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April 27, 2022

Classroom Conversations / Curating "Hot-Button" Conversations

When drawing on current events, the right source can be key.
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Instructional Strategies
Curriculum
Curating "Hot-Button" Conversations
Credit: RAWPIXEL / SHUTTERSTOCK
Over the last couple of years, the adult world has unfortunately resurrected subjects that many teachers have been accustomed to teaching as nasty historical relics. Insurrections, voter suppression laws, and, as of this writing, open war in Europe. Some of these resurgences might seem especially bizarre in the interconnected 21st century where any information we might want to know is available at our fingertips. We might find ourselves teaching Fahrenheit 451 in a district that has published a list of banned books or teaching 1984 in a state that is trying to put cameras in our classrooms. These are strange times, made even odder by a pandemic that continues to cleave our relationships both inside and outside of the classroom.
When dialogic teachers are at our best, we notice when the world outside our classroom mirrors our curriculum. We collect and curate resources about these moments, craft prompts that inspire students to make meaningful connections between current events and their assignments, and then facilitate rich conversations that allow kids to wrestle with the biggest ideas collaboratively.
Unfortunately, right now, it can be harder to be at our best. Due to politicized opposition from outside of our schools, our good work in connecting our classrooms to the world is less commonly rewarded with public praise and additional opportunities, and we are more likely to be encouraged to hide such connections. But all of this does not make that good work any less necessary. The resistance to honest discourse about tough things doesn't make the process any less beneficial to our students.
We must prepare for these difficult conversations in the most efficient way possible. Where do we get the best resources about "hot-button" current events? How do we get the best out of conversations once we're actually in the room with kids? The more systemic our approach, the less likely it is that we'll make mistakes.

Shifting Focus

I teach my sophomores a unit on Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. The story follows the friendship between a German girl named Liesel and a Jewish man named Max, who both spend portions of World War II hiding in a German family's house. Liesel, the daughter of Communist parents, is hiding in plain sight. Max has no such luxury and must hide in the family's basement. The two bond over their love of literature, in opposition to a Nazi regime that is seeking to control people's reading and writing lives. During this unit, I typically have students explore the essential question, "How do oppressive regimes use language to both obtain and maintain power?" It doesn't take long for the book to suggest two answers: propaganda and censorship.
In past years, we spent more time discussing ­propaganda. Our conversations on censorship were usually limited to asking kids to compare The Book Thief's book-burning scenes to poems like Bertolt Brecht's "The Burning of the Books" and analogous scenes in movies like Pleasantville. However, in this 2021–22 school year, the national conversation about censorship was so robust that it made sense to shift the focus. Traditional news and social media feeds were full of contemporary examples of folks in power telling folks with less power—especially students—what sort of information they should consume, then systemically banning certain books and stories.
Back in the day, I'd pick resources from each side of the argument and ask kids to form their own opinions. Many folks today argue passionately (although often disingenuously) for this sort of "both sides-ism" in the classroom. However, experience has shown me that students often just end up regurgitating whatever commentary they were handed or responding more to the writer's rhetorical style than the actual ideas up for debate. Through trial and error, I've learned that the richest conversations are sparked by primary sources.

The Right Place and Time

Though I could have picked readily available memes or TikToks or news articles or podcasts, I thought, "Where's the language of the people actually banning the books? What goes on in 'the room where it happens' when a book is put on a list?" At the time I was having this reflection, Tennessee's McMinn County Board of Education had come under national fire for removing Art Spiegelman's classic graphic novel Maus from its 8th grade curriculum. School board meetings are often public record, which means that, with a little sleuthing, I found the meeting minutes of the censorship vote. Interesting source acquired, but when to use it?
I have an instinctive aversion to what I call "pop-up" conversations—rushed discussions about current events that are squeezed incongruently into our planned curriculum. It's nearly always better to patiently incorporate the "hot-button" discussion when it authentically relates to whatever we're studying. In this case, I had to wait a few weeks until the part of the book when Liesel overhears an argument between her foster father and his son. The son points at her books and says, "What trash is this girl reading? She should be reading Mein Kampf!" The argument continues with sentiments about what sort of behavior is appropriate for "loyal" citizens.
By this point, the Maus story was no longer in the news. It was mostly gone from students' social media feeds. But our students were still able to compare this character's disparagement of "trash" books with McMinn County's disparagement of Maus, which was well worth the wait.

Crafting Thoughtful Prompts

In situations like these, it's often enough to give background information, show students the primary source, and ask for their "first thoughts" (sometimes with prodding questions like, "What do you notice? What do you wonder?"). And with the right source at the right time, students are already primed to react not only authentically, but also with their best scholarly selves. In this example, my students took notes on their reactions and responded to two prompts. The first —Why do we try to protect kids from language that we know they encounter regularly?—was based on what my sophomores were likely to notice right away: that the school board's stated beef was the profanity in Maus. The second prompt—Do you see any unspoken motives in the board's actions?—is one that I often ask students as they analyze characters in books, authors, and literary criticism. Finally, to end this conversation, students were encouraged to make any connections to either The Book Thief or any of the other sources we'd studied.
This discussion was successful at sparking a longer-term interest in the unit's essential questions. More than a few students chose to write about censorship for their final essays, many peppered our ensuing class discussions with related examples, and one very sweet sophomore gave me a copy of Alan Gratz' novel Ban This Book (Macmillan, 2017), which she had ordered and read after the class conversation.
This conversation's success was not due to special personal ability with facilitation, but to my dedication to this three-step process. First, find a good primary source. Second, make sure you pick the right time to incorporate it. Third, push students toward inquiry through prompting. Doing this makes it more likely that our students will thoughtfully use what they learn in school to make sense of absurdities in the outside world.

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