As schools in and around Ferguson, Missouri, prepared to open, Tom Lawson, chairman of the social studies department of McCluer High School, planned to ask his students some very basic questions.
“How are things going?” said Lawson, who teaches government to seniors. “What is there that I can do for you?”
Those innocent-seeming questions, typical for any first day of school, will carry special freight given the extraordinary local events of the past two weeks, when the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer triggered nights of protests and severe law enforcement response in Ferguson.
The school year in Ferguson was scheduled to begin on Aug. 14, but the opening was delayed because of the unrest that followed the killing of Michael Brown five days earlier. Public schools will open Monday, and teachers and administrators in the Ferguson-Florissant School District are eager to establish some sense of normalcy.
At University City High School, in a nearby district that opened on schedule, April Pezzolla, a sociology and government teacher, said she had invited students to conduct a free-ranging discussion on the first day of school this month. “They were able to deconstruct the issues in terms of looking at things like poverty, education, the militarization of the police department and the perception around the country and the world that St. Louis was in turmoil,” she said.
Pezzolla, who has taught for 12 years at the school — where more than 90 percent of the students are African-American — said, “I have never been prouder to be a teacher than this past week.”
By contrast, a district across the state line in Illinois was reported to have asked teachers to “change the subject” if the events in Ferguson came up in class. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the principal of Edwardsville High School in Illinois had sent a memo to the staff saying that discussions of the protests “have caused students and parents to lash out, which is not healthy.” A spokeswoman for the school referred questions to the school district. Ed Hightower, the superintendent, did not return a call seeking comment.
In Ferguson, educators expect to talk extensively with the district’s 11,000 students about the turmoil in their town. Many of their students live in the apartment complex that was home to Brown; Lawson, the social studies teacher, said some of them probably had known him.
On Thursday, all 2,000 district staff members, including teachers, administrators, office staff members, security personnel and bus drivers, attended a training session on how to identify signs of stress in children. Counselors from the University of Missouri and local nonprofit groups came to offer suggestions on how to deal with students who were withdrawn and those who might act out.
“We know that many of the kids are going to come to school with shirts that say ‘Hands Up’ and we might hear that in the hallways,” Lawson said, referring to a chant used by many protesters. “We don’t think that this is something that we should just kind of avoid, but rather this is something that needs to be discussed.”
In the neighboring Jennings School District, Superintendent Tiffany Anderson advised all staff members to be very open about talking to students, nearly all of whom are African-American and from low-income families. She has told teachers to talk about poverty and the reasons that the protesters might be angry, as well as discuss different ways for students to express their feelings. “We’re here to help shape and mold and to learn and listen,” she said.
When classes let out at Jennings Senior High School on Friday, the mood among the students and the adults was generally light and upbeat.
Tiquanae Turner, 17, who just started her senior year at the school, said Brown had attended Jennings Senior High School around her sophomore year and that some of the seniors at the school remembered him.
“When you know someone and you went to school with them and you were kind of friends with them, it’s a shocker,” she said. “Many of us seniors, we feel shaken up. We are careful on the streets now. You try to be real careful of what you do around the police.”
Some parents said their children were still too young to comprehend the events playing out in Ferguson. “I want her to know black history and the social, economic and political conditions of St. Louis,” Sarah Kendzior, a white freelance writer in University City, wrote in an email about her daughter, who started second grade this month. But, Kendzior added: “She’s 7. Her classmates, nearly all of whom are black, are also 7. It is unlikely they will have a classroom discussion on a shooting with a group of 7-year-olds on the first week of school.”
Outside St. Louis, teachers see the Ferguson events as an important chance to talk about race and economics and law enforcement.
“This is an opportunity for us to say, ‘Actually, everyone is on the hook to have this conversation,’ ” said Marcia Chatelain, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University who started the hashtag #fergusonsyllabus on Twitter last weekend, inviting educators to contribute suggestions about reading materials, videos and lesson plans. “Please don’t fixate on debating the merits of the actors in this drama. Rather, look at this as an opportunity to help your students understand the complications of it.”
At Clayton High School, in a suburb that borders St. Louis, Justin Seiwell, who teaches mass media courses, said the events in Ferguson had provided so much complex media material to examine that students were able to explore how information — and misinformation — is spread through traditional and social media. Seiwell has been especially fascinated by the classroom dynamics that have emerged. So far, he has observed that the most vocal students in discussions are African-Americans, who are in the minority at the school, which is in an affluent community with a white majority.
“Part of what makes me interested in that as a teacher is: ‘Is that because they feel more personally connected, which is totally understandable,” said Seiwell, who is white, “or is it because my white students are not sure what to say because of the presence of outspoken black students in the classroom?’ ”
Because the school year just began, he said, he hasn’t developed sufficient rapport with the students to pose that question. ‘‘But when they are more comfortable with me,” Seiwell said, ‘‘that is where I’m going to go.”