—even if the action is small.

  1. Teach about Emmett Till. Discuss Mamie Till Mobley and her decision to let Jet Magazine publish the photo of Emmett and how that got the nation’s attention. Ask students to think about the role of social media in the murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. What can they do via social media to continue to bring awareness about what is going on in Ferguson?
  2. Bring in music that addresses social issues (“What’s Going On” by Marvyn Gaye, “Rebel” by Lauryn Hill, etc.). Have students write a song or poem that asks a question or responds to the injustices of today.
  3. View Norman Rockwell’s civil rights paintings and ask students to create a work of art and display the work on a bulletin board in the hallway.
  4. Find poems of hope (examples: “Still Here” by Langston Hughes, “For My People” by Margaret Walker, “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton) and discuss the timeline of African American history in the United States. How does each generation gain hope from the previous generation? What hope can they pass on?

Please do teach about Mike Brown. But don’t stop there.

Renée has worked as a writer in residence for several years teaching creative writing and theater in public schools and community centers through out the nation. Her articles on teaching and arts education have been published in Rethinking Schools and Oregon English Journal. In June 2014, Renée gave lectures and talks at many renown places, including the United Nations Headquarters and the Library of Congress. Her forthcoming YA novel, This Side of Home (Bloomsbury), will be available February 2015.


42 thoughts on “Teach About Mike Brown. But Don’t Stop There.

  1. So thankful for your knowledge, wisdom and continued dedication to what is right.I especially appreciate the push to teachers who teach predominantly or all white classrooms. This truth needs to be highlighted over and over. Lastly, and for some it is likely most helpful that you provided concrete examples. Keep being you!

  2. This post is brilliant. It’s very important that we examine our information sources and make sure we are listening to people who are different than us. If we are going to achieve more than just mere tolerance of each other, we’re going to have to know each other’s cultures. Here’s a post I wrote about listening to voices of color via my social media, thereby, expanding my circle of compassion. I would like to suggest these voices to your readers. http://empty-nest-expat.blogspot.com/2013/07/after-trayvon-martin-verdict-here-are.html

    I also, have been moved by Chimimanda Adichie TED talk on “Beware the Single Story” and I would like to share the wonderful day my book club in Istanbul had reading her book “Half a Yellow Sun.” Diverse voices have completely enriched my life! http://empty-nest-expat.blogspot.com/2012/03/africa-day-global-minds-book-club.html

  3. Thank you mattewross35. There are a lot of good resources out there about teaching on Ferguson. I’m so glad educators are having these conversations with young people.

  4. Hello Renee,

    Your post is thoughtfully written. All eyes have been on Ferguson this past month, and watching a tragedy unfold – what appeared to be a city exploding.

    We in Toronto have other issues, but I am in agreement with you about the need to teach towards understanding.

    I will be sharing a link to your blog – via mine that others may read it too.

    best regards,
    Ali in Canada

  5. Really loved, appreciated, and learned from the vision of education you articulated here. Hope to do it justice in my own classroom. Shared this with all the other teachers in my life, too! Thank you so much for writing!

  6. We not only need to teach about our reality, but we have to teach students about thinking critically and examining closely these problems and recognizing them in the real world. There are people who want to not discuss these problems with the belief that talking about it will only exacerbate the problem. If you ask me, not talking about it is like ignoring a cancer. The cancer only gets worse if you try to ignore it. Thank you for your post.

  7. Thank you for challenging educators to examine the biases that they bring to their work. There have been times when I have been shocked by the miopic ignorance of my education colleagues as well as their lack of recognition of the privilege from which they benefit. People tend to try to essentialize situations, to pack them into a nutshell rather than acknowledge the enormous complexities of our society. You very elegantly argue that educators must look into the mirror and examine their own beliefs before passing on vital lessons about diversity to their students. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective.

  8. I was in that same place too. Reading/Teaching with so many students interested in what happened with Trayvon and then here we are again. Thank you for the insight and the resources. Happy to have found you and to follow you.

      1. Its a crime that he isn’t read more and studied in our schools. Its disgusting that African american parents have to have “the talk” with their sons about dealing with police, and it wasn’t until reading his essays that as a white male I can understand the frustration/anger over ferguson shooting.

  9. Thank you for this article – it opened my thought process and knowledge considerably. While I wholeheartedly agree with the social issues you address and the need for further teaching in our classrooms, I don’t believe Mike Brown was innocent in the whole Ferguson tragedy. However, there are plenty examples in history of those who were. There IS a huge problem in our country and we need teachers who are willing to spend the extra time cultivating the minds of our children in the direction of unity, peace, and equality among races, economic status, etc. Thank you for being one of them.

  10. The post was spot on. Informing the youth about what’s going on around them is important. It’s also imperative to let them know that their voice/action is a lot bigger than a retweet or “like.” As an instructor, do you think teachers should should be allowed to teacher about the things going on in their community? Also, what do you think about upgrading the text books and curriculum in our schools?

    1. Hi goods215,

      I absolutely think teachers should be allowed to teach about the things going on in the community. With that said, I think it’s important for us to remember that it’s not about getting students to think like us, but rather to think–to be critical thinkers about what is happening and why, etc.

  11. The thing that concerns me the most is that 95 percent of the people in this country do not understand the simple concept of lawful civility without regard to race. If they can do it to him they can do it to you or your son.

  12. Being a teacher in an urban setting makes this such a necessity. Ramarley Graham was my student, another young male of color murdered by NYPD. I have been teaching my 6th graders about police brutality since I started teaching 12 years ago including Emit…which they can never handle. It’s also important to teach them how to respond when or if they are approached by law enforcement. We don’t have to wait until it’s added to the curriculum. We must seize the moment!

  13. I think I tried to comment before to thank you for such a moving and thoughtful approach. This is powerful challenging stuff–as it should be–and it opens a window to a world of experience I would otherwise not know.

    I just read your link to the similar experience regarding Sean Bell and using poetry to capture feelings about the case. Utterly heartrending, and yet so hopeful at the same time… that words should have a power to unite us and express our deepest concerns, a power greater than bullets and fear hold over us.

    Thank you again. You’re an inspiration.

  14. As a secondary ELA teacher, my grade level was able to weave in components of literature with Phillis Wheatley’s poems and Henry Louis Gates’s scholarly works on Wheatley to discuss the timeline of being a person of color in America. It lead to some powerful conversations, especially in the context of a Socratic seminar. I witnessed each student make deep connections between their personal life and the content knowledge in an invaluable way. I would recommend that anyone who is interested in discussing this issue in their classroom use the lens of classroom discussion to produce authentic student responses.

  15. “My hope is that we move from isolated lessons and units and commit to creating classrooms that intentionally and consistently provide opportunities for learners to not just know about injustice but fight against it and begin creating a just world.” Now that is true Social Justice.

    Thank you Renee for your constructive encouragement, and for reminding me of what it is that I need to deepen my work around with the youth I work with and mentor. I teach a literacy program called “Keep It Lit” and I run a girls empowerment group in Oakland and San Leandro CA. I was just sitting here angry about a recent police shooting of a woman in my neighborhood and found myself so frustrated and I remembered what is that I do with that energy which is to write, create poetry, and use it to heal myself and others.

    Poetry has saved my life and has provided me with an outlet to evoke my own self-empowerment through my voice and I help youth to tap into what it is that they already have inside them by providing a safe space and culturally relevant tools and activities to do so. I’ve used one of your works “Black Like Me” recently in a session with a young lady who was upset about the topic of Black girls/women in the media, hair, racism etc. Thank you so much for all your tips. I’m happy I discovered your article.

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