The mob attack on The Capitol yesterday has left many educators wondering what to say to their students. Many of us are angry, yet unsurprised by it all. Some educators may want to avoid discussing it with their students. But the truth is, our students are often more aware of what’s happening in the world than we think. They are frequently emotionally and mentally impacted by current events, whether implicitly or explicitly. For example, think of how the Black and Brown young people in your life were affected by the murder of George Floyd and the uprisings that followed. Think about how they may be feeling today after yesterday’s blatant display of white supremacy. At AMAZEworks, we believe that building a healthy identity, learning to show respect across differences, and naming and taking action against instances of injustice all begin from honest, intentional conversations on race, racism, and other identity-based topics. These conversations need to include current events, perhaps now more than ever.
In his 1963 article, A Talk to Teachers, James Baldwin said, “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.” As a middle school humanities teacher, I made a commitment to regularly highlight and discuss current events with my students. I believed it was my responsibility to be intentional about providing opportunities for discussion about what’s happening and to connect these topics with history and literature. These discussions often led to further learning opportunities or shaped student projects. Discussions about current events were not always easy, but I knew they were necessary.
We know that when all students enter a classroom, they wonder, “Do I belong here? Will I be seen? Will my voice be heard? Will I be noticed and appreciated?” Young people notice our silence around particular topics (such as race, religion, and gender), and when we don’t talk about these things, it can make marginalized students feel even more invisible.
Discussing current events with students is about more than just learning about what’s going on in the world. It is about the power of sharing stories, for this builds empathy and shifts our thinking from “their issue” to “our issue.” It is about creating opportunities for connection to historical events and their impact. It is about developing the capacity to reflect and deliberate on today’s world within a group that might be more diverse than they encounter outside the classroom. And if you’re using the mindset of an anti-bias educator, you’re creating belonging for your students and giving them the tools to be equipped to stand up to injustice.
Talking about some things in the news can seem intimidating, because we may be afraid we won’t have all the right answers, we may be afraid of a student making a hurtful or racist comment, or we ourselves haven’t done our own work around our biases. You may not have the answers, and that’s ok. There are tools out there to help you and your students to build an environment where respectful conversations can happen and to help you navigate the conversation when hurtful or racist comments are made (see the resources list after this article). And, it is up to you to continue to do your own personal Anti-Bias work.
As you look ahead into 2021, think about how you can intentionally talk with the young people in your life about the news and other tough topics. Below, you’ll find some important considerations to keep in mind as you prepare along with some resources. Consider the work you need to do in order to be ready to have discussions about things like this week’s assault of the Capitol during the certification of the election results, the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the upcoming trials of the Minneapolis police officers that murdered George Floyd. Remember, our young people are watching and listening. It’s up to us to help them make sense of it all.
Important Considerations for Teaching Current Events with an Anti-Bias Mindset
Continue your own Anti-Bias journey.
Make space to process your own emotions around the news or around student responses. Evaluate your own comfort level with different topics. Use reflection to make the distinction between comfort and safety.
If you possess a dominant identity, try not to avoid topics that make you uncomfortable, but lean into this work and model vulnerability for your students. After all, as an ally, it’s your responsibility to learn and teach the history behind current events in order to move closer to justice, so the burden is not placed solely on teachers with marginalized identities. It’s essential, however, to manage your own stress responses, so biases don’t get in the way.
If you hold a marginalized identity, having discussions about what’s in the news may take a significant emotional toll, especially when it seems you are the only one talking about these topics with students. Continue to reflect and remain aware of how this impacts you, so you can preserve your energy to be there for your students. These discussions should not fall solely on your shoulders.
Spend time building a brave space.
Develop and practice clear norms for discussions in class from the very beginning – including what to do when students disagree. Invite them to be part of this process. Using the poem, Invitation to Brave Space, original words by Beth Strano, adapted by Micky ScottBey Jones, discuss the difference between brave and safe spaces with students. Unpack what respectful conversations look like, feel like, sound like. There are many resources out there to help you with this, and some are included below.
Learn and teach hard history alongside hope and resistance.
