Like many, I’ve been haunted by what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. There have been many nights over the last two weeks that I’ve watched the protests unfold on Twitter (though live cams and live tweeting). The violence that has emerged repeatedly during these protests has reminded me of questions that Norwegian teens would ask me sometimes when I visited their schools as a Fulbright scholar during the 2008-9 school year. Why is the U.S. such a violent place? Why do people feel so strongly about gun ownership? Why do some Americans support the death penalty? These were some of the most difficult questions for me to answer during that year.
Yesterday, I eavesdropped on a group of teachers talking with Dr. Marcia Chatelain, who came up with the #FergusonSyllabus hashtag. Dr. Chatelain challenged us all to talk about Michael Brown and Ferguson on the first day of school–interesting since I’d already decided to revise the first third of my syllabus for an American literature class to focus on violence. But in listening to Dr. Chatelain and the other teachers talk, I realized that my whole course could be informed by these ideas–and that, in an increasingly polarized United States, it was important to give my students opportunities to listen and understand each other as they engaged in really difficult topics.
I just finished revising my syllabus and here is my description of the course:
In this class, we will read a variety of writers representing the diverse experiences of those who call themselves “Americans.” Rather than participating in a chronological or even a “greatest hits” (otherwise known as a canonical) approach to literature, we’ll consider different themes common in the American experience. At the heart of this class is the idea that the United States is only as strong as its inhabitants . . . which means that we all play a role in who and what we stand for as a nation.
I’ve chosen themes, then, that I hope will help us question and discuss the values at the heart of the United States. We’ll begin by thinking about the physical and emotional violence that seems to be part of the American psyche, discussing through literature the divisions and misunderstandings that sometimes get in the way of connecting with each other. Next, we’ll consider childhood and how we negotiate the entrance into adulthood. In what ways do we determine who we are in spite of whatever difficulties we encounter? Lastly, we’ll consider the responsibilities of community—what obligations do we have to each other and how can we play a role in creating a more peaceful nation and world? My hope is that as we discuss these themes you will reflect on what it means to you to be an American and how literature can challenge, reaffirm, and otherwise influence your views.
Here are some interesting resources mentioned in last night’s discussion:
Collection of articles that students can use as the basis of their own inquiry on #YouthVoices
Interesting New Yorker article about the protests in Ferguson
Blog post with questions to consider by Chris Lehman
By searching #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter, you can find many, many more resources to use with your students.