Georgetown University’s Ferguson Syllabus and Dr. Marcia Chatelain

Dr. Marcia Chatelain, an assistant professor in the Department of History at Georgetown University, created the #FergusonSyllabus Twitter campaign for educators to share ideas on teaching and talking about Ferguson at all age levels.

In addition to recently being awarded a Ford Foundation Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship, Chatelain is working on her second book, supported by the University of Alabama’s Frances E. Summersell Center for the Study of the South and Duke University Libraries.

An Incredible Time To Be On A University Campus

When discussing her experiences at University of Oklahoma, Brown, UC Santa Barbara, and now Georgetown University, Dr. Marcia Chatelain notes one commonality she observed was that “all these students want to make a difference.” She believes we are on college campuses “at an incredible time,” and she has been consistently moved by watching her busy students find time to be active citizens as they “show solidarity and confront authority.”

While she acknowledges that many educators feel uncomfortable confronting potentially volatile issues of race in their own classrooms, she explains that being silent on race is a way of addressing it-making a conscious choice to not talk about it. In other words, while the country is clearly struggling with some significant problems, some are making a choice to be silent. She worries that students will ask themselves, “What does it mean that these silences continue by the people we look up to?”

Chatelain believes that educators, along with their students, need to recognize the power of their own tools and direct their voices toward achieving social justice. Just as importantly, though, she believes progress will not come amid defensiveness and staunch disagreements. She believes if we “treat our students like people,” and create as democratic a classroom environment as it is possible to achieve, then educators can “create a community of trust” where change can happen.

Images Of Ferguson

Chatelain shares that, like millions of us, she was transfixed by the images coming from Ferguson: the officers in riot gear, the tear-gas hanging heavy in the air, and the protestors in the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose. Yet, what also captured her imagination was an image that wasn’t shown. She couldn’t help but picture the empty desks and deserted playgrounds of the Ferguson schools, where the summer was not ending as expected.

She wanted educators to consider just how painful this new school year would be for to challenge those same educators to tackle some tough conversations to honor those empty classrooms. What happened is what she calls “a small call for community across the sometimes impersonal and expansive digital world.”

Using the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus, she started conversations, encouraged dialogue, and began sharing teaching materials with other college professors, teachers working with younger students, education specialists, and even guidance counselors.

She notes, “The academy has never owned movements, and youth outside of colleges longed for intelligent questions, honest reflection, and inspiration moving forward. The #FergusonSyllabus organized a disparate population of scholars and students into a virtual movement that used Ferguson to frame how struggle has shaped American history, infused great works of art and literature, and given voice to those most hurt by the failures of leadership, capitalism, and democracy.”

Her earliest suggestions for works to contribute to the Ferguson Syllabus were, not surprisingly, works from her class: pieces on the 1960s, race dynamics, white flight, school desegregation, and urban history. During the fall semester, and in her classes at Georgetown, she spoke to her students about the Ferguson classes who were missing access to more than their education-some were missing school breakfast and lunch, a terrible burden on the most vulnerable of families. Finally, in her African American Women’s History course, she discussed the female leaders in Ferguson and dissected the “gendered nature of the conversation” that often surrounded media narratives.

Educators Crowdsourcing The Ferguson Syllabus

In the earliest days of the unrest, Chatelain was preparing for a new semester. She realized professors needed to work together to find some way to discuss the tragedy and place the events within a historical context as well. Pulling from articles and books that span eras, the crowdsourced syllabus offers readings U.S. civil rights, African American history, race, and even policing.

For the students, Chatelain realized Ferguson would be unlike anything they had ever experienced. Because she could recall feeling overwhelmed by her own experiences in 1992, she realized that most college students today have nothing to pull from. She believes, for that reason, educators must help students understand how Ferguson worked within a larger historical framework, even as they worked through ways to communicate their feelings and fears.

Though she found that some educators imagined they would need to be experts on every level of the event, or that they might fear what happens in a classroom where students are asked to debate the most unpleasant parts of our culture, she strongly believes that respectful and meaningful conversations are what is needed to provoke change. She is not interested in feeding a debate that is all-too-often contentious in our own media sources, but to seek for meaning in the tragedy-to find answers to the hardest questions.

Educators Take To Twitter

She was pleasantly surprised, first of all, by the number of educators on twitter and the attention the hashtag received. She has been gratified and excited to see the camaraderie among educators teaching at all levels and across all disciplines. In more general ways, she has also used Twitter to encourage and mentor teachers on the most effective ways to provoke meaningful conversations appropriate for their age group.

Finding how important it has been to talk about the issues with people “beyond other academics,” she helps the educators of K-12 children-who she believes take a far greater risk when addressing the same topics-to be thoughtful about the ways they approach each topic. “The teachers care,” she adds, “and it’s not a black/white issue but about democracy and community.”

One of Chatelain’s colleagues, Dr. Maurice Jackson also notes that Chatelain’s work on Twitter encapsulates this ability to build connections, as a few words can ultimately reach millions. With Chatelain combining her wisdom and experience with the technological tools of the young, Jackson believes his colleague has found a formidable medium where the power of these connections multiplies as “one becomes two, two becomes ten, ten becomes hundreds, a thousand becomes ten thousand, and a million becomes millions.”

He adds, “People see that without a constant struggle, nothing will happen.” On that same note, while stressing how grateful she is to work for a university that offers support for encouraging these conversations, Chatelain reminds us too that we do not want to lose this conversation as the year continues.

