Inspired by several high profile cases in 2014 — the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson Missouri; the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, who told police he couldn’t breathe while he was in a chokehold; the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was holding a toy gun that police mistook for a real weapon — many teachers across the country have been looking for ways to address issues like race, violence and social justice, in their classrooms. Alongside social media campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter, educator hashtags like #FergusonSyllabus spread across the twitterverse. Here at Youth Radio, we took the question of how to talk to teens about the issues raised by these events back to the teens themselves.
Youth Radio’s Tylyn Hardamon, a member of the newsroom’s youth team, and journalism teacher and producer Teresa Chin sat down together to come up with a lesson plan for how educators can facilitate a productive conversation about race, police and violence, grounded in a collection of stories created by Youth Radio’s reporters and commentators.
Why A Socratic Seminar?
When we asked our youth news team how teachers should talk about Ferguson and race, Youth Radio’s Tylyn Hardamon immediately suggested a Socratic Seminar. As Tylyn explained, a Socratic Seminar is designed so that all students give their input and learn from the conversation about the topic. In a room full of people with different perspectives about an issue, everybody gets to see the topic more critically.
“In school, subjects are often taught through tests and lectures. In my experience, those formats don’t really help us better understand the main point of the matter. That’s why I wanted to structure these lesson ideas around the framework of a Socratic Seminar.”
– Tylyn Hardamon, Youth Radio Newsroom Youth Team
If you’ve never done a Socratic Seminar before, here’s a good resource from New Hanover County Schools (downloads as a word document). In addition to this guide, we’ve also put together some tips, reading materials and discussion questions that you can use for your class.
Before You Begin: Ground Rules and Acknowledgements
Here at Youth Radio, we’re big fans of ground rules. Allowing students and teachers to co-create the norms and guidelines for a class or a particularly sensitive discussion helps to foster a safer learning environment where everyone can participate productively. If you are thinking of doing a lesson plan on Michael Brown or other high profile cases, we highly recommend you set or revisit ground rules with your class.
This resource has some good advice for setting ground rules with a group, and includes sample ground rules for discussions and lectures. Our students at Youth Radio also weighed in on ground rules they thought would be particularly helpful for a discussion about race and profiling in a classroom setting:
Suggested Ground Rules
One mic (one person talking at a time)
Step up step back (try to create space for everyone to talk, try not to dominate the conversation)
“Don’t yuck my yum” (No bashing)
I vs. they/we (try not to generalize, recognize you are speaking from your perspective)
The goal is not to agree, the goal is deepen your understanding of the issue
Personal stories stay personal (what’s said in the room stays in the room)
Listen to others (both by being present and by trying to avoid preconceived conclusions)
assumptions like: everyone believes in the criminal justice system, someone’s cultural identity is X, someone can speak for all members of a certain race, etc.
Acknowledgements: Putting Concepts Out There
Before you begin the Socratic Seminar, it may be helpful to recognize common pitfalls of any discussion about race, class, crime, etc. Emotions may run high during these types of conversations, even as the classroom can be a productive and necessary venue for teens to sort out these complex feelings and thoughts.
*Assuming you know the sensitivities of your students, you may want to brief certain students prior to the conversation if you know they are particularly sensitive to the topic.
Acknowledge that this is an important yet emotional issue for many young people.
Acknowledge that some of the teens in your class (or people they are close to) may have had been personally affected by racism and police brutality/profiling.
Acknowledge that some of the teens in your class (or people they are close to) may have family members who are police officers or are involved in law enforcement.
Acknowledge that while the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and others are important news events, that this discussion will also be informed by the history of race and class in America.
Insider Tips (From YR Teens and Teachers)
Clarifying Questions and Terms
We asked some of our students at Youth Radio what kinds of questions and vocabulary that had come up in their school discussions of Ferguson and police/teen relations. Depending on what you’ve already covered in your class, it might be worth clarifying the following information before you begin:
How does a Grand Jury work? (St. Louis Public Radio)
MORE TIPS FROM YR TEENS
MORE TIPS FROM YR TEACHERS
Let students own the conversation. You can help to shape the conversation when needed, but let it be THEIR conversation.
Challenge students with deep questions that really make them think.
Acknowledge your own personal experiences as a teacher. This is part of what makes you human.
Clarify the goal of why it is important to talk about these things.
Encourage students to consider a range of issues, and not only the one that is most visible or obvious to them, e.g., race, socioeconomic factors, neighborhood, fear.
Be sure to educate yourself about the details of each situation so you can clarify any misinformation/confusion about what actually happened in each case in discussion
Know your students. If you have a good sense for the personalities in the room, you can more effectively anticipate the dynamic and flow of the conversation.
For some students, this might be a space for them to express highly-charged emotions in a safe and protected space. Be prepared to listen without judgment, offer support, and local professional counseling that’s accessible to students.
You may have some students that are emotionally distant from the topic and engage the topic from a purely philosophical discussion/debate. They may unintentionally antagonize those who are more personally and/or emotionally connected to the issue.
You’ll want to select a rich and complex text as the basis for discussion during your Socratic Seminar. Youth Radio has created a hub for youth-produced coverage on Ferguson and Michael Brown’s death. Our teen reporters selected a few of these stories that resonated with them and paired each one with one or more suggested discussion questions.
With Michael Brown’s death, young black men in St. Louis are given a spotlight they didn’t have before. They want people to know they aren’t backing down. They aren’t giving up. As 27-year-old Darren Seals of Ferguson puts it, seeing the fate of Michael Brown, “didn’t make us scared. It made us furious.”
Discussion Questions: What are some reasons protesters are angry about the Ferguson case decision? What are positive ways to show frustration about this issue and work towards change?
It can be difficult to understand how things can go so wrong with interactions between the police and the public. One question we had at Youth Radio was how the training of law enforcement officers factors into the tragic incidents we’ve seen over the past year. To help us gain insight, we turned to Sergeant Keith Gums, a retired 23-year veteran of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. Gums has trained fellow officers in the tactics of modern policing.
Discussion Questions: If you were a police chief, how would you train your officers to handle cases where an individual is not armed? When that person is a minor? When that person is mentally ill? How can officers account for internalized racism when deciding whether to use deadly force?
Protesters have been hitting the streets of Oakland and cities around the country in response to officer-related shootings, and grand jury decisions not to indict them. Youth Radio’s Joi Smith interviewed young people and long-time residents of Oakland for their reflections on police violence in the city. Sergeant Joseph Turner of the Oakland Police Department heard her story, and responded in a letter, which was published alongside Joi’s reporting in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Discussion Questions: How would you improve police/teen relations? How would you make officers more receptive to community feedback? How would you make police policies more transparent? How, if at all, should those policies change?
Follow Up: Keep Youth Voices Going
After your Socratic Seminar, you may find that your students are interested in adding their voices to the media conversation around #BlackLivesMatter. Luckily, there are many ways beyond social media for teens to get involved. Consider having your students write a commentary (see our DIY Toolkit: How To Write A Commentary) and submit it to Youth Radio or their local radio station. Other options include writing an op-ed for a local paper, or submitting a letter to the editor. For more examples of youth coverage of Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter, see more resources below.
There has been some great media coverage of Ferguson and the #BlackLivesMatter movement by other youth media organizations. Here are just a few highlights to check out: