Talking with children about Ferguson

This lesson plan was written for the summer Sunday school program at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), Calif. Typical summer Sunday school attendance at UUCPA ranges from 2-15 children; attendance is usually about 70-80% white.

LESSON PLAN

I/ Opening
Take attendance.
Do the usual opening bits.
Opening reading: Theme for English B by Langston Hughes
OR I, Too by Langston Hughes

II/ The Basic Story:

Michael Brown had just graduated from high school, and he was getting ready to go off to college. On the morning of August 9, 2014, he was hanging out with a friend named Dorian Johnson. Brown did a stupid thing, and stole some cigars from Ferguson Market, a convenience store. Then he and Johnson walked home.

Darren Wilson, a police officer, was driving around when he saw Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson walking down the middle of the street. Wilson ordered the two to walk on the sidewalk. They refused, saying they were almost home. Both the police officer and the young men use bad language at each other. Wilson started to drive off, but then realized that Brown was carrying some cigars and matched the description of a person who had stolen cigars. Wilson backed up in the police car, and confronted Brown.

People disagree about what happened in the next few minutes.

There was a struggle between Michael Brown and the police officer, with the two fighting through the window of the car. Some people say that Michael Brown started the fight, and some people say that Darren Wilson started the fight. In any case, Wilson fired his gun during the fight at the police car, and then Brown and Johnson ran away. Wilson got out of the police car and began to chase after Brown. Some people who saw this incident said that Brown put up his hands and was trying to surrender to the police officer. Some people said that Brown charged at the police officer. Whatever actually happened, Wilson fired several shots at Brown and killed him.

Further exploration — conversation question:

If different people remember different things, then how can we know what is true about this story?

 

III/ The police officer’s story

Here’s how Darren Wilson, told the story of what happened:

Wilson said he saw two young black men walking in the middle of a street, and thinking they would block cars from driving along, he asked them to walk on the sidewalk. They responded with profanity, and then he realized they were the guys who had stolen the cigars from Ferguson Market. So he backed up, but before he could get out of his vehicle, Michael Brown started fighting with him through the open window of the police car.

Wilson said Michael Brown was like Hulk Hogan, the famous wrestler. Wilson pulled his gun, and warned Brown to get back or he would shoot. Brown tried to get the gun. Wilson fired the gun, and at that point Brown backed off.

Wilson said that Brown looked “like a demon,” so he fired again, and Brown began running away. Wilson got out of the police car and chased Brown. Then, said Wilson, Brown turned towards him, and Wilson thought that Brown was going to try to tackle him. So he fired a series of shots, with Brown getting as close as 8 feet away, when he shot Brown in the head, and Brown died.

Further exploration:

Do you think Darren Wilson was telling the truth when he said that he thought Michael Brown was as big as Hulk Hogan? [Take some answers, then go on to say:] Let’s think this over for a minute. Darren Wilson describes Brown as being “like a demon” and like the famous wrestler Hulk Hogan. Now Brown and Wilson were both the same height, 6′-4″; Brown weighed 292 pounds and Wilson weighed 210 pounds. Hulk Hogan is much taller — 6′-7″ — and much more muscular, with 24″ biceps. So there’s no way that Michael Brown was like Hulk Hogan.

But here’s an interesting fact. Even though we think that we see the world just exactly the way it is — we DON’T. And you can prove this to yourself by watching this video of The Movie Perception Test:

Darren Wilson probably thought he was telling the truth when he said that Michael Brown was like Hulk Hogan — but he was wrong, because Michael Brown was shorter and a lot less muscular than Hulk Hogan. But the point is that Darren Wilson probably was telling the truth about what he THOUGHT he saw.

 

IV/ Another story about Ferguson

Now here’s another way to tell the story of what happened in Ferguson:

The thing you have to understand about Michael Brown is that life was not fair for black people who lived in Ferguson.

First, the government of Ferguson was not fair to black people. Even though most of the residents of Ferguson were black — the town was over 2/3 black (69% black) — the mayor and the police chief were still white, most of the city council and the school board were still white, and almost all the police officers were white [50 out of 53 officers were white].

And the school system was not fair to black people. The white residents of Ferguson could mostly afford to send their children to private schools. But the public schools had very little money. Michael Brown went to Normandy High School, where nearly all of the students were black [98%], and most of the students came from poor families [92%]. Normandy High School itself had very little money; in fact, the school was bankrupt.

And the laws were not fair for black people in Ferguson. Ferguson police officers stopped far more black people than white people for traffic violations. Then the courts charged illegally high fees to people with traffic tickets. And if you did not pay your traffic tickets, the city would arrest you and put you in jail. One black woman who was put in jail said, “My son was 2 weeks old and I was under doctor’s care, and Ferguson still locked me up and left me in jail for a week over traffic tickets.”

