By Dr. Barbara R. Blackburn and co-authored by Darrin J Parker
As we write this in the late stages of the year 2023, it feels unfortunate and often depressing that the number of crises across our world seem to be at a high; Israel- Gaza, The Ukraine, gun-violence on our streets and in our schools and on and on. Our students, like all of us are both subjected and impacted by these events, which leave them scared, confused, or more often searching for answers. Beyond these world crises, this “search for answers” from our students also extends to the cultural and inclusion debates they see on the news, or hear from their parents, as experienced by the recent “YES” referendum. The result being that these topics and associated questions from students can and are likely to be raised within your classroom. A particular challenge for teachers is then how to address these issues in a developmentally appropriate manner, while still encouraging independent thinking.
I have had the pleasure of working with Australian educators and leaders for over 30 years.
Recently, a teacher shared with me that her students were concerned about the recent “YES” vote. She wanted to provide an opportunity for students to discuss their feelings. However, one student asked a question that was inappropriate and deemed offensive to the class.
The remaining students were shocked and offended by the question. It shut down and the helpful conversation she imagined completely collapsed. That one unexpected student comment changed the classroom climate. As teachers they response opened wider debate in – Did we encourage thought, provide appropriate avenue for expression, or just open the door to controversary? It is a difficult line to balance, because as their teachers, we are the ones they need to seek learning guidance from and be encouraged to explore their thoughts. But in today’s climate we need to know that encouragement might and likely will invite difficult conversation into the walls of our classroom space. So just how are we expected to deal with that?
From my experience, I had an exact situation in my classroom related to a world crisis years ago, [September 11]. The conversation became difficult and hard to handle, and I was never able to rebuild the trust between my students, but I did take away a valuable and lasting lesson.
What I learned is that classroom discussions, while critical, often may not be the best way to respond to a sensitive or political topic or situation.
As I explored other options, I discovered that if I use writing instead of discussion, I could honor all students’ voices, give them an opportunity to process their feelings, and build a foundation for discussing events or content in a more structured manner. With writing, I provide students an opportunity for ownership while retaining some control over what is said. Here are some ways I’ve learned can be effective.
The first strategy I use is a mind dump. I ask students to write down everything that is in their head – how they feel, what they think, what they know or don’t know, on a sheet of paper. It’s their chance to take everything that is overwhelming them and get it out. There’s no limit – they can do part of a page or multiple pages.
Next, I use one of two methods. For more structure, or with an event that is more controversial, I may take up the papers and share different points as I scan them, giving students an opportunity to expand on what I’ve shared.
Or I might use small groups and give them an opportunity to have some small-audience dialogue, using their papers as starting points. This also has the advantage of allowing students time to reflect before they talk. Then, I can lead a class discussion.
Post-It Notes for Sharing
Another strategy I’ve used is tiny (1 x 1 inch) post-it notes. Each student has a stack of notes, and they write how they feel, what they think, or what they know or don’t know—one word per post-it note. Each student builds their own personal vocabulary database about the event or issue.
Next, students move into small groups and use their individual words to build a group sentence or paragraph. Small groups join in larger groups to share their work and provide feedback. Finally, students individually write a reflection, using the group work as a base. As a bonus, struggling students have a starting point and a bank of vocabulary they can use if they get stuck.
A final activity I’ve found valuable is Vision Letters. These are most helpful after you and your students have discussed the event or issue and want to move toward talking about a solution.
In the vision letter, students imagine it is a year from now. They write a letter to a person, whether it is a friend, you, a political leader, or the head of a nonprofit involved in the event, such as the Red Cross. In the letter, they assume it is a year from now, and they are writing in the past tense, explaining what happened to lead toward a solution (or a better outcome).
For example, they may say that, although there was conflict at the beginning, after several months, world leaders negotiated a peaceful settlement. Additionally, although there were deaths, humanitarian groups were able to provide homes and medical care for many people.
Of course, these solutions will be shaped by the actual events. The likelihood is that there was no ideal solution, but the purpose of the letter is to try to find options that improve the situation. Students can share their letters with you or other students, and this can lead to essays proposing more detailed steps toward a resolution of the situation.
In your classroom encourage pathways to seek independent learning on first nation's history, other cultural or minority groups our students are seeking knowledge on.
As a teacher, faced with questions from our students on sensitive issues, it becomes difficult and is not our role to influence a student's stance or opinion. But it is our job whether that be questions in relation to culture, sexual orientation, diversity, or disability to “encourage” their independent learning in these areas, provide pathways to discover knowledge, and ensure freedom to ask questions – and to assist them in the steps to framing an informed independent opinion. Afterall that is what the foundation of education is all about.
A final note
As a young teacher, my first choice when a national crisis happened was to allow an open discussion. What I discovered that day was that some situations are too emotional and controversial for a discussion with no limits. Using writing strategies to allow students to process and communicate how they feel provides an opportunity for students to share, while allowing me to put some boundaries on how that is shared.
A teacher I worked with used these strategies with a polarizing event and shared that his students’ parents were very appreciative. He lived in a politically divided community, and he was able to shield his students from a controversial conversation at school, while still allowing them to consider multiple perspectives.
No matter what you teach, if you are experiencing an emotional event, whether that might be the suicide of a student, a war, or a dividing referendum - writing can help you and your students react to the situation with less anxiety and more proactive reflection.
And for the record, while I do not get a vote – it would have been YES.
Dr Barbara Blackburn has taught early childhood, elementary, middle, and high school students and has served as an educational consultant for three publishing companies. Internationally known for her inspirational, dynamic and interactive style, Blackburn is a teacher, a leader, and a university professor responsible for graduate training for educators.