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Teaching the #CharlestonSyllabus

Help students think deeply and critically about racism in the U.S.

Rachel Fenwick-Smith | August 28, 2015

When nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were murdered on June 17, 2015, social media news feeds quickly filled with opinionated posts about the impacts, meaning, and historical precedents surrounding the event.  And though some of the articles about the Charleston shooting certainly came from questionable sources created for Facebook and Twitter sensationalism, social media also offered us opportunities to engage in deep discussions, learn about historical context, and develop informed opinions about the causes of this horrific tragedy.

A crowdsourced compilation of resources and readings, the #CharlestonSyllabus can be a powerful teaching tool for helping middle and high school students think deeply and critically about the cultural climate in the U.S. that contributed to the Charleston attack. The #CharlestonSyllabus was created by Chad Williams (@Dr_ChadWilliams), associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University, and Kidada Williams (@KidadaEWilliams), Wayne State University associate professor, and is curated by Keisha N. Blain (@KeishaBlain), assistant professor of history at the University of Iowa.

The #CharlestonSyllabus goes beyond this particular act of violence, unearthing aspects of American racial history that impact the state of racism today and clarifying that this is not an isolated event.

The #CharlestonSyllabus hashtag takes advantage of the ways social media  can fill in the gaps, giving voice to people and perspectives often left out of or glossed over in public school history textbooks. By promoting critical thinking among the social media community, the #CharlestonSyllabus goes beyond this particular act of violence, unearthing aspects of American racial history that impact the state of racism today and clarifying that this is not an isolated event.

In his Education Week article, "The Charleston Syllabus," Peter Green suggests teachers use the crowdsourced resource to prepare themselves to teach about race and oppression.  Some teachers already took that initiative with the similarly purposed #FergusonSyllabus last year. For connected classrooms, where Twitter is quickly becoming a tool for learning, students and teachers can take it to the next level and legitimize the #CharlestonSyllabus by exploring the hashtag together during class time. Students can share articles and books with the online community alongside university professors and members of the African American Intellectual History Society.

Since student activism and civic engagement today almost always involve social media, incorporating it into classroom discussions can be a great opportunity to empower students and help them connect classroom learning to their actions in their communities both online and offline. To that end, we've put together some ideas for how you can incorporate the #CharlestonSyllabus into your teaching:  

  1. Follow #CharlestonSyllabus hashtag as a class. Have students make note of the scope of the discussions. Who is posting? What are they posting?
  2. Look at the bigger picture. Have students compare the #CharlestonSyllabus to other trending hashtags about similar issues, such as the #FergusonSyllabus and #BlackLivesMatter
  3. Join the conversation. Depending on your school's policy on Twitter use, have students tweet questions and responses (or you can tweet on their behalf) to the college professors and historians, such as Chad Williams and Keisha N. Blain, who are leading these online discussions.
  4. Provide time for research and reflection. Give students a chance to consult resources documented via the hashtag. Journaling about what they discover may be a good opportunity for students to explore their feelings privately, while knowing that you are valuing their emotions.
  5. Create a class discussion space. As students deepen their knowledge by reading the resources on the #CharlestonSyllabus, set up a class discussion for students to share new insights with their peers. Depending on your school policies, consider using a tool like TodaysMeet, Backchannel Chat, your class blog, or a class hashtag on Twitter. Make sure you moderate the discussion so that students remain mindful of each other.
  6. Avoid the trap of color blindness. Students' perspectives on this event will differ, but white students should be encouraged to listen and acknowledge that they can empathize but not fully understand how this attack feels for African-Americans and other people of color.

It's not easy to facilitate productive discussions about controversial, emotionally charged issues. Chris Sloan offers some thoughtful strategies in his blog post on the topic. It's also critical that discussions taking place on social media are done so with self-reflection and care. Take this opportunity to revisit (or introduce) lessons on digital citizenship and what it means to be conscious of what you say in online forums. Consider using our digital citizenship lessons "Breaking Down Hate Speech," "Who Are You Online?," and "Oops! I Broadcast It on the Internet" to help students think about the impact their posts may have.

Matt Collette, blogger for School Library Journal, quotes professor Keisha N. Blain (@KeishaBlain) in his recent post: Blain said, "We can have a conversation about race -- we should have a conversation about race -- but we need to have an informed conversation about race."  Working with the #CharlestonSyllabus gives students opportunities to gain an understanding of diverse perspectives and to be exposed to important history that challenges the dominant narrative.

Additional resources for teaching with the #CharlestonSyllabus:

Photo: "#StandWithCharleston" by All-Night Images. Used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.