The Ferguson Syllabus: Talking About Social Justice with Kids

Readers of this blog may or not take an active interest in issues of social justice, which tend to reside (as we confess that we do) on the progressive end of the political spectrum. But it would be hard for anyone in the parenting or educational business to have missed the tsunami of responses to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the shooting by police of Michael Brown.

The shooting and the subsequent community unrest have highlighted any number of issues, from the nature of policing to the extent to which racism is bred in the bone of American society. For high-minded rationalists, the civil unrest is a symptom of something complex and nuanced, and for those who lead from the heart in response to the death of a young, unarmed African American man, these events are indicative of a deep and festering wound in the soul of American society.

For the parents and teachers of interested children, the Ferguson situation seems to require some kind of response; children who pay attention to current events will have questions from which it is hard to turn away. This matter has very much been on the minds of educators, who have tried hard–ourselves among them–to consider the most honest and direct ways of responding to these questions while balancing a teacher’s responsibility to promote thoughtful inquiry against the equally compelling civic obligation to call out injustice and advocate for justice.

To this end–and I know that some of our readers here are in the home-school world and may not be attuned to discourse in the traditional school community–we would like to call attention here to a gathering resource for talking to and teaching kids of various ages, developmental stages, and perspectives about the events that we now refer to simply as “Ferguson.”

If you are familiar with Twitter–and it’s actually a pretty worthy resource for information and ideas relating to educational interests–you may know and understand the “hashtag” concept: that certain topics can be tracked or searched for by hashtag, which is simply a topic name, compressed to a single character string, preceded by the pound sign (#). Thus, anyone with a Twitter account can search or follow the tag (for example) #RedSoxNation (caps optional) to keep tabs on what Boston Red Sox fans are thinking about. Trending events, whether in the news, sports, or entertainment areas, quickly generate their own hashtags, and #Ferguson has been virally popular in recent days.

Educators, eager to gather resources or teaching about “Ferguson,” have created the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus as an identifier for ideas, materials, readings, and approaches to bringing Ferguson-related issues and events into their classrooms. For parents of interested children, as well, a search on #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter will yield useful resources. And if you are home-schooling your child, then the resource will be doubly valuable.

The District of Columbia public school system has also created a handbook of teacher resources on this topic, many of which could be adapted for home use.

We try to stay away from politics here, but the fact is that the events in Ferguson have struck a chord in educational circles that seem to require a response, and so we offer the #FergusonSyllabus as one way for those who are raising and who work with interested children to explore the many serious questions the events in Missouri have been raising for so many of us.

Incidentally, if this inspires you to take the plunge into Twitter, you can follow us there @interestedchild.

#76. Find an old or historical map and compare it with a modern map of the same place

IDEA #76. Find an old or historical map in a book or at a museum or library and spend some serious time studying it—then compare it with a modern map of the same place. What features do you see? How has the place changed over the years? What theories can you come up with as to why these changes have occurred?

Maps are not only informative but also beautiful, and old maps, especially those made in the days before modern printing technology replaced the human mapmaker’s steady hand and designer’s eye, have a seductive force. A map is above all the graphic representation of a place, and fine ones can evoke that place through detail and color; even a modern highway map has the power to suggest both flow and movement and the nature of human settlement patterns accommodating themselves to nature.

A good library will have plenty of atlases and other books containing maps, and some may even have a separate collection of maps. If no hand-drawn antique is available, find a pre-World War II National Geographic Society map and enjoys its wealth of detail as well as the extreme clarity with which the makers assembled the many elements into an information-rich thing of beauty. A modern map, even from the same source, is likely to show differences. Europe, for example, will have different borders and country names and even city-name spellings, while a map of your neighborhood or county will show new streets and roads at the very least. The force of history—the number and location of rail lines, for example, or the appearance of limited-access highways—will be clearly evident.

To use maps comparatively in this way is to understand how humans perform one of our elemental acts: interacting with land. Since the beginning of history humans have felt a need to represent their presence and the presence of things they have created on the land. In addition, maps have always portrayed the resources humans need—rivers, oceans, forests—as well as the obstacles to the realization of aspirations—those same rivers, oceans, and forests as well as mountains and, since the rise of empires and nation states, borders. On a community or regional scale, a topographic map may explain why Main Street has such an odd kink or why the Center Line Road has such a prosaic and puzzling (center line of what?) name.

Of course, any comparative analysis also expands map-reading skill, an essential ability even in the age of Global Positioning Systems. The individual who is able to make the leap between understanding two-dimensional representation and three-dimensional reality will always, literally and figuratively, know where he or she is, and, given a few clues from a map that correspond to what can be seen, he or she will be able to find the way home—even across boundaries of time and history.