So when Michael Brown was stopped by a police officer for not walking on the sidewalk, he could have wound up going to jail. No wonder he fought with the police officer, because he knew that black people like him were not treated fairly.

Further exploration — conversation questions:
1. If someone gets treated unfairly, what should they do about it?
2. If you are treated unfairly, what should YOU do about it?

 

V/ Wrap-up

Many adults in our congregation would say this: We will never know exactly what happened, but in the end Michael Brown was killed by a police officer for shoplifting and jaywalking, and that is not fair. Now many of us are trying to figure how how to make things more fair for black people like Michael Brown.

 

VI/ Snack, games

As time allows.

 

VII/ Closing

Form the closing circle. Ask what we did today, prompting the children to remember as a group what the lesson was about (i.e., not putting any one child on the spot).

Say together the unison benediction:

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

 

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CREDITS

The following get all the credit if this lesson plan is good, but none of the blame if it’s bad. Thanks to:

Dr. Marcia Chatelaine, in her workshop “Talking to Students about Ferguson” inspired me to address Ferguson, from the perspective of my own area of expertise as a teacher. She also pointed out the resources available by looking up #fergusonsyllabus — it helped to know that lots of teachers are addressing such a huge topic, which means I don’t have to cover every aspect myself.

Edie Keating, veteran Sunday school teacher, and Kris Geering, another Sunday school teacher with an M.Ed., provided initial inspiration for this lesson at a meeting of the UUCPA Children and Youth Religious Education Committee. Edie was the one who dictated the nucleus of the initial story (her story was much better, I couldn’t type fast enough to get it down).

All the people who responded to my Twitter plea for ideas. I heart librarians.

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THEOLOGICAL BACKGROUND

Over time, we religious liberals become adept at sorting through truth claims. I think this is particularly true for those of us who don’t have creeds. We know that truth is not a binary state — either true or false — but that the true can be mixed in with the false, and that there are different kinds of truths, e.g. emotional truths; truths verifiable by a scientific or scholarly community; truths specific to a certain population or locality, etc. Thus, Shakespeare’s play “King Lear” is generally false if considered as history that can be verified by scholarly study, while at the same time containing a great deal of truth about family relationships and feelings. In just such a way do we use the tools of historical criticism to sort through truth claims made about the Bible, where we find, for example, that some of the Bible can be verified as history and much cannot, while at the same time the Bible contains large amounts of truth about human relationships and feelings.

In short, we religious liberals become particularly good at sorting through the truth claims that are presented in the form of stories. This lesson plan for liberal religious kids is based on our ability to sort through truth claims. This lesson plan goes further than that and asks those of us who are teachers to consider the following: As different persons and groups of people make truth claims, sometimes they are trying to gain power for themselves at the expense of others. When we hear persons making unequivocal pronouncements about the events of Ferguson, we might ask (to paraphrase Michel Foucault): What types of knowledge are you trying to disqualify when you say that you have the final answers about Ferguson? And further, we might ask: When you say you have the final answers about Ferguson, are you trying to impose your political will on us? In response to various unequivocal pronouncements, we can call for open and honest public discourse that allows for the truth of multiple points of view. And we can replicate that environment in our classrooms for our kids to experience.

At the same time, while acknowledging the truth of multiple points of view, we draw on the insights of liberation theology and say that we need to privilege certain points of view. In particular, we can privilege the stories of the poor and disenfranchised, because all too often poor and disenfranchised persons find that their stories are ignored and covered up by the unequivocal pronouncements of those with more power. We have learned that in Ferguson many of the black residents were poor, and all too often they were disenfranchised by being shut out of any meaningful participation in the democratic process. Thus, as we try to sort through the stories about what happened in Ferguson, we should listen to many different stories, but we should privilege the stories of the black community.

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GOALS AND OBJECTIVES:

Educational goals:

1. To gain skill at sorting through truth claims, in this case as related to current events and social justice issues.

2. To use the tools from liberation theology to help understand these truth claims.

Educational objectives:

1. Children will hear differing stories of the events of Ferguson, and begin to express opinions about those truth claims.

2. Children will explore why there are different stories about what happened.

3. Children will hear the Ferguson story from the point of view of disenfranchised persons, and compare it to the story of a person with more power.

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NOTES AND RESOURCES:

A. Professor David Klinger, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri / St. Louis, said about the Michael Brown shooting that “It is entirely possible that multiple witnesses will recall different things…. They’re not lying, they just have different stories.” Source: “Witness adds new perspective to Ferguson shooting” by Christine Byers, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 16, 2014 [link].

