“This Is a Test”: Educating to End the School-to-Grave Pipeline in Ferguson and Beyond

By Jesse Hagopian

“We were at graduation, me and him, and we were talking. He said he wasn’t going to end up like some people on the streets. He was going to get an education.”

Hershel Johnson, a friend of Michael Brown’s since middle school

Mike Brown grad photo

Graduation portrait of Michael Brown from Normandy High School in Ferguson County, MO

In the wake of the police murder of the unarmed 18-year-old African American high school graduate Michael Brown, and the ensuing uprising of the people of Ferguson, the Ferguson-Florissant School District announced classes would not resume for the school year on Aug. 14 as planned, and as of today, school is still not in session.

The unrest between police and protesters prompted Gov. Jay Nixon (D) to declare a state of emergency in Ferguson and then impose a curfew. Comedian John Oliver described Gov. Nixon’s curfew announcement as “patronizing,” and charged him with speaking in the tone of a “pissed-off vice principal” attempting to further restrict the freedom of the people of Ferguson. Oliver’s school analogy may have been prompted by Nixon’s statement that,

“. . . to protect the people and property of Ferguson today, I signed an order declaring a state of emergency and ordering implementation of a curfew in the impacted area of Ferguson. . . . But if we’re going to achieve justice, we must first have and maintain peace. This is a test.”

For all of his authoritarian scolding, Gov. Nixon is correct about one thing: This is a test. But it isn’t one that will be scored accurately by a police force or a political class that sees itself as above the law.

Ferguson, like cities around the nation, has plenty of problems of race, class, and education to choose from. The schools in Ferguson—like too many districts across the nation—are still separate and unequal. 77.1 percent of the students in the Ferguson-Florissant School District are black, and some 68 percent of white students who live in the district attend schools outside of the district. Black students make up a disproportionate 87.1 percent of students without disabilities who receive out-of-school suspensions, according to 2011–12 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. And the black youth continue to be targets when they leave the schoolhouse and enter the streets. Last year, black residents accounted for 86 percent of the vehicle stops made by Ferguson police and nearly 93 percent of the arrests made from those stops, according to the state attorney general. FBI statistics show that 85 percent of the people arrested by Ferguson police are black, and that 92 percent of people arrested specifically for disorderly conduct are black.

The city of Ferguson is 67.4 percent black and 28.7 percent white, yet five of the six city council members are white and six of seven school board members are white. The first African American superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, Dr. McCoy, was forced out of his position in March by the then all white school board. Normandy High School, the alma mater of Mike Brown, has a poverty rate of 92 percent. As Daily Kos related,

“The grinding poverty in Mike’s world only allowed Normandy High School to acquire two graduation gowns to be shared by the entire class. The students passed a gown from one to the other. Each put the gown on, in turn, and sat before the camera to have their graduation photographs taken. Until it was Mike’s turn.”

“Career and college ready” are the new buzzwords in the education reform world and every teacher certainly hopes their students achieve these personal successes. Yet to limit education to only these puny goals is to extinguish the true power of education. Education must also be in service of transforming our very troubled society.

Mike Brown was to have started attending Vatterott College on Aug. 11, two days after he was killed, exposing the fact that the work of educators to help students achieve a diploma means little if our society succumbs to lawless police who gun down our unarmed children in the street. Many black youth have had their caps and gowns snatched from them and replaced with orange jumpsuits, as students are funneled into what is commonly called the “school-to-prison-pipeline”—a series of interlocking policies such as zero tolerance discipline and high suspension rates, overbearing police presence in schools, and high-stakes exit exams required for graduation. But increasingly, it appears police are intent on constructing what I guess we now must term the “school-to-grave pipeline”—a series of interlocking policies such as giving police weapons designed for war zones, the disproportionate policing of areas frequented by black youth, and incentivizing police to shoot black people by not arresting them and giving them paid leave when they do. The school-to-grave pipeline is not only a problem in Ferguson. Nationally, a study revealed that a black person is killed by police somewhere in the United States every 36 hours. When there are witnesses, or when onlookers are able to capture these murders on a cell phone camera, we get to hear about their case—people such as Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and many others. Yet too often, black people are shot down by police and discarded with little attention.

