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Creating a Safe Space for Students to Discuss Sensitive Current Events

Creating a Safe Space for Students to Discuss Sensitive Current Events

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It’s important for teachers to be able to provide a supportive and safe environment for students to discuss sensitive topics and events in the media. This task can be difficult to do for many reasons. Often, this is due to our own, personal discomforts. Unpacking our own discomforts is the first step in being able to help students unpack theirs. However, it’s important to push ourselves beyond this discomfort and focus on how to help the students express themselves during difficult times.

Why Should Teachers Cover Current Events in the Classroom:

  • To provide support and resources for students who are directly or indirectly impacted by such events.
  • To help ease some of the confusion, anger, and pain that would be felt by many students.
  • To foster a safe environment that supports equity and diversity in education.
  • To give silenced students (whether by circumstance or choice) an opportunity to express how they feel.
  • To connect the real world to school and community.

How to Support Students:

A Helping Hand: Bring awareness to school/campus resources. Many students know they exist, but it’s important to remind them that they have access to resources such as diversity centres, centres for mental health and wellness, and counselors/advisors/mentors. Those resources are so vital to student life, but the most important resource that they can turn to is YOU. Let them know that you are available if they need someone to talk to.

A Listening Ear: When starting such tough conversations in the classroom, it’s very important for us to listen. Our role becomes “guide on the side”: we will be there to facilitate the discussions that students will lead. Listen to thoughts, ideas, remarks, and even the “I don’t cares.” Try to guide with questions, such as “how,” and “why.” Of course, if things need to be moderated, step in to gently redirect while still hearing all sides of the conversation.

An Open Heart: These conversations usually do not start on their own. Here is where us teachers need to prepare a lesson to foster a discussion that supports critical thinking and a safe learning environment. Here are some ideas to get the conversation going:

Ask them to write a reflection/blog post (public or private: their choice) on their thoughts about the event.

Lead the conversation with basic questions, such as “who, what, when why, where, how?” and allow students time to reflect on their own for a few minutes, jotting some thoughts down.

Provide students with a related reading from a credible source about the event being discussed. I would start off with an objective piece. By exposing students to an unbiased piece about the event, you’re giving them an opportunity to practice critical thinking and form their own opinions. However, if you’re specifically teaching argumentation/bias, then it should be fitting of the learning outcome.

Give students a chance to discuss their ideas with their peers in groups or partners. This is a great chance for the teacher to practice the listening step above. While students share their thoughts and feelings with their group/peers, it’s important to try and pick up on their different emotions and provide the support they need after the discussion is over.

Host a debate. This is a good way to discuss the different sides of important issues, but keep in mind that it’s important to do this with students who are ready to talk openly in class. When events are still fresh, students will need more time to digest what happened first before sharing their feelings with others, let alone debate. A debate is a great way to teach about argumentation and bias but needs to be placed appropriately and in context with students, actual event, and the classroom environment.


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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I pulled together a Diigo list to share with my colleagues and students when violence, tragedy or difficult topics come up. The goal was to help students discuss the Big Stuff in a developmentally appropriate ways. Hope it helps! https://www.diigo.com/user/criticalskills1/Violence

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Writer/Edutopia Community Facilitator/Chief Education Officer at The Writing Project

Laura, wow these resources look fantastic!! I will start referring teachers to this link. Thank you for sharing, so helpful!

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

Rusul,

On a community discussion board that I belong to, a teacher posed the question: "Any recommendations for a short story to help students going through the loss of one of their peers?" A student at the school had recently passed away and the teacher was looking for a work of literature to help them cope with the loss. Any suggestions?

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Writer/Edutopia Community Facilitator/Chief Education Officer at The Writing Project

Hi Brian, sorry to hear about the student's loss, that's very heartbreaking. Do you know what age group the student is? I found two links that have great resources, most are for K-7 or 8 though:

Here is a great list of resources and book recommendations by age group: http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/Books_for_Children_Dea...

There's another site that also has some good recommendations, Badger's Parting Gifts is a great one, though it's for the younger crowd: http://www.parentbooks.ca/Grief_&_Loss_Resources_for_Children.html

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