B. For more on the history of Ferguson, including the development of all-white subdivisions in the 1950s, see: “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of Its Troubles” [link].

For more on Normandy High School, where Michael went to school, see: “At Brown’s impoverished high school, students try to make gains against odds” [link].

For more on traffic tickets and arrests in Ferguson, see: “In Ferguson, Court Fines and Fees Fuel Anger” [link].

C. Two more videos on how we fool ourselves with our perceptions:

The Door Study

The Monkey Business Illusion

One thing about this last video that you can say to kids: IF you really counted the correct number of passes, THEN you almost certainly did NOT see one or more of the following: the gorilla, the curtain changing, or the team member leaving (I knew about the gorilla before I watched the video, and even then I didn’t see the team member leave!). Another thing about this video is that IF you truly believe that you counted all the passes correctly AND you believe that you saw the other three things, THEN there is a good chance that you are fooling yourself!

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THOUGHTS ON HOW TO TEACH THIS LESSON:

As I wrote this lesson plan, I spent a lot of time thinking about the history of police violence against young black men in the United States. Way back in 1980, distinguished poet June Jordan wrote “Poem about Police Violence,” in which she said:

I lose consciousness of ugly bestial rabid
and repetitive affront as when they tell me
18 cops in order to subdue one man
18 strangled him to death in the ensuing scuffle (don’t
you idolize the diction of the powerful: subdue and
scuffle and that the murder
that the killing of Arthur Miller on a Brooklyn
street was just a “justifiable accident” again
(again)

The poet is asking us to reflect on how the language of the powerful which is used to describe the death of a black man at the hands of police is a way of exercising their power. Or to put it more bluntly, those with power get to tell us how we should think about the murder of Arthur Miller, and other young black men.

As I reflect on this poem, one thing that occurs to me is that while Darren Wilson had far more power than Michael Brown, Wilson has far less power than the powerful forces that put into place policies that resulted in Normandy High School being grossly underfunded, policies that militarized policing in the United States, policies that have had the criminal justice system see young black men as automatic criminals, etc. It is easy to demonize Darren Wilson — but if we do that, I think we as teachers miss an opportunity. Sometimes it has seemed that Darren Wilson has been offered up as a scapegoat, so we can put the blame on his “personal bias,” rather than put the blame where it belongs: on a history of policy-making by a great many powerful people.

June Jordan ends her poem by saying:

tell me something
what do you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop

you think the accident rate would lower
subsequently?

This is not an easy question to answer. How would those in power respond? Would they sit up and take notice, and work to reduce the level of police violence on young black men? Would they give more military hardware to the police? Would they increase the level of violence? In a slightly different form, this is the question that the Ferguson protests have been asking: If the protesters disturb the ordinary workings of society — e.g., in Oakland, by peacefully marching in the streets and thus shutting down traffic — every time police murder another young black man, will the powerful sit up and take notice? So far the answer is a qualified yes: the ongoing Ferguson protests have made policy-makers at least pay attention. On the other hand, the answer is also a qualified no: thus far the “accident rate” does not appear to be getting much lower.

As a teacher, I’d like to think that one of the most powerful things that I can do is to urge the highest moral ideals on children. Much of what I want to communicate in this lesson cannot be included in the written lesson plan. As is always true in teaching, much must be communicated through tone of voice, gesture, etc. I want children to feel in their bones that what happened to Michael Brown is NOT FAIR (to put it in schoolchildren terms); I want them to understand that there is a LOT of unfairness in the United States; I want them to get an inkling of how they might unwittingly participate in unfairness; and I want them to feel that together we can make the world more fair.

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WHY ISN’T —— IN THIS LESSON PLAN?

1. Why isn’t there more CERTAINTY in this lesson plan? Why don’t you just TELL kids what to believe?

It’s about being a religious liberal: we don’t believe in certainty. We have this strong distrust of telling people what to believe, as something that leads to intellectual tyranny (at least), and probably to actual physical and political tyranny.

2. Why isn’t the more ACTION in this lesson plan? Why don’t you have the kids DO something?

Because all I get is 45 minutes with the kids, and because this is one of those Sundays when I have a huge developmental spread, from gr. K-8. You may have less restrictive limitations, in which case it would be wise to write a different lesson plan.

3. Why isn’t there any GOD in this lesson plan?

Just substitute an opening reading of your choice. However, I do NOT recommend the Langston Hughes poem “God” :)

Curriculum for Unitarian Universalist congregations