Lesson 1
1 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?


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. 

Learning Goals

  • 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.



  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

November 20, 2017

Teaching About Race in a Jewish Educational Setting

Conversations about race are becoming crucial in today’s world, and provide excellent opportunities to educate students, to foster civil discourse, and to encourage a more complex understanding of the current climate.  How can we prepare ourselves for these conversations in Jewish day school and supplementary school settings? How do we give our students the language and context to examine current conversations about race?

February 27, 2018

Facing Ferguson: News Literacy in a Digital Age

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.


February 1, 2018

A New Conversation About "Race?"

How have ideas about “Race” defined the United States? How do notions of we and they still persist in our society and in our schools? Join us for a day of conversation featuring Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum as she revisits the question in her groundbreaking book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" And Other Conversations About Race,. A revised 20th anniversary edition was released in September.

November 28, 2017

When Hate is in the Headlines: Navigating Courageous Classroom Conversations

One of the greatest challenges facing educators today is how to navigate conversations about race and other identities in this volatile social and political moment. Central to these conversations are issues of identity, both for educators and their students. In this webinar we will be exploring a framework for having rigorous, nuanced, and identity-safe conversations about contemporary and difficult-to-navigate issues.

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