How do you react when events outside the classroom are clearly affecting students inside? Do you take time to let students talk about their opinions, experiences, and questions? Or do you do what most of us do — stick to the lesson plan?
Years ago, Mary Dilworth and Carlton Brown interviewed urban teenagers whose lives were impacted by daily gun violence and found their social studies curriculum never addressed these issues. Instead, the students were memorizing people and events with no connection to their reality.
The students not only lost engagement in class; they lost an opportunity to discuss something important to them in a safe, educational space.
Torian Adel White, a Georgia principal who interviewed African-American graduates about key characteristics that helped them succeed as part of his Ph.D. work in 2014, cited their study when he observed: “School leadership teams (including teachers) must evaluate their curricula to emphasize aspects that would align more with students’ lives and context.”
Last week, I got the opportunity to see a teacher doing just that. Robin Moten, an English teacher in suburban Detroit, decided to spend her 5th hour senior English class letting the students discuss their reactions to recent violence, police shootings, and Black Lives Matter protests.
She started by showing them news coverage of the incidents in North Carolina and Tulsa, then said: “The question is: What do you do about it in school? As a black teacher in a predominantly white school, what do I do? What’s my responsibility to my black students? What’s my responsibility to my white students? … I think it’s worth our time to look at this and have a conversation.”
The students — black, white, Hispanic and Asian — took it from there, offering their perspectives, experiences, and questions in what was clearly a supportive, safe and deeply educational environment.
The conversation flowed from the violent nature of the protests – “I feel like when everything gets physical and people get hurt, it’s not really a protest anymore” — to police training — “If you’re going to train a police officer, they shouldn’t feel threatened by seeing a black man” — to the facts in the Tulsa shooting — “I don’t understand why there were eight cops and a police helicopter, why do these things escalate so quickly?” — to concerns about the world these students will one day face — “There’s nothing you can teach us that’s going to guarantee our safety.”
These young people didn’t resolve any of the issues facing them, but they got a chance to process what they are hearing and think about what it means for them.
Moten wondered aloud whether she was right to spend valuable class time on this topic. It clearly weighed on her.
I think she was absolutely right. This week, I read a startling statistic that students spend, on average, less than two minutes per hour of English class in an open discussion — despite evidence that open discussion is key to developing literacy skills.
Her students agreed too. Near the end of the discussion, one said: “High school in general is supposed to teach us how to go in the real world. How can it teach us to go into the real world if we don’t even talk about real world situations?”
Students learn by talking to each other about academic and real-world issues, and there are some things they simply need to talk about. We need to carve time out of their busy school days to let that happen.