In order for the teaching of current events to truly motivate students to be responsive and take action against injustices, all teachers must commit to learning and teaching hard history. For example, when you teach about the Black Lives Matter movement, your students will need the understanding of the history of oppression and resistance that has built up to this moment. Children (and adults) need the historical context to fully understand the movement. And then, take it further. Lead your school in participating in the upcoming Black Lives Matter At School Week of Action the first week in February and engage your students as young activists.
Focus on healthy, complex identity development.
When teaching about current events, it is important to balance the messages your students are receiving about various identities and lived experiences. Yes, it is important to provide plenty of “windows” for children to see into and understand the lived experiences of others and “mirrors” for children to see themselves reflected in the classroom, but we must be mindful to avoid the danger of telling only a single story of any identity. Consider how the portrayal of various identities and lived experiences may impact your students. Anti-Bias Educators aim to build healthy, complex identities, so be careful to not only portray pain or the trauma of particular groups. Yes, discuss injustices, like police murders of unarmed black men, but be careful about which news stories you present and highlight stories of activism, hope, and justice. And never show videos of violent acts like police murders. This balance can be tricky when it seems that all we are seeing in the news feels heavy, and it takes extra effort to continue building Anti-Bias skills such as healthy, complex identities and a respect across differences.
Make time for reflection before and after for both you and your students.
Make sure the activity reflects what you hope students will take away from it. Make time to reflect on what your goals for the discussion and learning are. Most importantly, use teacher reflection questions such as the following:
- How might your own identity, differences, and biases show up in discussing this topic?
- How will you honor the identities and lived experiences of your students, particularly your students with marginalized identities?
- Who benefits from this? Who does it harm?
- How will you be responsive when it comes to biased comments or behavior?.
Provide a variety of ways for students to reflect and process their emotions. Many teachers turn to written journals for this, which are great, but keep in mind the many ways our students can show their thinking, such as through artwork, video, or audio responses. Also, make sure to check in with any students individually afterward that may need it.
Incorporate media literacy.
Model for your students the importance of getting news from multiple sources and perspectives. Seek to elevate the often absent narratives and find stories told through authentic voices. Spend time on lessons that focus on media bias, and have them practice identifying bias in the media. Also, provide news through a variety of mediums instead of always print – use videos and podcasts when appropriate. When asking students to read news articles, provide support for a variety of reading levels.
Find ways to give students agency over what they are learning.
Incorporate student voice and choice in current events discussions and activities. Design opportunities for students to explore issues they are interested in and incorporate these into writing assignments or math projects. Allow your students to share their learning with their peers.
Create an environment where students can expect you will discuss current events.
In addition to planned discussions, be responsive, and make space to talk about current events that significantly affect your students as they occur. If you are flexible and do this regularly, it becomes easier, and your students will see you as an adult they can trust. For example, when the school shooting happened in Parkland, Florida in 2018, I knew from previous conversations with my middle school students that this would be something to address the next day. I remember one student coming in the next morning and asking, “Will we be talking about the shooting in class?” I responded that we would, and he said, “Good. My mom was talking about it with me, and I told her we’d probably discuss it in humanities class.” This, of course, looks different depending on the grade level you teach. It’s not appropriate to share the details of events like school shootings with younger students.
- A Talk to Teachers by James Baldwin https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/baldwin-talk-to-teachers
- Black Lives Matter At School https://www.blacklivesmatteratschool.com/
- Civil Discourse in the Classroom by Teaching Tolerance https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/publications/civil-discourse-in-the-classroom
- Current Events in Your Classroom: Teaching Ideas, Activities, and Strategies for High School and Middle School Students by Facing History and Ourselves https://www.facinghistory.org/educator-resources/current-events
- Invitation to Brave Space by Micky ScottBey Jones https://onbeing.org/poetry/invitation-to-brave-space/
- Let’s Talk!: Facilitating Critical Conversations with Students by Teaching Tolerance https://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/2019-12/TT-Lets-Talk-December-2019.pdf
- Teaching Should Be Political: How to Talk About Race in the Classroom by Clint Smith https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/12/bringing-politics-into-the-classroom/616934/
- Why Teaching Black Lives Matter Matters by Teaching Tolerance https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/summer-2017/why-teaching-black-lives-matter-matters-part-i