Does this statement ring true in your school? “Many students are aware of the issues in the world around them, possibly feeling inspired, curious, confused, or scared.” (Teaching the Whole Teen, p. 153).
If that statement sounds on target, your school is not unusual. Young people hear and see stories about the world, often piecemeal, without facts, background context, or any understanding of how those issues connect locally. They’re likely to be curious, and less likely to know how to access responsible sources to learn more. Their innate senses of compassion or fairness might be piqued without ideas about what they can do to help. Hearing and seeing stories in that way rarely fosters learning or engagement. Fear and confusion prompt a narrowing of thinking, hunkering down, and feeling disempowered, not opening up and feeling empowered.
The excerpt above continues: “Too many of those students experience school as a place where they cannot talk about real issues, which can be seen as off-curriculum or too political. When schools don’t offer opportunities for students to talk about the real issues they care about, educators lose the chance to connect to powerful motivators, and they send the message that only part of the teen has a place in school. They also lose the opportunity to support students who are only beginning to make sense of larger issues—and do so with rigor and support. These real-world issues can be found in every curriculum area, and may also be important to the teacher, whose own desire to learn about the issue can increase student focus.” (p. 153)
The opportunity and obligation to bring real world issues into the classroom is important whether a controversial event happens or not – and it helps students learn the academic material you’re dedicated to teaching. Every course can link to real world topics, role models, and challenges. We can help students notice positive examples of people making a difference, especially important when current issues seem insurmountable. Examples of resilience, creativity, empathy, and courage offer inspiration and motivation for one’s own choices and actions. In any unit of study in any subject area, we can help students engage more in school by engaging their aspirations in the larger world.
Use Teaching the Whole Teen Tool 10-1 to identify students’ aspirations, add to them over the year, and make connections to your curriculum. These questions could be used regularly:
- How would you like to see our community or the world improve? How does this unit’s content connect?
- What jobs relate to this issue? Which ones might be a good fit for you?
- What community roles relate to this issue? Which of those roles could you see yourself in?
- What skills would someone need to do something about this problem? Which of those skills are we working on this class?
To answer the last of those questions, students might identify academic skills, like doing evidence-based research, which would be needed by journalists, historians, police, scientists, engineers, voters, community and business leaders – everyone. Students might think of persuasive writing, gathering and analyzing data, critical and complex thinking, problem solving, or media literacy. They might identify social-emotional skills such as being persistent, showing empathy, listening, restraining impulses, collaborating, reflecting, stretching to understand another perspective, or community building. Several of those skills are bound to be needed in your class.
When there are challenging, controversial, or tragic events that happen, we have yet other reasons for taking the time to engage with real world issues. Brains spending energy on worry, fear, and vigilance have less energy for learning.
Minimally, teachers can take time to find out who’s worried and scared. There might be an immediate danger you can help prevent. There might be a perceived danger you can help to clarify and alleviate, to allow students to focus on school. And there may just be a topic that becomes a student’s driving mission.
Here are a few ideas for surfacing student concerns and making classroom connections.
- Tell students they can talk with you individually. If you haven’t mentioned that you’re open to chatting with students privately, they may not have the assertion skills to seek you out.
- If you have an advisory group and you’ve developed a sense of community and a culture of conversation, you’ve got a natural place for these conversations as a group. For help with community building or developing a culture of conversation in advisory or classes, see Teaching the Whole Teen and The Advisory Guide (Poliner & Miller Lieber, 2004).
- Ask directly about emotional impacts. “What are you feeling about recent events?” Naming emotions is one step in processing them, which can help prevent acting them out. Take the emotions a step further and help students see that they wouldn’t feel strong emotions if they didn’t care about something or someone. What or who do they care about enough to be upset? Those insights might lead to ideas they can tackle soon, or roles they want to play as adults.
- Distinguish between what’s far away and what’s local, what’s out of your influence and within. “How do those events affect us here? Are there imminent threats we need to know about?” “What can we do to prevent . . . here in our classroom or school?” Managing what’s nearby is both calming and skill-building.
- Identify actions that can be taken even while students are still students. Can they write to someone, form a local study and discussion group, or raise awareness somehow?
An added note: Educators concerned specifically about the events and students’ understanding of those events in August in Charlottesville, Virginia, can find many resources specifically on teaching about racism, bigotry, the Confederacy and Reconstruction, the role of monuments, the Civil Rights Movement, and many more aspects by searching under the Twitter hashtag, “#CharlottesvilleCurriculum.”