Bringing current events into the classroom creates some very interesting challenges for teachers. The classroom is a community of diverse people with diverse stories, experiences, and points of view. The teacher is not just an instructor but also a member of the community with their own stories, experiences, and points of view. How do educators navigate their own personal feelings while creating safe space for students to share? How do educators walk the fine line between teaching and telling, between educating and indoctrinating? These are important questions educators must grapple with when charged with creating social and emotional safe spaces for discussing current events.
Iconic civil rights activist Senator John Lewis describes his notion of a Beloved Community as “an all-inclusive, truly interracial democracy based on simple justice, which respects the dignity and worth of every human being.” What does it look like to create a beloved classroom community? One which respects the dignity and worth of every human. Current events, such as the senseless shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the murderous attacks on Dallas police has left many communities fractured. What happens when these fractured feelings move into the learning environment?
I am a senior staff member at Facing History and Ourselves, an organization whose mission includes fighting racism and bigotry through professional development for teachers. I spend a great deal of time in classrooms and other learning environments. My role is to facilitate learning, to promote critical thinking, and create learning environments that are safe for honest reflection and sharing diverse points of view. When I watched the raw video of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile I started to think how challenging it would be right now for me to be in the front of classroom. I am a black man and a father of a young black man and a teenage girl. These killings struck me and my family in an extremely personal way. I was incredibly upset and even felt a heightened sense of fear. What would we, as educators, have to be mindful of in order to navigate our own personal thoughts, fears, biases, and concerns while creating a safe and reflective learning environment?
Here are five suggestions:
- Discuss with your students what a safe space looks, feels, and sounds like. Contract with them on classroom norms and empower them to protect those norms. Paramount to this is assuming best intentions and honoring multiple perspectives.
- Create a culture of questioning. Be okay with not having all the answers. When possible, base the conversations in rigor and evidence and not just opinions.
- Be okay with being vulnerable and human. Validate your students’ responses while carefully and selectively sharing your own.
- Be careful not to impose your point of view at the expense of a student’s voice.
- Encourage your students to engage in conversations on the challenges of moral relativism; dehumanizing language and behavior is never acceptable.
I am headed to Ferguson, Mo this week to co-facilitate a Facing History and Ourselves Reconstruction Seminar with members of that community where I will practice these five points. I imagine for Ferguson these latest shootings must feel like “here we go again.” I am still personally feeling upset, vulnerable, and anxious about what might happen next. It’s such a timely conversation. We will look back at the Reconstruction Era, another very fragile moment in our nation’s history, when newly freed slaves were demanding equal rights. We will ask ourselves what have we not yet learned from our troubled past? We will courageously face the past knowing that’s the only real way forward. I can’t wait to be in a community of diverse learners, pushing their thinking, and having them to push mine. There is no better place than a learning community for practicing civility and recognizing the dignity of human being.