Orlando. Brussels. Baghdad. Baton Rouge. St. Paul. Dallas. Nice. Istanbul. Baton Rouge, again. The last several weeks have been hard on humanity. I was on vacation from my work at Facing History, trying to stay unplugged for awhile, when the news about Dallas broke. I logged back on to social media, but just as quickly shut it off again. I was (am) overwhelmed, feeling small and fairly powerless to help heal the world and prevent such violence in the future. But, I also couldn't get away from the feeling that, at that moment, turning my back was the exact wrong thing to do. I kept coming back to some critical questions: Why is it important to stay checked in, even when I can and want to check out? In the face of overwhelming sorrow, terror, and anger, how do I remain hopeful? How can I continue to take care of myself - to put on my oxygen mask first - while at the same time not abandoning my responsibility as a human being to care for others within my universe of obligation? Below are a few strategies that may help keep us engaged and hopeful and, as the school year begins in the coming weeks, do the same for our students.
Turn It Off but Stay Committed
Taking care of one's self emotionally and psychologically is important. The constant stream of violent news, increasingly accompanied by images and even live videos, risks desensitizing us to the violence with which none of us should have to live. While it can be helpful to temporarily turn off the news and social media after a tragedy, we must not close our eyes to the ever-present threat of danger more generally. The varied elements of our own identities, our own experiences, and our proximity to violence all impact our reactions to news. My identity affords me the privilege to check out and even turn off most threats. But, we must acknowledge that there are so many people who cannot turn off these threats. Simply because of a part of their own identity, they live with a daily threat to their physical safety. People of color can't turn it off. Refugees can't turn it off. Police officers can't turn it off. Some of our students can’t turn it off. As teachers, we must create space for our students to care for themselves and take a break when needed - providing moments in our classroom when they can turn it off. A journal is an excellent tool to help slow down our thinking and allow us to take a deep breath, especially in an environment of heightened anxiety and tension. Take a break, but stay engaged.
Trust Students to Grapple with Complex Issues
Facing History and Ourselves trains and supports teachers in integrating social-emotional learning into their curricula and in creating reflective classroom spaces where students and teachers co-construct learning about current and controversial topics. Young people need support to process and discuss events, to understand root historical causes, and to collaborate with others to activate their own sense of agency to effect positive change in the world. As the school year begins, establish an inclusive classroom space, build community among the students, and provide structure for them to talk about this summer’s events. Trust students to grapple with the complex issues in the world, and support them in doing so as you strive to cultivate thoughtful, informed, and compassionate global citizens.
Combat Confirmation Bias: Ground Discussions in Text
Twitter, Facebook, and the 24-hour news cycle provide many opportunities for the dissemination of misinformation as people are eager to gain insight after an incident of violence. Confirmation bias is "our subconscious tendency to see and interpret information and other evidence in ways that affirm our existing beliefs, ideas, expectations, and/or hypotheses." As you generate discussions about current events with your students, encourage them to ground their conversations in text-based evidence. The diversity of your students impacts the pedagogical decisions you make about which texts and strategies you employ. Even if there appears to be a lot of "sameness" in your classroom, there are always more differences than we're aware of. That said, teachers may need to use numerous strategies to bring different viewpoints into their classrooms through videos, texts, and interviews from multiple perspectives. This helps students combat their own confirmation bias, consider alternate points of view, and engage in a rich discussion, such as a Socratic Seminar, rooted in text.
Focus on the Individuals: Learn Their Stories
In the documentary Reporter, journalist Nicholas Kristof discusses the phenomenon of "psychic numbing" - our tendency as human beings to care less about something as the number of victims increases. As we are confronted on a weekly, sometimes near daily, basis by stories of murder and terrorism, the many victims blend together and we lose our ability to connect with their individual humanity. Saying their names, seeing their pictures, meeting their children - all of these help us focus on the singularity of each life lost. Each of these people has an identity and a story. So do each of us. Share your story, and learn the stories of those around you. Reach out to someone you might otherwise not speak to - a colleague, a neighbor, a stranger. Getting to know people, finding our similarities and learning from our differences, builds the foundational relationships of a community that help keep us proximate to each person's humanity.
Also consider: as we struggle to confront histories of systemic and institutional racism, of egregious inequity, and of religious intolerance worldwide, it is also crucial to remember that perpetrators of violence, while acting within broader systems and histories, are also individuals who have unique identities and stories. Resist the urge to generalize about groups of people, and seek out stories that present a counternarrative to the stereotypes we are all subject to.
Finally, Stay Hopeful
When the tragic news of the attack in Nice, France reached us in mid-July, I was at a Holocaust and Human Behavior seminar with 30 educators from five different countries: Great Britain, Northern Ireland, South Africa, France, and the United States. Dara Miller, one of the participants, wrote that night, "Throughout the week, we have been living up to the name of our organization - Facing History and Ourselves - as we tackle together the complex histories that define our societies, and work to prepare to help our students become ethical and empathic global citizens." Watching these teachers from around the world was profoundly inspirational: each giving their time to learn how to better support their students to confront hatred and bigotry, and to interrupt the cycles of inequity and violence - violence that is not inevitable. These teachers remind me that what Senator John Lewis calls the Beloved Community, "an all-inclusive truly interracial democracy based on simple justice, which respects the dignity and worth of every human being," is not beyond our reach. We will all have moments, as will our students, when we lose sight of our ability to solve the myriad problems facing our world, but we cannot abandon our responsibility to be an active part of, and to bring our students into, the beloved community that can.
So, spend some time taking care of yourself when faced with tragedy. Put your oxygen mask on first, and breathe deeply. But then, help your students put on theirs. Be inspired by, and share with them, the simple acts of courage and kindness that surround us every day: police officers and Black Lives Matter protesters gathering together at a community barbeque. A positive-messaging billboard campaign erected by American Muslims to share the peace preached in Islam. A mother in California starting an organization to send baby carriers to refugee families in Europe. Challenge them to find their own stories of participation, and support them to engage actively, hopefully, to put a stop to violence and bigotry, at home and around the world. Harvey Milk, the late California politician and LGBT rights pioneer, reminds us: "Hope will never be silent."