Teaching Strategies

Creating a Safe Space for Students to Discuss Sensitive Current Events

February 13, 2015

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.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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