Recently, after the shooting of Muslim university students in Chapel Hill, I decided to quickly put together a lesson that would create space for my students and me to talk about these issues.
Quickly putting together a plan to respond to current events is, for better or worse, something I’ve had to get better at doing this year. Lesson planning has been (and can still feel) overwhelming, but gaining the ability to quickly assess a current event and its relation to social justice and your classroom is worth it.
While it may seem easier to ignore difficult conversations about what’s happening, the fact of the matter is that students will be talking about it. Our students have ever-increasing access to information whenever they want, and it is impossible to block them from it (nor, I think, would we want to).
Instead, I find it best to provide space and activities to help my students understand and talk about what they are seeing in the news and online. Here are some tools and tactics I can usually count on to help make that process easier.
1. Start Early. Ask for Help.
I have been lucky to find educators a fairly generous bunch when I’ve needed help. Time and time again, when I have put out the call for help on how to tackle a tough subject, someone has come in with a great resource or article that will spark my planning.
If I know that teaching social justice is a priority in my classroom, then I need to make sure I prepare myself to teach social justice. That means I am consistently saving resources or articles that might be useful when I come across them. (I think Padlet is a great way to do this.) When you are pressed for time, you don’t have a lot of time to search for hidden gems. Create a map first so you can go straight to a source you trust.
One of those sources, for me, is Twitter. Being part of an online community enables me to feel comfortable throwing out questions. Of course, being part of a community also means coming to the aid of and discussing with others—so I recommend having these conversations early and often!
2. Create Emotional Buy-in.
When we decide to walk into difficult conversations with our students, there’s a lot of personal and emotional investment involved. For our students, however…it’s often a different story.
Kids (and sometimes even adults) can start off their day a little too focused on their own lives—perhaps with good reason. They might be tired from the day so far, thinking about their families or obligations or just simply dealing with being a young person in the world. Part of my job is to help kids learn to connect and empathize with the world around them and outside of their sphere.
This means that I need to make sure something will hook my students into a lesson, especially if it is different from the normal routine we might follow. The hook might be intrinsic—especially if the events directly affect communities they come from. Or it may mean creating empathy by drawing parallels between situations we are discussing and situations that have happened in students’ lives. It can also mean drawing on media students are engaged in, such as slam poetry.
These self-to-text/world connections are strongest (though finding extrinsic buy-in, like collaborating with another teacher, is helpful). I also take the opportunity to tie things that we are currently working on into activities. Studying complex-compound sentences in your class? Have them identify those in the article you have them read. Make it clear that everything they learn in your room can apply to the outside world, and vice versa.
3. Be Vulnerable. Be Yourself.
Finally, I have found that having these discussions works best when I am honest with my students: These conversations are hard. They don’t always feel good. I do not have all the answers. I empower them to help me understand the situation right along with them, all while reminding them that I honestly want to hear how they are processing this situation.
That honesty with students means that I need to be honest with myself. Before I engage students in these conversations, I need to reflect on these issues myself as well. How do you feel about it? What questions do you have? What do you feel the need to do?
Asking these questions is how I came up with the following lesson plan.
(adapted from this post)
This was put together in about an hour, so I'm especially thankful to Melinda Anderson and Monita Bell for sending links to Teaching Tolerance, including the lesson Debunking Stereotypes About Muslims and Islam, to help ground my work.
We opened the class by watching a TED Talk from Clint Smith about the danger of silence. Then, we read an article about the Chapel Hill shooting itself, and I frankly shared with them my own personal struggles and realizations from when I heard about the shooting.
Generally, after providing an overview of the larger issue, I like to give a framework and guidance about ways to process these issues. For this lesson, we looked at TT’s “Combating Anti-Muslim Bias” and had a discussion that eventually connected back to our earlier discussion about Ferguson.
Next, I told them about the poem I had started writing and shared their assignment with them. They were able to see my poem and we watched an example—Youth Speaks Hawai’i’s “Law of the Splintered Paddle.”
Over the weekend, students wrote poetry. Then, they were placed in small groups, read each other's work (each student read about three other poems), and left comments with two things they liked and "one thing you didn't get/might change/the poet should elaborate on." Finally, students turned in their poetry, and some read theirs to the class.
Overall, I found this assignment to be very successful. Many students who are usually quieter during more “cultural” or “world-issue” discussions surprised me by writing poetry that was wonderfully insightful. Students who are already outspoken and passionate about current events had the chance to shine and stretch their legs as poets.
Torres is a seventh- and ninth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.