Ferguson at the Clock Tower: When community-based inquiry comes to campus

by Lauren Arend, Assistant Professor, Education

On the morning of Monday, October 13, the day the SLU campus woke to protestors and activists setting up camp at the clock tower, I was busy preparing for my School and Community class for preservice teachers.  As has happened often over the two semesters I have taught this course, focused on community-based inquiry, I was throwing out my plan for the day.  The tricky thing about designing a course around the community is that events in the community rarely follow my syllabus outline.

Backing up to this summer, when the St. Louis region was stunned both by the events of August 9th and the subsequent reactions, I was certain that Ferguson must be the focus of our inquiry into how schools and communities interact to support children’s learning.  Indeed, many of the early headlines focused on schools, from delayed starts to the school year for Ferguson-Florissant and nearby districts, to the myriad directives from school district administrators on how and if teachers could discuss the events in their classrooms.

The case study for our inquiry became Ferguson and the question that guides our work is: What is the role of schools in a community’s discussions of events like Ferguson?

While the case study for our community inquiry varies from semester to semester (last fall we looked at the student transfers from Normandy to Francis Howell), the frameworks and the knowledge base that preservice teachers need to untangle these issues remain relatively stable.  As this course has developed, it has been important to not get lost in the particulars of the situation or incident, and sustain our focus on the broader implications for teachers in communities with varied contexts.  In other words, I did not want to spend the semester debating “sides,” so I had to identify what knowledge and skills my students needed to develop a position on the teaching of Ferguson, rather than focusing on opinions of Ferguson itself.

To reach this goal, students read and responded to key areas that serve as foundational knowledge needed to understand school and community interactions:

  • Student development and developmentally appropriate practices: In discussing community issues with K-12 students, teachers need to apply their knowledge of cognitive and socio-emotional development to inform their approach to teaching about issues in the community.  Our course discussions around development allowed preservice teachers to see how knowledge of child development intersects with pedagogical choices.
  • Theories of family and community engagement: Our class looked at how family engagement with schools has been historically defined, challenges to existing models, and we read original research that reports how varying models of family and community engagement impact student engagement and achievement.
  • Biased language in schools: We addressed questions such as: What is biased language? What does it look like in schools? Who uses it, and who may be marginalized by it? And finally, what might a teacher do to stop it?
  • School governance and school law: Discussing who “owns” schools, who makes policy decisions impacting schools, and how federal, state, and local directives intersect to define the roles of families, teachers, and students in schools is a crucial component for our community-based inquiry.  Throughout the inquiry, while we do discuss what we wish would be, we focus on what is.  The purpose of this is, hopefully, to instill a sense of urgency and advocacy in my students.
  • Race, power, and privilege: This conceptual arena is the most difficult for my students, but also the most crucial.  Unlearning the “othering” of culture (we all have culture), identifying structural and systemic institutions of power and racism, and recognizing our own privilege(s) have been at the center of engaging students in thoughtful, sensitive, and relevant approaches to bridging schools and communities during times of crisis.

Coming back to that Monday when the Ferguson events came to our campus in an explicit way, I realized that there was a final component of engaging preservice teachers in community-based inquiry, and that was modeling this approach in my own teaching.  In a course where we developed positions on what we would do in future teaching assignments, I knew that students would be closely watching what I did during that Monday class.  Our class session that day was informed by several tenets of community-based inquiry that have emerged over our work thus far in the semester:

  1. What is happening in the lives of those in our community may disrupt pre-determined learning outcomes. When we ignore current events in our student lives, we send unintentional messages that those events are either unimportant or taboo.  Either message can marginalize students.
  2. Ask questions and share worries or concerns.  This approach allows dialogue to move forward and delve into systemic questions, rather than getting stuck on debates about specific “facts” of the current situation.
  3. Relate comments to the literature.  This can be difficult for undergraduates, but is also crucial to developing informed and articulate arguments rather than “off the cuff” opinions.
  4. Identify what makes the context of a community event both unique and universal.  Similar to tying discussion to the literature, inquiry around communities should seek to understand what is local and transcendent about context.
  5. Leave with strategies for learning more.  For students who wanted to understand more about the purpose of the protests, we went to the clock tower and asked questions.  For all students, a shared Google document of resources and research related to understanding the context is updated depending on the questions raised during each class session.

Resources for designing community-based inquiry focused on Ferguson.

#FergusonSyllabus: A Twitter hashtag developed by Dr. Marcia Chatelain at Georgetown University to pool resources for teaching Ferguson on community campuses. Chris Grabau wrote about the hashtag in an earlier Notebook blog post.

Teaching Saint Louis: A series sponsored by the College of Education and Public Service at SLU to broaden teachers’ understandings of how to teach the complex issues of race, class, and inequity in our community.

Teaching Tolerance: The site is geared towards K-12 teachers, but the professional development activities can be utilized in many graduate and undergraduate courses that look at issues of tolerance from varying perspectives (history, literature, psychology, etc.).

Lauren-ArendLauren Arend is an Associate Professor in the department of Educational Studies. Before pursuing her doctorate in Educational Leadership from Saint Louis University, Lauren worked with young children and teachers of young children at the International Child Resource Institute in Berkeley, California. Lauren’s research focuses on early childhood leadership, particularly how early childhood directors develop a leadership practice. Lauren currently serves as a Reinert Center Faculty Fellow.

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