2019

Bringing Tough Topics into the Classroom

I often get asked how I approach certain topics with my 6th grade students. It should come as no surprise that I spend quite a lot of my time thinking about and discussing education, and that it comes up in conversation with people in my day to day life. When I share some of the things that we talk about in class, things like source bias, human rights violations, and political agendas, people often ask me how I approach such matters with the children I teach.

The question usually comes with an air of what appears to be bewilderment and sometimes judgement. Some assume I’m attempting to further a given agenda by sharing these ideas with my eleven and twelve-year-olds. Some think I’m brave for venturing into these troubled waters. Some think I’m overstepping my bounds. And some, I assume, simply think I’m crazy for doing it.

A few years ago, even I would’ve thought I was crazy. The idea of having a politically or emotionally charged conversation in my classroom would’ve stopped me cold and sent me running for the hills. Even talking about banned books in my language arts class made me nervous. I would get a difficult question from a student and shy away from it, redirecting the conversation as quickly as I possibly could.

I can’t really pinpoint a moment that caused me to change, nor can I tell you what changed it me. And I won’t tell you that the nervousness is completely gone when we delve deep into these issues. But what I can share are the tips I’ve picked up along the way, and what I’ve learned from welcoming these tough topics into my classroom.

1. Kids are curious and observant.

They will often notice things–on the news, in literature, or on social media–that we think they blow right by. The idea that in this age of information kids are less observant is not something I’ve personally seen to be true. They witness the events that happen around them, often in real time because of their readily available access, and they can process more of what’s going on than we give them credit for.

Just this year, I had a student point out rather angrily that adults never seem to give kids the time of day when it comes to current events, especially controversial ones. That we don’t afford them the benefit of believing they could ask real questions or have legitimate concerns about them. We saw this recently when a United States Senator was approached by a group of young people. We see it all of the time in classrooms when teachers skate by a question that might be hard to talk about. But the reality is that our students are experiencing these realities, they are bearing witness to the world, and frankly, they have questions that should be answered. They just aren’t sure how to find the answers just yet.

2. We teach critical literacy.

And critical literacy includes the skill of analysis—looking at a piece of media, whether it be writing or another format, and being able to discern meaning based on a variety of factors. It involves the ability to view circumstances from multiple, well-informed perspectives, and taking an opinion that they can defend. While this certainly can be done using a less intense method, I often find that my students will choose an avenue that doesn’t have an easy answer. The natural curiosity I previously spoke to shines through, and they crave more information on something that they’ve seen in the world and don’t yet understand. They want to utilize these literacy skills for something that matters to them, which often is something that doesn’t fit into a category that yields a simple, black and white answer.

3. It is literally our job to educate the future.

For me, this realization acted as a sort of turning point in my willingness to broach some of the more uncomfortable topics that I would previously avoid. Our children sit in our classes each day, being shaped into the people they will become. They are taking in endless amounts of information, soaking it up like sponges, much of it unrelated to content area skills. These humans are going to be citizens, parents, voters, homeowners, drivers, participants, in our world. We are preparing them for these, and many other, roles. We are providing them with what they need to do it successfully. If we avoid entire areas, especially ones which they bring up, we are doing them a disservice. We are denying them the ability to acquire this knowledge in a safe, supportive environment. We are leaving their questions unanswered, prompting them to either find information elsewhere, which could result in harmful or even false learning, or knowingly keeping them uninformed.

That being said, not every student is ready for some of the heavy issues that could be brought up, and it is our job to know that as well. We are the professionals, well-versed in the preparedness of the kids we have in class. Their developmental readiness for given issues may not be there, and some things are best discussed at home with families. In this case, it is still our job to acknowledge them as learners and encourage them to find answers—either at a better time when they are ready for them, or with their family at home. I often reach out to families as well, giving them some background on their child’s question or concern, and offering my support where possible.

4. Use literature as a starting point.

Sometimes, classroom discussions or questions aren’t the best way to help our students learn about complicated subjects. Literature can provide us with a window into the lives of those with circumstances different than our own. Being in a language arts class, I take advantage of this fact as much as I can. My classroom library is ever-growing, and I make it my mission to diversify the voices represented in it. I have books on gender, racism, and divorce. I have books with main characters who have experienced mental illness, whether it be their own or that of a loved one. Books that talk about addiction and its effects on the family members of those who suffer from it. Characters who are figuring out their sexuality and discovering they belong to the LGBTQ community. Protagonists who have lost parents, friends, grandparents, and pets. Books who take place in countries far from the one we are in. There are books in my library to represent as many voices as possible, because for students to develop a sense of empathy and understanding regarding these tough topics, they need an accessible way to experience them. Books can provide that access, that starting point, and help us start a conversation.

5. Make information accessible for students.

One of my favorite ways to help my students access information that is hard to comprehend is through a simulation. Simulations are powerful. The sixth graders I work with tend to be more concrete thinkers (there’s that knowledge of their developmental readiness), so when we discuss some of these more difficult subjects, they need a lens through which they can develop an understanding. Just last week, we were discussing that in many countries around the world, people’s basic human rights are violated. We are currently deep into a literature circle unit, one where every book is set in another country and about a character of a different culture, and my students just learned about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in social studies.

As we were discussing these violations of human rights, such as girls not having access to education or children being forced to work on cacao plantations, my students started wondering how countries get away with this. From there, we began discussing how systems can be put in place that allow rights to be violated more subtly, by ensuring certain groups of people continue to be successful, while others are denied access to the same opportunities. My students, understandably, didn’t quite understand how this was possible.

So we simulated it. Every student had a piece of paper and a chair. They were unable to take their feet off the floor or their booty off the chair. They had to ball up their piece of paper and throw it into a garbage can placed at the front of the room. There was some grumbling about the fairness of the students in front vs. the back as some struggled to make it in while still following the rules. So we tried again, but this time I made a few changes. I offered a small group of students easier access to some of their “rights”; readily available food, education, water, money. I pushed these select few who had this access right up to the front, directly next to the garbage can, blocking everybody else’s view. This time around the small number in front made it in immediately, while those in the back were left even angrier than the first time around.

I then explained that making their paper into the garbage can represented their future goals and success. The job they wanted, a decent salary, a home. Then I told them that I hadn’t violated anyone’s basic human rights because we all had access to the same piece of paper. We all had the ability to get an education, but some of us could go to better schools and get pushed closer. We all had the ability to get food and water, we (or our parents) just had to make enough money to make sure we got it. We all could make our paper into the wastebasket, regardless of our access to what we needed. The people in the back just weren’t working hard enough.

The room was completely silent. Even so, you could see the realization dawning on their faces, one by one. This was true. This is something that really, actually happens.

The simulation helped them to see that even if a violation to human rights isn’t blatant, it can still happen. It gave them a realistic picture of something that’s difficult to see, and it started a conversation about something that’s tough to talk about. It gave us a springboard to understand and seek out new information. Exactly like we needed it to.

6. Ask a lot of questions.

I do my absolute best to keep my own opinions out of a conversation, especially one about a complicated or controversial matter. I’ve found that the best way to do this is by responding to my students with a question, or by helping them seek out their own answers. When we answer questions ourselves, the tendency is to answer with our own biases at the forefront, leading people to an answer we want them to see. Offering them the lens through which we experience a given situation. However, when we encourage and guide our students in finding their own answers and solutions, we check our bias at the door and allow our kids to discover for themselves. We give them the room to establish their own thinking, their own opinion, without the murkiness of our own. We help them learn to become well-informed, active participants in their world, which shouldn’t be shied away from at all.

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