I remember when I taught in the South Bronx, we had a few instances in a row where police officers brutalized our students or loved ones of our students. After the third such event, I sat my sixth grade homeroom down and we had a transparent talk about police brutality and I let them air out their emotions. I didn’t really have a plan at the time, but I knew it was important to have the conversation because you could feel the anxiety and stress building inside the classroom and in the hallways.
I’m extremely grateful to my students because the conversations went well, they were so composed and articulate. We spoke about how the police treat them on a regular basis as children, what conversations they’ve had with family and friends, and questions they had about how to protect themselves and their loved ones. It’s a moment that will forever live with me, and one of many conversations I’ve had with my students about current events.
My hope is this article will be able to provide you with resources and direction in regards to how you can have similar conversations with your students about the current events happening around us. With the mass shootings in Buffalo, NY, Orange County, CA, and Uvalde, TX your students probably feel confused, hurt, and scared. So creating a space for them to talk about their emotions and ask questions becomes imperative for their development.
Celebrating the voice of our young people:
- Oftentimes we neglect to see the power that our students have, both individually and collectively. Though it’s cliche, it’s true nonetheless, our students are the future. They will be the next elected officials, teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc, and they have a vision for how they want to see this world shift and change.
- We need to help them be able to shape their narratives and also we need to be their biggest cheerleader in expressing themselves. I know this can be a challenge when also tasked with teaching them what they need to know from a curriculum standpoint, but this work can’t be put on the backburner.
The role mental health plays in your classroom:
- As educators we often pride ourselves on our ability to create a “safe space” for our students, but are we actually creating that space? A true safe space has to take into consideration the mental health of our young people and also ourselves.
- Some basic research around different mental health stigmas is important, as is working with the mental health professionals in your building. Your social workers/counselors can provide you with some common sense ways to start implementing mental health into your classroom conversations, and can also help you learn what areas to potentially avoid.
- Active listening is an integral part of building any trusting relationship, but it becomes even more important when dealing with young people. They are acutely aware of who listens to them and who doesn’t, and they begin to form their opinions of the outside world at a really early age.
- When engaging with students about world events, or with traumatic things happening around them, make sure to ask questions and ACTUALLY listen to their responses. Ask follow up probing/clarifying questions when necessary, but more than anything make sure that you are actively paying attention to what is being said to you in these important times.
Allow the students to lead the conversation and avoid debates:
- Providing students the space to lead the conversation depends on their grade level, and also how much student voice/agency you’ve built into your classroom already. If you have a younger demographic (lower elementary) and don’t feel that they’d be able to lead the conversation fully, then choose one or two students to help you facilitate the conversation(s). You also want to make sure all of your students have the same basic background information. Handing out a short summary of the event(s) may be helpful, or you can choose to summarize orally.
- Avoid debates, or having students pick a side in the conversation. The safe space allows for them to speak their minds and be heard regardless of where they may land on the specific issue(s). Debating may increase the anger or anxiety in the classroom, and students may shut down in the process. Provide them with the information upfront that their feelings are warranted no matter where they may land on the issue, and that everyone that chooses to speak will be heard and respected.
Share you own feelings/experiences/perspective:
- Sharing how you feel, and modeling for your students how to present your feelings can go a long way in regards to building trust and camaraderie. Somewhere along the way we’ve been taught as educators that we shouldn’t be seen as human or fallible, which is the complete opposite of what our students actually need. We feel the same way they do, and many times we are in a position to help them contextualize their surroundings by speaking about our own experiences.
- Learning is multifaceted, and shouldn’t only be condensed to what is inside of our lesson plan or the text books. At the end of the day our students have to go out into the world to become part of the larger social ecosystem. By seeing how adults process their feelings and emotions in a safe and engaging way, it will help them to develop similar skills, no matter the age or grade level.
Have students create a project:
- A great way to align current events with the curriculum you’re teaching is to have students create projects that align with the conversations you’re having with them. Whether it’s Project Based Learning (PBL) or a one-off, you can use class time to help students build their critical thinking skills through a project.
- There are a lot of resources out there that can help you figure out what project, or series of projects, makes the most sense for your students. You can also speak with others on your grade level team to see if it makes sense to do a project (or projects) that span different content areas.
Our students need us now more than ever, and we need to model for them what being a well-rounded human being looks like. You don’t have to leave your feelings and emotions about the world outside of your classroom, but make sure you’ve taken the time to process things for yourself before undertaking these steps with your students. We as a world need to continue to heal and grow and evolve, and it’s important that we involve our young people in the process.