Discussing Difficult Events in the Classroom

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Macmillan Employee
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Students will be arriving back on campus over the next few weeks, and many will be coming in to the 2017 - 2018 school year with thoughts and questions about distressing recent events in national and local news. One way to help students process these events is to discuss them as a group in class. While it can be daunting to bring hot-button topics into the class environment, chances are high that these topics are already weighing on students’ minds and students will want to talk about them. Allowing students to express their thoughts and questions among their peers will help them develop the skills they will need to participate in ongoing discussions and debate outside of class.

These conversations also present an opportunity for students to practice their media literacy and research skills, which will lead to more informed discussions with fact-based support. Leaders of The Choices Program, an educational nonprofit at Brown University, note that tying curriculum to current events “prepares students to become more informed and engaged citizens.” By sharing their personal experiences and stories, these conversations also have the potential to help students recognize how these issues impact people from different racial, economic, and social backgrounds. That being said, it can still be a challenge for instructors to begin such discussions in the classroom – here are some suggestions for getting started.

Prepare students for the discussion beforehand.

Despite these clear benefits to discussing current topics in the classroom, it is also important to remember that these issues will impact students in different ways. If you suspect a student might have a particularly strong emotional response to the topic, talk with them and help them prepare for it beforehand (or give them the chance to opt out). Another approach would be to inform all students of the upcoming discussion beforehand, so that concerned students may discuss it with you privately. This tactic also gives students the opportunity to research the topic beforehand, so that they may practice finding reputable sources and using those sources to support their viewpoints. Consider asking students to write down what they know and what questions they have beforehand, so that their responses might help you decide how to frame the conversation.

Create a safe, supportive, and respectful classroom environment.

For any conversations on an uncomfortable topic, it is imperative that all students feel that their thoughts and feelings are respected, and that they have an equal chance to share. On the day of the discussion, have the class create a set of ground rules that will allow them to share their perspectives without fear of judgment, interruption, or rebuke. Examples of potential ground rules include “One mic” (one person at a time), “I statements” (saying “I feel that” instead of “You’re wrong because”), and “Step up step back” (pay attention to how much space you’re taking up in the conversation and adjust as necessary). Once the students have agreed to the ground rules, ensure that they remember to uphold these rules, and address any violations immediately. In the article “10 Ways to Talk to Students About Sensitive Issues in the News,” Jinnie Spiegler from The Learning Network recommends that instructors encourage students to talk openly about their feelings in the discussion, and to occasionally check the emotional “temperature” of the room. These talks can become very personal and cause intense emotional reactions, which can be helped with a safe, open, and respectful classroom environment.


Determine your role and prepare accordingly.

Many instructors struggle with the ethics of sharing their own personal and political beliefs with their students, especially during group discussions. Therefore, some might decide not to participate in the conversation at all. Others might play the role of a moderator, facilitating while not participating in the discussion. A moderator has the ability to steer the conversation away from off-topic threads, remind students to keep the conversation respectful, and make sure that the discussion is productive with equal chances for all to contribute. Some might choose to answer questions as they come up or clarify misconceptions when necessary, and some will participate fully in the dialogue. Regardless of the role you choose to play, it is important to research the topic fully beforehand so that you can participate, respond, or clarify if needed. Instructors are not immune to these topics and may have an emotional response of their own; if you feel that you might have such a reaction, prepare yourself beforehand in the same way that you might help a concerned student prepare. Along with the links posted at the bottom, there are various resources available either in print or online to help you with these types of discussions. Finally, remember that while these conversations are uncomfortable, by addressing them head-on, your students will be better prepared to engage in public conversations going forward, and may even start to challenge their own biases and assumptions as a result.

Questions: How do you teach current events in the classroom? Do you host a group discussion, create lectures, or show news clips or other videos?


10 Ways to Talk to Students about Sensitive Issues in the News

Uncomfortable Conversations: Tools to Teach Current Events and Controversial Issues

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About the Author
Melanie McFadyen is a Development Editor for the Communication & College Success team at Macmillan Learning. Originally from the Boston area, Melanie recently moved to New York and is currently spending most of her free time wandering around the city.