Strategies to Open the Door

How do you talk to students about current events? Or do you avoid these discussions? Is there a place for these discussions in our work on campus? If so, what strategies can we use to open the door to these sometimes difficult conversations with students?

In the classes I teach, it would be a Herculean feat to attempt to escape discussing current events. One of the tenets of my teaching philosophy is engaging students in content which affects and impacts the issues in their lives, so in ENG101 and ENG102, they will typically write about issues of importance to them and their communities, with parameters. In ENH295, the core content of the class pulses to and through the heart of banning, challenging, or censoring literature. In that class, discussing the current landscape and groundbreaking onslaught of book challenges is simply unavoidable.

To build classroom community and create a space where inquiry is encouraged and all perspectives are respected, I use a norm setting activity on meeting day one or two. These student led norms guide the way students interact with each other and me during our class time together. Typically, through consensus, students will decide to use a norm like “Be respectful to peers and instructor.” Then, if a conversation about a controversial issue transpires, we know the steadfast norm works to balance the group and maintain collegiality.

Another strategy I have found success with is using a Four Corners activity with signs of Agree, Strongly Agree, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree posted in each corner of the classroom. I will read a statement pertaining to the content, and students will move to the corner which best represents their position on the statement. Then, as a collective, we look at the trends. Did the whole class move to one side? Is it split equally? Are there more people who feel strongly agree or strongly disagree about the topic? Usually, I ask students from both perspectives to explain their stance. Then, to stir it up more, I ask if anyone has changed their mind after hearing the other side’s perspective.

These strategies are useful when we discuss current events to help students see multiple perspectives and to realize that even if we disagree, we can still respect each other. I do have to say, though, if there is a current event which strikes us all with its enormity, then I may just say, “Did you see this?” or “I know we are all feeling…” to give them space/time to think and discuss before we move onto content. For example, when the pandemic shifted us into a parallel universe, I found it necessary to allow space for students to express grief, complexity, sudden transition, and subsequent trauma. I think the more authentic we are with recognizing how these external events may affect us helps support our students in validating their own feelings and navigating complex issues.


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