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January 8, 2021

How to Talk, and Listen, to Your Students During Times of Crisis

    Instructional Strategies
    how-to-talk-and-listen-to-your-students-during-times-of-crisis thumnail
      When I was an elementary school student, I remember learning the term insurrection. It meant “a violent uprising against an authority or government” and was used to describe the kinds of exotic events that happened in faraway places in years gone by. On Wednesday, an insurrection took place in our country, in my hometown of Washington, D.C.
      This week, across the country, some school and district leaders are supporting classroom teachers in creating safe spaces to process the events that took place on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol building. However, this is not universally the case. Teachers in many schools and districts have been instructed or encouraged, by their principals and district leaders, not to discuss the political turmoil that is shaking our country.
      These are scary times, and discussing scary things is hard to do—especially with students. But talking about, and learning about things that matter is what students want, need, and deserve to do in school. The purpose of school is to teach young people how to participate in, and one day lead, our democracy. And that goal is more important now than it has ever been.
      If you are in a leadership position in a school or district and you’ve signaled to teachers that they should avoid discussing Wednesday’s events and the ongoing political uncertainty, please rethink your stance. Teachers need to talk with their students about the unprecedented events we’re experiencing, about the history that’s being made right at this moment. This kind of discussion in schools is at the heart of engaging, student-centered instruction—and it can help build valuable skills and dispositions. 
      In November 2020, I wrote a piece offering guidance on how to create the space for engaging in conversations with students about the Presidential election. It includes strategies for sharpening listening skills and building trust with and among students. Another key ingredient in fostering meaningful conversations with our students is asking good questions. Here are some questions that might be useful now:
      For students of all ages, elementary through high school:
      • How are you feeling? Is it a familiar feeling or an unfamiliar one? Is it easy to name how you are feeling, or is it hard to do?
      • Can you think of a time you did something wrong, something that hurt someone else—and you had the courage to admit you were wrong? How did that feel? 
      • Have you ever tried to mend fences with someone you disagree with?  
      • Can you think of a time when something bad happened that ended up bringing people together—in history, in a book or movie, in your own life?
      • What does being brave mean to you?  
      For middle and high school students:
      • What do you know about the events of Jan. 6? What do you want to understand better?
      • How do you think members of Congress felt that night when they returned to the chamber after having had to evacuate?
      • Imagine yourself 50-60 years from now, speaking with your grandchildren about the events of yesterday. What do you think you’ll tell them? What will you want them to learn from these events?
      • Where do your rights interfere with the rights of others?
      • When Congress reconvened on Wednesday after hours of lockdown, a number of Senators and Representatives stood up to speak. What do you think they might have been feeling as they spoke?
      For high school students:
      • Who does the U.S. Capitol belong to? 
      • Some have said that the events of Jan. 6 were a turning point in our country. Do you believe we’re at a turning point? Why or why not? Can you think of other times in history that have been turning points in the history/trajectory of a society?
      • Last night Senator Cory Booker pointed out that, before now, the only time the U.S. Capitol had been breached was during the War of 1812 when the British army burned it to the ground. He went on to point out that while our then-adversaries from another country invaded the Capitol in 1812, on January 6, 2021, “we brought this hell upon ourselves.” What do you think he meant by this? Who is the “we” in his statement? 
      Helpful Resources
      In addition, here are some resources to support teachers and parents in talking with children about difficult subjects:
      At my organization, Center for Inspired Teaching, we believe teachers are Instigators of Thought whose job it is to teach students how to think, not do the thinking for them. We’ve developed our own free resources for teachers and school leaders: 
      • Virtual Inspired Teaching Institutes are live, online monthly professional development opportunities for preK-12 teachers. They are built on the Institutes we’ve been running in-person since 1996. Through the Institutes, teachers learn to make school authentically engaging for students, whether the subject matter is geometry, grammar, or modern day insurrection.
      • Speak Truth, which was featured last year in Educational Leadership, is a student-led civic discourse program that brings together high school students from across D.C. and around the country to engage in student-facilitated discussions of the most important issues of our times. Teachers attend the sessions—not to speak, but to listen to and learn from the young people—and learn strategies to elevate the voices of students in their own classrooms.
      The Things That Matter
      Back in school year 1989-90, when I was beginning my teaching career, I taught high school students in the Washington, D.C., juvenile justice system. At that time the District of Columbia was the epicenter of a national crack cocaine epidemic. Though it was scary, I invited my students to talk about, and write about the drug trade in our city, the gang violence they experienced, and the fear that was ever present in their lives. We worked hard together to create a safe environment for these conversations, and things didn’t always go smoothly. But we communicated, learned, and grew together, as we explored solutions as well as problems. By the end of the year, the students were invited to meet with members of D.C.’s City Council to share their recommendations for change.
      Teachers and school and district leaders, please talk with students about the things that matter. The young people who are currently high school, middle school, and elementary school students will be our country’s leaders in the not so distant future. It’s our job as teachers to support them as they learn to lead, starting today.

      Aleta Margolis is founder and president of Center for Inspired Teaching, an organization dedicated to transforming the school experience for students from compliance-based to engagement-based. Margolis is a former public school teacher and professor of education, and is the creator of the blog Hooray For Monday. She is an Ashoka Fellow who is committed to investing in teachers.

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