As we heard the news about the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island, WritersCorps teaching artists began sharing teaching ideas. Here are some of our ideas on how to engage students in writing or discussion. We will update this list with more ideas as we develop them. You can also find ideas by searching #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter. Please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet at us if you have resources you’d like us to share.
Photos by Carrie Leilam Love, who took these in WritersCorps workshops in July 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Writing Activity: Benjamin Watson’s Response to Ferguson
by Roseli Ilano
1) Many people are posting their reactions to police brutality on social media. Using the following post by NFL player Benjamin Watson as an example, have students fill in the blanks about how they personally feel. Students may share or keep their emotions private.
I’M ANGRY because
I’M FRUSTRATED because
I’M FEARFUL because
I’M EMBARRASSED because
I’M SAD because
I’M SYMPATHETIC because
I’M OFFENDED because
I’M CONFUSED because
I’M INTROSPECTIVE because
I’M HOPELESS because
I’M HOPEFUL because
I’M ENCOURAGED because
2) Optional Personification Activity by Maddy Clifford
Next, ask students to take one emotion and personify it. Personifying emotions allows young people to create some level of distance from a trauma, but also encourages them to use their imagination.
Ask students clarifying questions…
- What is your emotion’s favorite past time?
- Where does your emotion live and what does it eat for breakfast?
- Does your emotion have a gender or is your emotion gender-free?
Here is an example of personifying fear from “The Book of Qualities” by J. Ruth Gendler
“Fear has a large shadow, but he himself is quite small. He has a vivid imagination. He composes horror music in the middle of the night. He is not very social, and he keeps to himself at political meetings. His past is a mystery. He warned us not to talk to each other about him, adding that there is nowhere any of us could go where he wouldn’t hear us. We were quiet. When we began to talk to each other, he changed. His manners started to seem pompous, and his snarling voice sounded rehearsed.”
Writing Activity: Truths and Myths
by Sandra Garcia Rivera
1) Ask students to make a list of three beliefs they had about “the police” or “the U.S.” or the “justice system” that they realized are not entirely true, or are a lie. (Choose just one topic to be as specific as possible. Specificity allows for a cohesive directed discussion.)
2) Ask students what they learned was the truth for each of these three beliefs.
3) Have students choose one belief and write about the time or experience that caused them to change the belief, or informed them that it was not true.
4) In small groups (no more than 4 participants in each), ask students to share their two lists. Ask students how many they have in common.
5) In the small group, have each student share the moment that their ideas changed. Students do not have to read their writing; they can just talk about the moment.
6) Come back to large discussion and have each group report back to create one collective visual of both lists.
7) Discuss the lists / experiences. Why are there so many in common? Be prepared to facilitate hard feelings, and affirm students experiences related to disillusionment, mourning, trauma, etc.
8) Share examples of leaders who overcame disillusion and turned their knowledge into action, ex: Cassius Clay became Muhammed Ali, or Malcolm Little to Malcolm X to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, or Angela Davis, etc.
9) Give additional individual writing time to add to the earlier free write, or to start a new one. Allow time for students to volunteer and share their stories.
Note: This lesson can be modified for ELL students by using the “U.S.” as a point of opening up the door for discussion. For example, you can use the topic of immigration with a class of students who were born inside and outside the U.S. The discussion needs to be safe for the students who have migrated. You can also use a fishbowl discussion with a group that has already established trust, so that the students who have migrated get to speak, and the other students listen.
Discussion: W.E.B. Du Bois Quote
by Roseli Ilano
1) Ask students to respond to this quote by W.E.B Du Bois, who wrote this almost 100 years ago. What does he mean by this? Do you think it still applies today? In thinking about our current system, who is it protecting? How? Give concrete examples.
This could frame a discussion about police brutality and how it is related to so much more (gentrification, laws, courts, etc), as a system is made of many intersecting parts.
2) Additionally, you may discuss the concepts of “black rage” and “white rage.” This article frames how white rage is the way the power structure uses laws to hold up white supremacy. Voter ID laws, Stand Your Ground laws, and Arizona’s SB1070 are a few examples of white rage.
Writing Activity: Poem Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Adapted from the WritersCorps book, “Jump Write In”
WritersCorps teaching artists often honor the work and memory of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. by asking students to write poems about the principles of civil rights and freedom. Here is an opportunity for teachers to talk not only about Martin Luther King Jr. on the day honoring him every January, but also about the civil rights movement, race relations, the qualities of a leader, heroes, and so on.
1. Bring in photographs from the days of segregation, such as of a water fountain with a “whites only” sign.
2. Ask students to imagine living in a world with that kind of overt racism and then write about how times have changed or not changed since Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.