A Serious Interlude: Issues of Security and Privilege for Interested Children

The Interested Child proceeds from a number of assumptions, but then so does the way we speak of childhood in our society. “We believe that children are our future,” we sing, and we like to believe that this belief is common across the spectrum of humanity, especially in the industrial democracies that have defined the world we live in and shaped the way in which we envision childhood. Children are special, are learners, are to be protected and nurtured and looked after as they make their way through an educational system designed to prepare them for the world they will inherit as adults.

But the fact is that not every child in our society is on this path. Millions live in poverty and attend schools that are underfunded and underappreciated in every way. Segregation has returned to the American public school system, holding hands with an over-reliance on standardized testing and an under-reliance on the good will and dedication of teachers. We are gripped by reports of events in which young people, in particular young men of color, are gunned down by forces allegedly representing law and order while going about their business, unarmed and unprepared for the swift violence that escalates in the blink of an eye to end their lives.

Some of my friends on Facebook tell the story: How as parents of color they feel increasingly insecure allowing their children out in the world, how every parent of an African American male must have “the talk” with their son about how to comport himself when confronted by official suspicion, how to channel, nearly 60 years after Number 42 took the field for the Dodgers, the patience and resilience of Jackie Robinson when stalked or harassed or accused. While self-deluded reactionaries congratulate themselves on living in a “post-racial” society (whatever that even means), people on the front lines of building a multi-racial society—parents, teachers, children—know that the struggle for equal opportunity and equal rights continues undiminished.

At the heart of this struggle lies the matter of privilege—call it race privilege, skin privilege, whatever. It may be distressing to have this brought up on a blog site devoted to developing the curiosity and intellectual and creative passion of children, but events this week in Missouri, whatever the “facts,” are a reminder that interested children, even if they may be created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, are not always treated equally. It’s far too complex a topic to address here in great detail, but parents of the economically and socially dominant races and classes owe it to themselves and their interested children to take up the question of the unearned privilege that comes with race and class, privilege that some us of gain only by accident of birth and lineage.

Part of the recognition of what this unearned privilege means is an acknowledgment that not everyone has it, and that the assumptions and presumptions that we make about the world and how it works do not apply to everyone. To teach a child this, to help him or her develop the humility and circumspection to move through the world fully invested in and open to their own experience as well as the experience and perspectives of others, is to give a gift of inestimable proportion.

Some readers will take offense at this suggestion, I am sure, but what better way to help a child develop the habits of mind and soul to navigate and appreciate the many cultures and possibilities of this earth than by opening his or her mind to the idea that not everyone does or can expect the same things of life, regardless of their intelligence or interests or will? What better way to help a child develop the empathy and understanding that can help him or her contribute humbly and fully through a lifetime toward making this world a better, safer, and even more wondrous place?

#75. Learn to play a new musical instrument—fun matters more than virtuosity

IDEA #75. Learn to play a new musical instrument. You don’t have to be great—you just have to have some fun doing it.

There are so many musical instruments from which to choose: obscure, ethnically specific, loud, soft, heavenly, harsh. Why not give one a try, even if you regard yourself as a complete musical incompetent?

It seems that there is almost nothing so central to what makes us human as our ability to make and enjoy music. The simple kazoo or any sort of drum can satisfy this inner need, but so can bagpipes, a didgeridoo, a gamelan, an Appalachian dulcimer, or a bassoon. Music lessons are everywhere these days, from the Internet (try YouTube!) to a surprising number of expert teachers in nearly every community. One can choose one’s instrument for reasons of cost, portability, family heritage, cool sound, or any other reason.

Although virtuosity may lurk just beneath a heretofore unmusical skin, the development of musical skill might well be described in the words of G. K. Chesterton, who maintained that “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.” In other words, if the activity brings pleasure and satisfaction, it does not matter whether the young musician will ever be ready for Carnegie Hall—the pleasure is in the doing, and half the of that in the struggle to make something that sounds even half-good on a difficult instrument.

Of course, if the mastery of the instrument also involves learning to read some form of musical notation (and along with the familiar Western scale there are many others from other cultural traditions or that respond specifically to the needs of a complex instrument or musical genre) the benefit is multiplied many times. To sight read is to be literate in a whole new language, a language as beautiful and important as one’s native tongue.

The musical urge may be a passing fancy or a lifelong passion; it does not much matter. But for the time in which the child of any age from 3 to 93 gives him or herself over to learning the instrument, the lessons of concentration, mind-body coordination, perseverance, and musical understanding will lay behavioral and neural foundations of lasting value.

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