A Teachable Moment: ‘Adults, We Have Such A Hard Time Having These Conversations’

Oct 14, 2014

This story is the first part of A Teachable Moment, a three-part series that profiles how issues raised by events in Ferguson are being discussed in schools and classrooms across the St. Louis region.

Students were enjoying the last few weeks of summer vacation when mass demonstrations erupted in Ferguson following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown on Aug 9.

As the first day of school approached – or in the case of the Ferguson-Florissant School district, was delayed by nearly a week and a half – educators near the epicenter of protests took crash courses in crisis management and administrators gathered extra mental-health services.

Yet as the months have passed and teachers have gotten to know their students, the focus has started to shift in classrooms both near and away from Ferguson.

“There’s no question that going forward, in recent weeks, teachers and schools have been talking about what’s going on, talking about the issues, allowing kids to interact about (Ferguson) from a scholarly and intellectual point of view,” said Missouri’s Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro.

In St. Louis, that means talking about race in a region with deep racial and socio-economic divides

African Americans are more than three times as likely to be poor as whites and more than twice as likely to be unemployed, according to a report from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. That same report, released one month ago today, concluded the St. Louis region was the sixth most segregated metropolitan area in the country.

While some educators have been eager to use events in Ferguson as a touchstone to talk about issues of race and class, others have found those conversations uneasy at times.

'It’s a struggle for me to not put my stuff on the table for my students'

It was early September and Vincent Flewellen had just wrapped up his day teaching at Ladue Middle School.

“It was a pretty day,” Flewellen remembered. “I had a great day here at Ladue Middle School. I was really in a good mood.”

But Flewellen knew he could be in for a heavy night.

Less than four weeks had passed since Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown. And Flewellen, who is African American, was on his way to an event at Saint Louis University designed to help teachers unpack complicated issues of race and class.

He was waiting in traffic on his way to make a quick pit stop at home before heading to the forum.

“A car pulls up next to me, driven by this middle-aged, older white man, who then takes his hand, his right hand, reaches it across his passenger seat in the shape of a gun,” Flewellen said.

Then Flewellen said the man aimed his index finger at him and cocked his thumb like the hammer of a pistol.

“Bang, bang … he does that like seven times to me,” Flewellen said. “I’m just looking at him in complete disbelief. I cursed and said a few words to him through the window. But there at that moment, when if I had had a brick, I would have thrown it at him.”

As frustration coursed through his body, the eighth-grade teacher was in no mood to talk about untangling issues of race, class and education.

He thought about calling it a night, going home and staying there.

“But if I would have stayed home, he would have won,” Flewellen said “I kind of pulled myself together and went on with the night as planned.”

Inside the classroom

Fast forward about four weeks and Flewellen was standing at the front of a small classroom at Ladue Middle School. The teacher in his early 40s sports a tightly cropped beard. He had a calm, almost professorial air, as he laid out the topic for the day.

“We’re going to continue with our conversations about race and racism in Ferguson,” Flewellen told the 19 students in his multicultural studies course.

He began by walking them through a discussion on everything from the role of social media in the protests to what it might be like to be a police officer. They also talked about the underlying issues of race that drew so many protesters to Ferguson. On this day, the focus was mainly on feelings of mistrust between African Americans and law enforcement.

Flewellen asked his majority white classroom to define what they think people mean when they use the phrase white privilege.

“It means not being discriminated against or having assumptions made about you,” said Noah Melson.

Some Jewish students drew parallels between white privilege and anti-Semitism. One said that it was a fair comparison. Another said it wasn’t such a big deal, he’s white so people would have a hard time knowing his religion just by looking at him.

Even though the topics at hand could have divided his classroom based on students’ differences, the mood was curious rather than contentious.

Vincent Flewellen talks with students during a class discussion on race and class.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

He asked his students to form groups and talk to each other.On this day, eighth-graders Miriam Sokora and Alivia Brock sat next to each other.

Miriam: “I’ve never thought that I’d be walking down the street and get pulled over by police saying ‘What are you doing?'.”

Alivia: “As for me I have to look around the street all the time. Since I’m black I have to walk around the street and look for police officers. Sometimes I even have to put my hands up little just to show I have nothing.”

Miriam: “I think that’s sad.”

As they kept talking, Miriam and Alivia sounded like two friends telling each other something for the first time. Meanwhile, Flewellen made his way around the perimeter of his classroom. Sometimes he’d lean in and ask a question. Mostly, though, he listened.

“Adults, we have such a hard time having these conversations,” Flewellen said, “Because we didn’t have an opportunity at the eighth-grade level to have that conversation, to engage in that conversation, to think about it.”

He stopped at the desk of Jessie Hubbard.

Jessie, who is African American, told his teacher that he was talking with another boy online while playing a video game.

“I guess he thought I was white because of the way I talked,” Jessie said. “When he saw my picture, he said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that you were black.’ Then our whole friendship changed.”

Flewellen asked Jessie if he thought things would have been different if he were white.

Jessie stopped and started his reply.

“I don’t know,” Jessie said. “It’s kind of hard to explain.”

Flewellen didn’t push and thanked Jessie for his answer. When it comes to holding conversations like this in his classroom, Flewellen said moderation is key. >It’s not easy for Flewellen, either. The hour drew to a close and students headed off to their next class. Flewellen sat at an empty desk.

