Tips for Talking Current Events with Students
By Brianna Young, Founder, ConstructEd
Today’s media cycle is trauma.
We are under no shortage of significant national events - from the coronavirus pandemic, movements for justice, strange and severe weather - all of which are draining, confusing, and demanding. I find myself constantly frustrated, even angry, hopeless and helpless, and needing to take a break from social media and the news to reset myself mentally.
Our students feel this too.
But here is the thing:I am an adult with the tools to self-regulate. I am aware of how these events impact me and I can adjust my consumption accordingly. This is not true of everyone (I am certain your social media timeline reveals that), and it is especially not true of students in our classrooms.
Our kids might not have that luxury of tuning out. Not only are they hearing about the same events we are, they also have less autonomy to filter out other people’s interpretations of them. They are getting input from news, social media, their parents - all before walking through the classroom door.
Allow me to draw a parallel to the most traumatic current event from my childhood: September 11, 2001. I was in fifth grade. I did not know anything about New York City except that it was far away. I did not know where the Twin Towers were, much less their role or importance. I did not know what Al Qaeda was, and nobody taught me about the experiences and varying perspectives of people living in middle eastern countries. None of that situation seemed real. But one thing was real to me - my confusion, that turned into fear, that manifested in anger. I felt constantly overwhelmed and confused, curious, yet concerned. I heard so much about the event through the specific channels my family watched, their perspective on the issue, and the preferred pundits and radio hosts shouting at me whenever we were in the car. I felt the stress of it all, without the skills to advocate for what I needed or to express how I really felt.
Our students are living through so much, either through
passive consumption or personal experience, and many do not have the skills to process these things in a way that is healthy.
Now think again about the constant media experience we have today - constant news, often bad, from police shootings to a deadly pandemic. Our students are living through so much, either through passive consumption or personal experience, and many do not have the skills to process these things in a way that is healthy. Students may shut down (freeze), elope (flight), push back verbally or physically (fight), or be exceptionally agreeable to anything (fawn) - all could potentially indicate their internal struggle with current events.
With all of this in mind, how can our traditional learning environments support students and teach them how to express themselves effectively during this time?
When it comes to discussing issues in the classroom, we cannot neglect that student decisions are linked to their emotional state.
Create space to discuss student emotions. When it comes to discussing issues in the classroom, we cannot neglect that student decisions are linked to their emotional state and can influence their ability to think and reason. Allow students to name their feelings, discuss and engage with them, and consider how to do that in a developmentally appropriate way. One easily adjustable strategy is a mood measuring check in. This strategy allows students to learn emotional intelligence and relate it to their feelings in the moment or in response to a current event. These conversations can be scaled to suit the rapport and comfort you have with your class and the needs of your students. From class community circle discussions to a quick paper/digital exit or entrance ticket only you can see, any form of check-in is valuable. Here are some examples:
Understand your own biases and emotions before digging in. We all bring experiences and biases into the classroom with us daily. These shape our views, responses, and approaches to teaching and classroom management. Before engaging with students, take time to slow down. Look into varying viewpoints on the issue. Weigh the experiences that are shaping your own perspectives before discussing with your students. Prepare also for things students may say or do in discussing this issue that might trigger an emotional response in you, and have a plan to de-escalate yourself should you need it.
Be willing to learn with your kids. While I know teachers are the most brilliant bunch around, we do not know everything. You may have just learned about something on NPR as you were commuting into work, and now you have 27 eager faces ready to discuss it with you. You may not be emotionally or educationally prepared to discuss it, but it may be necessary to do so. Search and display a news article from a center-leaning source (use the All Sides Media Bias Chart to help select sources), read an article together, do a mood check-in (above), and discuss following your pre-set classroom norms (ideas here and here if you do not already have some established). Serve as a facilitator in the dialogue, leveraging the brilliance and natural curiosity of your students as you share in the learning and discussion, allowing for lament, confusion, wonder, and problem-solving to move throughout the conversation.
It is healthy for students to see you worry, be sad, or frustrated, and then speak with them about how you’re feeling and how you are dealing with it.
Balance vulnerability with neutrality. Students need to see emotional regulation modeled for them. They also need to trust in your stability as a safe place for them. This is a balancing act, especially in these situations. It is healthy for students to see you worry, be sad, or frustrated, and then speak with them about how you’re feeling and how you are dealing with it. Just like you walk them through a science demo, model your internal narrative for them. Talk about how this makes you feel, how you process those feelings and regulate, then invite them into that practice with you (check these strategies from Berkeley). As stated above, once emotions have been named and given a space in the discussion, facts and logic can have their turn.
To close, here is a helpful resource from TedED looking at tips for discussing current events in the classroom.