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Ferguson Voices: Building a High School Curriculum

By Corey Rinella '21 and Megan McCarren '21

This summer, the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers brought renewed worldwide attention to the brutality and violence used disproportionately by police against Black Americans. The surge of protests in hundreds of cities across the country has increased awareness of racial injustice and pushed for radical policing reform. Last winter, when we were offered to work on a curriculum for high school teachers based on the Moral Courage Project multimedia production, Ferguson Voices, we could not have anticipated how the spotlight would be shining on our topic now. The recent increased support for the Black Lives Matter movement continues to motivate us in the work we are doing. 

When the Moral Courage Project began, the goal was to present first-hand perspectives on contemporary human rights issues in the United States. Ferguson was the first site selected and in 2016, a year after the uprising subsided, a team of undergraduate students traveled to the St. Louis region for two weeks. Dozens of interviews were conducted in hopes of providing a humane account of what happened in Ferguson and to construct a historical narrative accessible to a broad audience. The result was Ferguson Voices: an interactive website, the first season of the podcast, Moral Courage Radio, and a traveling exhibition that has been hosted by college campuses, public libraries, and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. While the Moral Courage Project has already done substantial work to spread its historical documentation of the events in Ferguson, this information can be formatted in a way to reach an even wider audience. 

As education students, we joined the team to adapt Ferguson Voices into a versatile curriculum for grades 9-12. The goal of the Ferguson Voices curriculum is to provide an accessible and flexible learning platform for high school students grounded in the open sharing and discussion of our identities, experiences, and biases. By creating an open dialogue around these topics, young people will increase their awareness and understanding of the role identity has in their positionality and within society. 

We began in early spring of 2020 and have been working throughout the summer to create a curriculum that teachers can easily incorporate into their social studies classrooms. The curriculum is designed with several main concepts in mind. Most importantly, we focused on the incorporation of the Ferguson Voices podcast. Using the timeline of events and the experiences of individuals who shaped them in Ferguson, we created a set of lessons using a personal and humanistic approach to discussing race and inequality in the United States. Along with the material we were given, the radical shift in conversations around race and racism in the wake of this summer’s protest movement helped guide us to choose the topics and main ideas of our curriculum. After already beginning our planning, we pushed ourselves to take a step back and assess the root of the topic and the overall goal of our work. This period of backtracking really solidified the main topics we felt necessary to highlight. We realized that by focusing on main topics, such as Race and Identity, Biases, Movements for Racial Justice., connections to the Ferguson Voices material were far more obvious to us then they had been before. At that point, we truly began creating a curriculum that embodied the same goal we were working to achieve.

Secondly, we wanted to create a curriculum that teachers would find easy to incorporate into the required Ohio state standards and preexisting classroom dynamics. Each lesson can be tied to standards and their format allows teachers to use them consecutively, as an entire unit, or select specific lessons that can stand alone. In the beginning of our research, we were surprised to see the lack of Ohio state standards that touched on topics of race and racism despite the recent review and approval of the social studies standards for the state in 2018. These topics are important discussions that are necessary in the classroom. In doing so, students will not only have a greater knowledge of the historical roots of these issues but they will also engage in conversation with their classmates who they may not realize hold different learned experiences and distinct personal identities. Our goal is that the Ferguson Voices curriculum can be used to fill parts of that void while still meeting standards that are required. We also found that there were many excellent resources already available to help support educators in having these sensitive and controversial discussions, such as Teaching Tolerance and Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. These were extremely useful to embed as additional resources in our curriculum. 

Lastly, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we wanted to create a flexible and dynamic curriculum that could easily be used both in-person and online. Every lesson includes an online learning portion that clearly maps out how it can be adjusted in the event that teachers cannot meet their students in a physical classroom.  

While we received much support and guidance to make our finished curriculum an original piece of work, through this project we have learned an immense amount about the skills and processes needed to create a series of lessons. The ambiguity and room for creativity given throughout this project has allowed us to break down the steps in a completely new way. We had hands-on experience aligning state standards, implementing different literacy and instructional strategies, and creating activities and lessons that properly assess student learning. The experience we have had this summer working on the Ferguson Voices curriculum has made a huge impact on our confidence and overall knowledge when creating lesson plans. 

We hope that this curriculum can serve as a means to spread the work of the Moral Courage Project about Ferguson and, even more so, increase awareness and discussion in the high school setting on topics of race, bias, and inequalities in the United States.

Corey Rinella is a Secondary Education and History major. She plans on teaching high school social studies and coaching track and field after college. At the Human Rights Center, Corey is developing an educational curriculum for the Moral Courage Project, bringing it into high school classrooms. 

Megan McCarren is a Secondary Catholic Religious Education major with a minor in psychology and is passionate about sharing her Catholic faith with others. On campus she is president of Catholic Life, a student-run organization. After graduation, Megan plans to continue her education and become a licensed counselor.

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