School Climate & Safety Opinion

We Have To Talk About Current Events in the Classroom

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 22, 2016 6 min read
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“Don’t talk about it."Reports of leaders instructing teachers to not talk about sensitive issues are growing. Here a comment from a reader of Madeline Will’s post, The Election Is Over, But for Teachers, Hard Conversations Are Just Beginning:

Consider yourself lucky if you are permitted to discuss the election at all. My fellow teachers and I received today the equivalent of a gag order banning us from discussing the election in any form in our classes. First Amendment concerns aside, this was terribly disturbing from an educational standpoint as well. The students are hungry for discussion on this issue, and we cannot - absent risk of discipline - help students to navigate through this or to develop insights that could help them make important decisions as voters later in life. So to those of you who are able, please take advantage of your freedom. The students need to hear and participate in these conversations now more than ever.

Just following the election, we thought about the extraordinary challenge and opportunity for educators to capture the minds and hearts of the students, and published a blog, Now That The Election is Over What Will We Teach?. This is an important time with important teaching opportunities that should not be missed.

It is disheartening to hear that leaders are preventing teachers from helping students make sense of what is happening in their country, their democracy, their news, their competing truths and the fuzzy lines between fact and speculation and interpretation. We remember when news was on once a day and it was for 30 minutes. Now news is 24/7 and that amount of time simply can’t be filled with repeating the same facts and command an audience. So, we have commentators, not journalists or reporters. And, we have Facebook and Tweets. So, what is news and what are reliable sources? Does this sound like something students should learn in school?

It is understandable that with all the difficulties schools face and with the contentiousness of this election, that leaders might find it safer to limit conversations. But, we argue that it is our role to help students navigate these rough waters. We propose that this is how a next generation builds experience with civil conversations exploring differences. But, only if the leader and his/her faculty can, themselves, engage those conversations.

Whether students are making the connection between what they see and hear and how they are feeling and what they are thinking can’t be known without important, safe, well-facilitated conversations. The value of those conversations depends entirely on the wisdom and knowledge and skills of the teachers leading them. In order for that to happen, the same types of conversations have to take place between the leaders and the teachers in preparation.

Many have been raised with the belief that “you never talk about politics or religion”, even with your friends. In many lives and relationships that adage may hold true and may even serve as a successful practice. The silence, however, in an educational setting, runs counter to our hard fought liberty to think and express our beliefs freely. This is our role in fortifying our democracy. If the adults in the organization are struggling to make sense of what is happening in our country or the world, what must the students be experiencing? Like every other decision and conversation, relationships with and knowledge of the community of teachers and families informs the courageous steps the leader is taking.

Of course, the age of the students will inform the way teachers have conversation. For the younger ones inviting them to give voice to their fears or beliefs is a beginning. A recent NY Times article reported that on a recent television interview, Carl Higbie, referred to:

World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a “precedent” for an immigrant registry suggested by a member of the president-elect’s transition team.

For the little ones, conversations heard at home might be in agreement or in fear. Likely on some level, the little ones will carry their understandings and misunderstandings with them into their classrooms. For the older ones, there is more information for these new conversations to hook onto. Internment camps are the subject of history lessons. But now, discussions of them are part of their world. An opportunity for engagement exists here.

Another opportunity exists for those who have been awestruck by the Broadway play “Hamilton”. For many, simply listening to the soundtrack has captured them, even without having seen the play. It opens our history in a way few plays have ever done. Not surprisingly, Vice President-Elect Pence was interested in attending. But whether you agree with the audience’s cheers and boos directed at him as he entered the theater, or the speech addressed to him at the end of the show, it has stirred a pot. Tweets from the President-Elect chastising those who booed and the cast for their statement followed as did news all day. Without judgment of right and wrong, the ‘teachable moment’ is asking the question so children have the opportunity to discern what they believe is appropriate behavior. Being prepared for answers from both sides of the aisle, from children who think it is all ok and from those who do not, should be anticipated locally as well as on the national stage. It holds the potential for uncovering beliefs about public behavior, the behavior expected of our elected officials, the ideas of fairness and respect, and to define civility for themselves.

The challenge for the teachers who are given the opportunity to take advantage of these moments is to be sure they are teaching all sides and to be careful to hold their personal bias in check. Or, perhaps, to reveal it and model the capacity to hold the opposite perspective with respect. This exercise in educating in spite of fear or bias is good for the adults and for the students.

These times are rife with opportunities for children to learn history while they are living it. The election of 1800 which resulted in an Electoral College tie and the House of Representatives voted to break it and select the President. There have been four elections like this one in which the candidate who won the popular vote did not with the Electoral College. There are many present connections to history here. But, the most important thing is these students are living a historical event.

This is the education we want for students. Capture their attention with what is happening with open and honest questions and dialogue. Be certain the faculty understands and is in agreement about how objective questions and conversations will take place. Then, this charged time in our history can become an academic hook for students. It will change how they watch history made on television, hear it at the dinner table or in the carpool and bring it into classrooms where sense can be made with engaged students. It is a courageous risk worth taking.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by Pablo Hidalgo courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.