Lesson 1 of 11
One 50-minute class period

Preparing Students for Difficult Conversations

From the Unit:

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. 


Democracy & Civic Engagement

Introduction to the Unit

Learn more about how to use this unit to deepen your student's understanding of the role of journalism and social media in breaking news stories.

Lesson 1 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Preparing Students for Difficult Conversations

Students establish a safe space for holding sensitive conversations, before introducing the events surrounding Ferguson, by acknowledging people's complicated feelings about race and creating a classroom contract.

Lesson 2 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Impact of Identity

Students explore how identity impacts our responses to other people and events by examining a cartoon and analyzing an opinion poll from a week after Ferguson.

Lesson 3 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Confirmation and Other Biases

Students define explicit, implicit, and confirmation bias, and examine why people sometimes maintain their beliefs in the face of contradictory information.

Lesson 4 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

How Journalists Minimize Bias

Students experience the challenges to reporting objectively by writing a news piece and watching a video about how journalists counteract bias in the newsroom.

Lesson 5 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Verifying Breaking News

Students evaluate the differences among news accounts about Ferguson, develop strategies for verifying news and information, and understand the challenges facing journalists as they cover complex, fast-moving events.

Lesson 6 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Social Media and Ferguson

Students explore the role of social media in Ferguson, apply information verification strategies to social media posts, and develop strategies for becoming critical consumers and sharers of social media.

Lesson 7 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Power of Images

Students examine how identity and biases can impact how individuals interpret images and experience the challenge of selecting images to represent news events, particularly connected to sensitive issues.

Lesson 8 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement


Students explore the potential negative impact of images through the social media protest #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and develop a decision-making process for choosing imagery to represent controversial events.

Lesson 9 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Importance of a Free Press

Students review the First Amendment, understand the importance of a free press, and consider how that freedom can conflict with other societal needs through journalists’ experiences in Ferguson.

Lesson 10 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Hands Up, Don't Shoot!

Students review the US Department of Justice report, revisit how confirmation bias impacts our understanding of events, and consider how to bridge the gap in understanding that often surrounds events like Ferguson.

Lesson 11 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Citizen Watchdogs and the News

Students identify the responsibilities of citizen watchdogs, summarize strategies for combatting confirmation bias and responsibly consuming and sharing news and information, and complete a culminating essay.

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