“It’s a struggle for me not to put my stuff on the table for my students,” Flewellen said. “There’s already enough stuff in that room and I want my students to feel safe enough to share.”

Many education researchers point to middle school as a crossroads. It's a time when young people begin to form ideas about what kind of students they will become, what their prospects in life might look like, and ultimately, what type of people they will be when they grow up.

Flewellen said deep racial divides weren’t created overnight and they won’t be bridged overnight. But for him, finding the way across a chasm that’s caused him so much personal pain starts in his classroom.

“If you are a person who has been injured simply because of who you are, you either become bitter or you work for change,” Flewellen said. “For me, I want to bring about change.”

Would he be having lessons like this in class if Ferguson would have never happened?

“Truthfully, it was that obvious event that led to this being part of my curriculum,” Flewellen said. “Out of out that tragedy I really saw this as a teachable moment.”

‘The reality is these conversations will become uncomfortable’

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro spent a large part of her career in north St. Louis County and was superintendent of the Riverview Gardens School District, which includes the Canfield Green apartment complex where a Ferguson police officer fatally shot Michael Brown.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Nicastro said she empathized with administrators at schools directly affected by protests that focused first on making sure their students felt safe.

“That was, in fact, the time to reach out, enfold the kids and make sure the children, their parents and others knew that their kids were safe in school, and that the school in fact was a place where they could go for refuge and for some peace,” Nicastro said.

“It’s also very difficult to separate that intellectual discussion from the emotional one and the experience that kids have had,” Nicastro said.

'It's also very difficult to separate that intellectual discussion from the emotional one and the experience that kids have had.' -- Chris Nicastro, education commissioner

In recent weeks both Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson and Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have talked with students at Riverview Gardens High School.

Meanwhile, administrators far removed from protests were uneasy when issues related to Ferguson made their way into discussions between students and teachers.

Ed Hightower, superintendent of Edwardsville School District 7, initially told teachers to change the subject if students started talking about events in Ferguson.

During an interview with St. Louis on the Air that was broadcast on Aug. 21, Hightower described heated interactions between students and teachers when the topic came up in school.

“The discussions went downhill and became very volatile,” Hightower said.

The move to restrict teachers from talking about Ferguson garnered national attention and drew criticism from several parents. Some went so far as to organize an out-of-school event to talk about race issues with students. The district has since developed a framework “for navigating discussions of sensitive or potentially polarizing classroom discussions.” Hightower provided St. Louis Public Radio with a document outlining the plan, which does not mention Ferguson, Michael Brown or what constitutes a “sensitive” or “polarizing” topic.

The framework does not mention race. However, “understanding the makeup of student demographics” is listed as bullet point for teachers. A little more than 83 percent of its students are white, according to numbers from the Illinois State Board of Education.

After multiple requests from St. Louis Public Radio, Hightower ultimately declined to be interviewed on the specifics of the framework and how it is being used.

The framework directs teachers to lay the groundwork for discussions by training students to respect differing points of view. It also states that multiple perspectives must be taken into account and “until facts are known, conclusions must remain in the abstract.”

And there's no shortage of unknown facts and unclear perspectives.

'You need to talk about ground rules upfront as well as your approach to this. Having an agreed upon time-out prompt where we can shut things down if we feel like things are escalating.' -- Brian Hutchison, UMSL professor

For instance, while peaceful demonstrations and at times tense standoffs between protesters and law enforcement have drawn much of the attention, few rank and file police officers have talked publicly about their experience.

The greatest unknown right now, however, is the fate of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Brown. Legally, grand jury proceedings to decide whether Wilson will face charges must be kept secret.

“The reality is these conversations will become uncomfortable,” said Brian Hutchison, assistant professor in the school counseling program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Hutchison said teachers using Ferguson in class need to be upfront with their students about what is unknown.

“Then it becomes a willingness to engage,” Hutchison said. “A willingness to discuss without answers on the horizon and a willingness to take other people’s viewpoints.”

Much like what’s included in Edwardsville’s plan, Hutchison said teachers should ease students into what can be sensitive discussions.

“You need to talk about ground rules upfront as well as your approach to this,” Hutchison said. “Having an agreed upon time-out prompt where we can shut things down if we feel like things are escalating.”

Not every teacher is ready to facilitate the conversation, either.

“The danger is forcing people to have the conversations that they themselves haven’t done the work to be able to have,” Hutchison said.

The trick, Hutchison said, is for teachers to stick with what they know. A math teacher, for example, could ask students to perform a statistical analysis of St. Louis’ stark racial divisions.

While teachers and administrators grapple with how or if the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown and ongoing protests fit into their lesson plans, area schools of education are looking to provide some guidance.

Alexander Cuenca, a professor of education at Saint Louis University, said he and his colleagues are planning a series of forums on the subject.

“There are multiple perspectives in this situation,” Cuenca said. “It’s untangling that, making sense of that, and respecting those perspectives.”

As events in Ferguson and St. Louis remain fluid, Cuenca said they'll collect lesson plans and resources for teachers along the way, creating a shared digital resource for educators.

“It was something that catalyzed our commitments,” Cuenca said. “This is why we need to have these conversations. This is why we need to prepare our teachers to have these perspectives on issues of race and class.”