If education is not dedicated to empowering our youth to solve the problems they face in their communities, in our nation, and in our world, then it isn’t really an education at all—it is an indoctrination designed to reproduce oppression. As Richard Shaull explains in the foreword to Paulo Freire’s masterwork, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

The way you know that those who control the education system—the many corporate-style education reformers who push high-stakes testing and standardized curriculum—are not actually interested in nurturing black youth, closing the achievement gap, or supporting education that undermines oppression, is that you won’t hear any of them publicly defending Michael Brown or calling for the arrest of his murderer, Darren Wilson. (Or maybe Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee carpooled and got lost on their way to the rally in Ferguson?). On the issues that most deeply affect the lives of African Americans—mass incarceration, police terror, unemployment, housing discrimination—these education reformers and officials have nothing to say, content to prattle on with the exhortations about “accountability,” “career ready,” “21st-century education,” and other hollow pronouncements devoid of the social supports that would make them a reality.

Thankfully, educators in Ferguson and around the nation are rising to the challenge of redefining the purpose of education with the intent of building a more just society in wake of the killing of Michael Brown. On Aug. 17, Dr. Marcia Chatelain tweeted a call for resources for parents and educators to talk to young people heading back to school with the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus. People from around the nation began collecting and retweeting articles, books, videos, and photos to aid educators in lesson ideas that engage students in a critical dialogue about the meaning of Michael Brown’s death and the mass uprising it has inspired.

Jackie Gerstein, EdD (@JackieGerstein), tweeting with #FergusonSyllabus, wrote:

And Caryn Riswold (@feminismxianity) tweeted:

Some of the best lessons ideas shared on #FergusonSyllabus include a link to the video “Race the House We Live In,” about redlining and housing discrimination, a Rethinking Schools lesson on teaching about The Murder of Sean Bell (a young African American killed by New York City Police), Christopher Emdin’s essay, “5 Ways to Teach About Michael Brown and Ferguson in the New School Year,” and Teaching for Change’s “Teaching About Ferguson.” Any teacher of American history or civics would do well to discuss Amy Goodman’s essay, “The ghost of Dred Scott haunts the streets of Ferguson,” outlining the case of the slave (buried just down the street from where Mike Brown was killed) who took his case for freedom to the Supreme Court, which subsequently ruled that African Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

National Public Radio ran a story on Aug. 19, “Ferguson Teachers Use Day Off as Opportunity for Civics Lesson” where they reported, “So this morning, instead of being in the classroom, 150 area teachers took part in some unusual professional development: picking up broken glass, water bottles, and tear gas canisters from the street. “It says ‘Defense Technology’ on it,” says social studies teacher Arthur Vambaketes, showing off a busted canister from his trash bag.”

When the schools reopen in Ferguson, teachers would do well to close up the jingoistic textbooks, discard the bubble tests, and ask students what they think about the fact that our nation spends more on “defense technology,” militarized policing, and mass incarceration than on education. It might not be on the new Common Core exams, but the killing of Michael Brown is a test for our nation’s schools nonetheless.

As I prepare to head back to the classroom, I pledge to Michael Brown and his family that I will do my best to foster a classroom that allows for the emotional intensity and critical dialogue vital to achieving a world that puts institutional racism in its final resting place and gives our black children a bright future.

This post originally appeared on Jesse Hagopian’s blog: iamaneducator.com. Jesse is a writer and editorial associate for Rethinking Schools magazine, a founding member of Social Equality Educators (SEE), and recipient of the 2013 “Secondary School Teacher of Year” award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. He is also the editor and contributing author to the forthcoming book (available for per-ordering from Haymarket Books) More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Jesse teaches history and is the co-advisor for the Black Student Union at Garfield High School, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP standardized test.  Follow Jesse on his blog at www.iamaneducator.com or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian.

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.