The anniversary of September 11th brings about a lot of feelings for many of us. At this point, we (Becca and me) are teaching high school students who were either not alive or too young to remember 9/11 or the impact it had on our country. How do we pay respect to such an event in our history? And what about everything else going on? A controversial president, a rise in political action, a rise in terrorist events, natural disasters, and a media battling each other are just some of the issues that our students are witnessing in our world today. The question is what role do schools play in dealing with these issues?
It has always seemed to me that at least while I was a student that schools tended to shy away from certain topics and teachers never shared their personal opinions and thoughts because that was seen as trying to sway students to certain side. This has become even more tricky, with the rise in parents challenging schools and their curriculum. I can understand why teachers have wanted to focus specifically on their contents and not delve into the swamp that is current and/or hot button events and topics. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I have made the decision that I am going to hit the hard topics head on and focus on teaching students how to question what is happening, how to have conversations about hard issues, and come to their own conclusions about the issues.
To me it comes down to building critical thinking skills in students. Critical thinking is written into every content area's standards that I have ever seen. We want to produce productive members of society and to be truly productive, citizens need to be able to analyze the events around them, apply their content knowledge, be able to have civilized discussion, and come to a conclusion. There is a lot of noise out there in the world and I think it is time for schools to meet it head on and work on ways to teach students how to navigate it. One of the easiest ways is to simply talk about current events. This may not be comfortable for everyone and I wouldn't encourage a teacher to enter into territory that they are not comfortable discussing, but there are ways to discuss current issues and connect them to your content without entering the realm of arguing and name calling.
Here are the strategies that I use to bring current events into my social studies classroom and some ideas for other contents:
These strategies are definitely not anything new and many teachers already do this I am sure. What I want to us to do as teachers is to be more intentional about our use of current events and make time for students to talk and question what is happening in our world. Social media and the news outlets are changing the way people have discussions about our world and not entirely in a positive way. One question I have been asked by teachers in my building, is how I have these conversations with students without telling them what I personally think. To be honest, I don't necessarily hide my personal thoughts and feelings about issues from my students. The reason is I want them to know that even if you disagree with someone about particular issues, you can still work with them and have respectful discussions with them about issues. I make it very clear to all my students that it really doesn't matter if you agree, it is that you have come to your own conclusion using facts and that you discuss the facts in a respectful manner including me. I encourage them to question me and where my information comes from. They know that I will not tolerate inappropriate language in our discussions and all opinions have to be backed by facts that they can discuss.
As teachers, I feel our job is not to tell students what to think but teach them how to question, gather facts, see the opposition and come to their own conclusion. Every content can contribute to this and I hope that other teachers see the need to focus on these skills with their students.
Please share how you are using current events in your class and how you breach difficult topics in your class!