Many educators feel a heightened responsibility to provide time and space for students to talk about current events. How can we help students participate in intellectual conversations with civility? And how do we help students still feel empathy and empowerment to engage in the larger world?
The suggestions listed below come from my own personal experiences of tackling some controversial topics or current events in my own classroom. Upon reflection, I’ve realized there are five things that (either through intentional planning or just organically) result in really positive experiences for the group. These elements also tend to create numerous opportunities for teachable moments and meaningful takeaways for students (and myself!).
A few disclaimers –
Personal preference: I focus on this being a space for the students to sort through facts and opinions. It is my preference to not share my own viewpoint about the issues being discussed. (I understand there are pros and cons to this, but I want to remain as impartial as possible – and I do not want students concluding they should think, feel, or act a certain way based on something I have said.)
Before the conversation starts there are two major rules: 1) students have to give a reason/evidence for their positions – and – 2) they cannot make blanket statements about others with a different opinion. This has resulted in some very high-quality conversations where students can take on the role of factual curious investigators while having a space to share and debate opinions.
During the conversation: I make a conscious effort to ensure that multiple perspectives are included. I realize there may be students who may not feel comfortable to share their own personal beliefs in that moment, but I still want their voices heard and considered in a civil manner. I noticed if I ask the question, “What would someone from a different perspective say?”, this helps us keep the conversation going and allows us to consider and debate different ideas.
Here are five ways to positively impact the conversations students have in (and outside) your classroom about current events. Spending even a few minutes in any (or all) of these areas can benefit students.
There are a lot of key words going around in the news, social media, and daily conversations recently. We cannot assume that students having working definitions for these words and phrases. At the beginning of a conversation, you could ask students to identify certain words or phrases they often hear related to the discussion topic and create a list on the board. You can also ask them to think about what they see on social media. Then, give students a few minutes (individually or small groups) to research these terms. They can add the definitions, components, or important historical references to the board. For example, words like “fascism”, “nationalist”, and “white supremacy” are currently relevant. This does not have to be in-depth research, but students should emerge from this phase being able to define and to give examples of words they hear and use in a conversation.
2) HISTORICAL CONTEXT
It would be helpful for students to be quickly refreshed (or taught) some historical context behind topics of today’s conversations. For example, currently, students would benefit from understanding the historical context of Nazis and the Civil War. Students could also investigate the original motives, reasons, or intentions why towns originally chose to erect statues of people linked to the confederacy. Also relevant, students could learn about the intentions behind the constitutional right to assemble and about the current process for obtaining a permit to do so. Overall, the purpose of this time is to gather objective information and to have an understanding of the historical context behind the issues they are discussing. Students should emerge from this phase with an increased knowledge of the larger context that they can use as evidence for some of their own personal beliefs and opinions.
Once students have concrete information about related terms and phrases, they can try to find interviews, news, or blog posts that provide insight into various perspectives of an issue. Are there particular reasons (racial, ethnic, religious, historical…) for why different people had certain thoughts and emotions during and after certain events? For example: What are arguments for or against the removal of confederacy statues now in our country? What are arguments for or against the right for particular groups to organize protests in light of current events?
This is time to engage students in higher-level thinking skills that help increase awareness of how and why this particular event is a big conversation topic in our country and/or world. This can also help students develop empathy for particular individuals who may be experiencing this event from a different perspective than their own. For example, it is important for students to be aware that it is probably particularly emotional/troubling for someone of the Jewish faith to watch people demonsrating with Nazi flags. Getting exposure to various perspectives (particularly ones to which students may not directly have in their daily lives) is incredibly important.
It can be helpful for students to reflect on their own background to examine their own belief systems and opinions towards particular issues. This is a time for students to think about various elements of what makes us all unique. Examples include: where we grew up, religious exposure or lack thereof, ethnic backgrounds of family members, socioeconomic status, etc. In other words, listing out particular things we did (and did not) have access to while growing up in terms of beliefs, perspectives, and experiences that influenced each of us. There are blog posts and websites dedicated to the This I Believe writing reflection assignment. Or, if you’re looking for a small-scale way to do this, students could identify five elements of their background that make them unique or students could bring in family heirlooms to share. I think it is also important to follow-up with two additional questions: 1) In considering your background, what is one strong belief/opinion/perspective/principle you have as a result? and 2) What is an element/issue/event that you feel somewhat naive to as a result of your background?
This phase helps students identify particular reasons why they have certain strong beliefs or opinions that they do. For example, a student could say, “I saw a particular situation unfold in my neighborhood that really influenced my thoughts on _____. I realize not everyone is like that, but a lot of my thoughts on this topic stem from that incident.” This can help a group of students get a better appreciation for each others’ perspectives and may help to develop understandings for why a particular student may say something in particular. Ideally, this can provide opportunities for students to share differing experiences to reduce stereotypes.
Students can also share how they are naive to certain conversation topics. This gives someone an opportunity for a disclaimer. For example, a student could say, “I did not grow up with an exposure to ______, so if I say something that is offensive or hurtful, that’s not my intention, it’s just because I don’t know much about it.” This can help the conversation steer more towards educating rather than judging.
Asking students to do quality reflection and sharing like this requires a culture of trust and respect in the classroom. Depending on the class dynamics, students could talk with a partner, small group, or as a whole-class. Another option is that students could write this individually to hand in, and then you could share general take-a-ways with the class in a way that helps students be aware of differences and the depth of experiences the class shares. This should help students see each other as resources and provide for learning opportunities.
It is important to help students make connections with current events, coursework, and the local community. Encourage students to make connections and comparisons among various content areas, sources, texts, and experiences. You can do this through questioning, reflections, and assignments that incorporate higher-level thinking. If students can connect your course content to current day situations and conversations, it will not only engage their thinking, but also make your course more relevant to their daily lives. Encourage students to also apply lessons that are available from different course work and historical events to their own opinions in ways that offer positive solutions for going forward.
For example, you can encourage students to make public service announcements, start a school club, reach out to local community members particularly affected, or do related community service in your area. Genius Hour or 20% Time is a also a great way to connect your content area and encourage students to engage with local, national, or international topics.
These conversations can be risky or uncomfortable and a lot depends on your own personality and teaching style. I encourage you to reflect on your reasons and goals for having (potentially) controversial conversations in your class and keep that front and center as you plan and implement your lesson. Of course, these conversations should also be appropriate for the age and developmental level of your students. Also, keep in mind, the purpose of these conversations should not be to dump all the big world problems on our students and call it a day. These topics are a lot of our students to digest! However, we can offer a safe space for students to: share what they hear and see about the world, get informed, develop their own thoughts, share opinions with others, and engage in important conversation. Make sure to also give time for students to brainstorm ways to get involved and help out – even if it’s on a small-scale or local level. Students should leave the conversation feeling informed yet optimistic — not overwhelmed and depressed.
And remember – It is okay if things get a little noisy or messy. It‘s a good thing when issues or events resonate with students. It means they care about the world we live in. If we can help students develop knowledge, perspective, and empathy for issues they care about, they can feel empowered to civilly talk with those who share different opinions, and maybe even feel inspired to do something to make the world (even a little bit) better.
I feel like this is a topic in which there is always room to improve. Please share below with your tricks and tips – as well as your own successful “teachable moments” stories that have come from having conversations about current events with your students.