Creating A Democratic Classroom

One of Chatelain’s teaching tools is to devote several minutes of the beginning of each class to cover any topics students are currently invested in, using that time to acknowledge the value of their observations, opinions, and insights. She notes that educators sometimes “want to have these conversations on their own timetable,” while students will be more active participants if they feel comfortable and heard.

Georgetown student Esther Owolabi describes how much she enjoyed the period Chatelain devoted during these first moments of class, what she considers “precious time” that allowed students “to voice their opinions and link history to the present day.” She mentions that the last few months of the fall semester this year had left students of color feeling both undervalued and robbed of voice. As a countermeasure, Chatelain offered these students “a platform from which to speak and learn in the form of her course.”

Georgetown senior Khadijah M. Davis, who will soon complete her degree in Health Care Management and Policy with a minor in African American Studies, explains that #FergusonSyllabus takes educators and their students “beyond the history books and beyond the classroom.” Davis notes that Chatelain is not just teaching facts and figures. In fact, Davis adds, “She always tells us that above anything, she hopes we learn to love each other more. She teaches her students how to be compassionate and with #FergusonSyllabus, she has been instrumental in inspiring and instructing her fellow educators to do the same.”

Davis states that Ferguson provides a teachable moment, regardless of subject area or grade level. She also sees the Ferguson Syllabus as a tool that allows older and younger generations to engage in honest, open debate- putting aside divisiveness to view the challenges of racial discrimination and social injustice “through a lens of love.”

A Saving Grace

Esther Owolabi, a senior at Georgetown University who is pursuing a Government degree with minors in both Education and African American Studies, will work after graduation as a Federal Human Capital Analyst for Deloitte in D.C. Owalabi shares, “In the wake of the tragic events in our nation, this semester has been mentally and emotionally draining to say the least. Dr. Chatelain and her class have essentially been my saving grace.”

Owolabi recalls the confusion and pain for students, after Michael Brown was killed. They were not only reeling from a variety of emotions, but they were-just as importantly-seeking answers. Owolabi adds that Chatelain’s Ferguson Syllabus allowed students and educators alike to work through the history of the events surrounding Ferguson, as well as the events taking place nationwide that were echoing those conflicts in startling parallels.

In her own reading from Chatelain’s Ferguson Syllabus, Owolabi explains that she was able to better deconstruct the complex issues at play, pulling from “education, to access to social services, segregated communities, poverty, police practices, jury proceedings,” all to better understand what lead to a path “that allowed for Michael Brown and Darren Wilson’s worlds to collide on August ninth and the aftermath.”

Activists Are Historians First

Owolabi states, “At a time when educators and students were looking for answers, Dr. Chatelain laid out a map by skillfully guiding us through this country’s racialized history.” Owolabi also pulls from one of Chatelain’s repeated refrains: “You cannot be an activist without first being a historian.”

Owolabi praises Chatelain’s ability to brilliantly connect current events with past experiences in her “African American Women’s History” course. She explains that the course’s theme of “visibility and invisibility of Black women historically” was intricately tied to the female activists who have been leading the social movements, the same women “whose voices are often silenced.”

Owolabi recalls the class that took place the day immediately following Wilson’s nonindictment. She shares, “Rather than carry on as usual, which most professors did, Dr. Chatelain gave us a safe space to process the tragic news.” Emphasizing that Chatelain was not focused on teaching a lesson and instead was intent that students have an opportunity to talk to each other, Owolabi explains they were asked to approach a classmate they did not know well and begin a discussion on the nation’s recent events. “Allowing us to share our thoughts on the events, deep fears, hopes for the future, etc. created a sense of vulnerability for myself and others in the class.”

Despite the difficulty in those somewhat awkward conversations, Owolabi recognized the powerful and necessary dialogue happening among those students. “Any change worth generating must come from productive, open conversation,” she adds, “and in that moment, Dr. Chatelain transformed her classroom into a safe haven, allowing students to see the humanity in one another.” Owolabi credits that moment as the most important experience of the semester for her and perhaps the most meaningful classroom experience of her life, a lesson that emphasized the necessity of both love and compassion for fellow humans.

Providing Support To K-12 Teachers In Discussing Events In Ferguson

Chatelain acknowledges that-as with any online discussions-there have been detractors of the Ferguson Syllabus movement, those who believe it is both too difficult and too controversial to tackle these subjects in a K-12 classroom. However, Chatelain firmly believes that with some thoughtfulness in approach and some careful preparation, any teachers can help students through their fears and assist them in finding answers to their questions.

As the progress on the Ferguson Syllabus has continued and the collaborative online document has grown, Chatelian has offered some general guidelines for what ages can handle certain discussions. For instance, she believes children up to fourth grade, who may not be aware of the scope of Ferguson, should be assisted primarily with articulating their feelings-their anger, disappointment, fear, and anxiety. The Ferguson Syllabus also shares children’s books that deal with national events and abrupt social change, as well as conflict, while reinforcing the value of relationships built across ethnic and racial differences.

For children from fifth through eighth grades, she suggests framing in-class conversations in terms of the racial history of our country, while also focusing on issues of leadership, public servants, and governance. While she notes that high school students are better equipped to deal with broader questions about leading with ethics and the social contract, she also suggests students may become distracted in debating right and wrong, in emphasizing sides to an argument.

She suggests these moments can be used to help students begin to imagine their roles- beyond individual personhood-as citizens in their own communities, ci

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.