Lesson 1
One 50-minute class period

Preparing Students for Difficult Conversations

Essential Questions

  • How can teachers and students create a safe and supportive classroom space in which to discuss difficult issues?
  • What are the different ways that people receive information about current events?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will be able to establish a safe space for holding difficult conversations.
  • Students will be able to acknowledge one another’s complicated feelings about race.
  • Students will be able to develop a shared understanding of the basic facts surrounding the events in Ferguson.


This lesson provides the foundation for the lessons that follow. Because the events and issues at the center of this exploration are complex and disturbing, an essential first step is to create a safe and reflective classroom where students feel they can speak honestly about difficult issues without being judged or shut down by others, where they develop listening skills and the ability to hear perspectives different from their own, and where they learn to have civil discourse and not debate. Students are then given the opportunity to express and process their initial emotional reactions to Ferguson as they develop a common understanding of the basic events. 



  1. Introduce the Unit

    The overarching goal will be to consider what journalism means in the digital age, what role it plays in maintaining and strengthening democracy, how we can become effective and responsible consumers and producers of news and information, and how these activities can support civil dialogue about sensitive issues.

    • Begin by asking students: How do you find out what’s going on in the world? Where do you get your news? On chart paper, brainstorm a list of the most common news sources for teens. Then ask: How do you think your parents or other older people might answer that question? (Make sure to save this list, as you will refer to it later.)
    • Define social media and brainstorm a list of the most common platforms. Make sure students are familiar with how Twitter and Instagram work, as these were key social media platforms used to share information about Ferguson. If not, ask for volunteers to explain.
    • To introduce the unit, explain that this is a news literacy case study that will explore how established news organizations reported on the events surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and how the information shared by the public on social media added to this coverage.
  2. Establish a Safe Space

    One of the underlying themes that we will be navigating in this unit is race. We believe that conversations about race should be conducted in a safe space. The following activities are designed to create that space. 

    • Start with a journal prompt: Tell students that the following writing exercise is a private journal entry that they will not be asked to share with anyone, so they should feel free to write their most honest reflection. Have students take several minutes to complete this sentence: “I mostly feel ____________ when discussing race, because _________.” 
    • Now that students have gathered their thoughts, tell them you are going to do a group brainstorm. They should not make “I” statements or share how they feel or what they wrote. Tell students: Let’s put words on the board that represent the feelings that we think may be in the room when we discuss race. At this point, we will just list and not comment on them.
    • Now look at the list. Ask students: What do the words have in common? (The words are usually mostly, but maybe not all, negative.) What else do you notice? (The words are not just surface observations; they are deeply personal feelings.) Do you have any other important reflections? (The words represent a wide and varied range of responses.) Which of these feelings are most valid? (They are all valid. You may want to acknowledge that this is a rhetorical question, but it is important to validate everyone’s feelings.) Where do these feelings come from? (Personal experiences, stereotypes, etc.) 
    • It’s important for teachers and students to acknowledge that these feelings are in the room and that they need not be afraid of them. Each person should be allowed to enter this conversation wherever he or she is without being judged or shut down. Everyone needs to feel free to participate without fear of being called racist or given any other label. (You may also want to review some articles that address issues of language, including “Straight Talk about the N-Word” from Teaching Tolerance and “In Defense of a Loaded Word” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.)
  3. Create a Classroom Contract

    Follow this discussion with the short video “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist,” by New York City hip-hop DJ and blogger Jay Smooth. Give students an opportunity to discuss their responses, in pairs or as a group. 

    • Ask: What does Smooth mean by the “what they did” conversation? How is that different from the “what they are” conversation?
    • Ask: Do you agree with what Smooth suggests when he says people should focus on “what they did” versus “what they are”? How is the difference important?
    • You may also want to share the definition of racism by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, or another definition you have used in the classroom, and discuss students’ responses. 
      • In her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Dr. Tatum does not characterize racism as overt discrimination or individual acts of hate. Rather, she defines it as one’s benefiting from a system of privileges based on race that are subtly ingrained in the surrounding culture, making them difficult to detect. It is possible for people of color to be prejudiced on the basis of race, but the social system is never in their favor. This is racism. She compares racism to smog: “Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in” (page 6).
    • Now create a classroom contract. Acknowledging that these complicated feelings are in the room and considering what Jay Smooth said, ask students: What do we as a community of learners need from each other to have a safe yet courageous conversation about race in this unit? You can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past.
  4. Review the Events of Ferguson

    The Know-Heard-Learned Chart will ground students in the basic timeline of events in Ferguson and provide a place to take notes as they gain more information throughout the unit.

    • Invite students to begin your exploration of Ferguson by establishing a basic understanding of the events, which students will add to throughout the unit. Students should plan to bring this graphic organizer with them to each class.
    • Distribute the timeline. Have students take ten minutes to fill in what they can in the “What I Know” column for each event on the timeline, identifying the source of that knowledge if possible (they can add to the “What I Learned” column at any time; the timeline is for their reference only). When their initial timelines are complete, have students spend five minutes reflecting in their journals on what revisiting these events makes them feel. What do they feel confused or uncomfortable about? 
    • As a final discussion, invite students who feel comfortable doing so to share what they remembered, wrote, thought, and felt. 

Related events

June 12, 2018

Race and Membership in American Society: History, Literature, and Today

Facing History’s Race & Membership in American Society seminar uses an interdisciplinary approach to explore the intersection of race, membership, and belonging  and offers a framework to understand the history and origin of race,its legacies, progress and backlash.

August 14, 2018

News Literacy: Facing Ferguson, Current and Controversial Issues

The shooting of Michael Brown and the protests that followed became a flashpoint for the discussion about race, policing, and justice. Using the information aftermath of Ferguson and a new unit co-created by Facing History and Ourselves and the News Literacy Project, this workshop will examine how implicit biases shape our understanding of the world, and how news literacy skills and concepts can help students find reliable information to make decisions, take action, and become effective civic participants in today’s complex information landscape.


Community Event
April 5, 2018

American Creed Community Conversation Student Event

Join us for a special conversation with entrepreneur Terrence Davenport and Marine Corps veteran Tegan Griffith, both featured in the documentary film American Creed.

August 8, 2018

Stolen Lives: Indigenous Peoples of Canada and Indian Residential Schools

Learn about Facing History’s new Canadian resource, Stolen Lives: The Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the Indian Residential Schools. This seminar will introduce educators to strategies and resources that will engage students in learning about this important history, while connecting to the devastating effects the residential schools have had on former students, their families, and entire indigenous communities.

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