For this post in the Behind the Teacher’s Desk series, I am going to talk about how we as educators can talk about difficult topics in the classroom such as racism, violence, immigration, and natural disasters around the world. This is something that’s often brought up during my class sessions, so I am sharing some of what I’m learning with you!
It’s hard to ignore what’s been going on in the world. If you’re not someone who frequently watches the news, you may see articles upon articles discussing the latest tremors heard around the world. If you’re not an internet or television person, you may hear your news from a newspaper or a peer.
As a teacher, I’ve learned that it’s even harder to ignore these problems in the classroom.
Sure as educators, we try to remain unbiased so that we create and cultivate a classroom where students feel free to effectively express their opinions as appropriate to class discussion.
Sure as educators, we should be encouraging our students to think critically about things and to form their own educated opinions using the evidence provided to them.
But what do you do when these problems are problems that affect their livelihood or their family’s livelihood?
How do you navigate a conversation about racism, violence, and immigration, knowing that so many of your students and/or their families have experienced traumatic situations regarding these topics?
How do you facilitate these conversations so they’re both educational and yet sensitive to the fact that these are real concerns your students have?
One of the things I’m learning is that sometimes it’s okay to go “off script” for the sake of giving your students a safe space to process what’s going on. Yes, it might take away from the awesome lesson you planned on analogies, but there are teachable moments in these breaks in action.
My students, for example, have been very vocal about their discouragement surrounding the issues going on in the world. As much as I desire to rush through these conversations at times, I’ve had some very enlightening conversations with students when we talked about what’s happened in Puerto Rico and Texas. We’ve had conversations through those disasters of how we can help those who were affected by the storm.Behind the Teacher's Desk: When Race, Violence, and Other Issues Enter the Classroom Click To Tweet
Another example is their disdain for a certain political figure. I’ve felt convicted recently to encourage the students to express their opinion, but to do so in a way that focuses on the issue. What are they really upset about? What is this individual doing or not doing that is presenting an issue for them or for the things that matter to them?
My students are entitled to feel upset about things going on in the world. I try my best to nurture that by providing them a safe space to express these concerns and fears. However, I noticed that rather than them feeling empowered to find solutions for the issue or to advocate for it, I was allowing them to complain without encouraging them to find solutions. I was essentially communicating, “there’s a lot of crappy things in the world and honestly, there’s no hope for it.”
There is and should be space for students to vent and feel grieved by what’s happening around them, but if that’s the brunt of the conversation with no solutions being presented, it turns into a negative conversation. But imagine if after these sessions, I encouraged them to write letters to their state representatives or if one of the students suggested doing a drive for those affected by the hurricanes?
Specifically, after one sessions where my students expressed their concern for those in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, they came up with the idea of having a bake sale where the proceeds would go directly to the organizations helping the victims. This was something they came up with after we talked about how we could be a light in this world, where there’s so much negativity.
I’m empowering them to be vocal about what they’re concerns are, but also teaching them how to do so in a way that is productive and to find solutions where possible. I am teaching them to be the change they wish to see in the world.
The goal of it is not to teach them to be complicit and say nothing. It’s to hopefully teach them to vocalize their concerns in a way that is not attacking the individual and instead presenting a solution.
So, how do we deal with the conflicts going on in the world as a class? We talk about them.
We pray about them (it’s a Christian school).
We write about them.
We find possible solutions that we as a class might be able to assist with.
Sometimes, those lessons can wait or be postponed. Honestly, some of the content will be forgotten. However, the life lessons you teach and the way that you show your genuine interest in discussing what burdens them, will last a lifetime.
They might forget integers, but they’ll never forget what you taught them about advocating for themselves.
What about you? When you were in school, what were some ways your teachers talked about tough topics in class or did they?