I write this post as both parent and teacher. I find those roles are becoming more and more intermingled as my kids approach the age of the children in the classes I teach.
Two Wednesdays ago, I didn’t sleep much. My elder son, a bright, sensitive 10 year old, couldn’t sleep at all. As he prepared for bed that night, he had begun to weep — great sobs, and tears pouring down his face. When I asked what was wrong, he managed to tell me that his class had been working in the computer lab on their speeches that day (his is on Wookieepedia, the font of all arcane Star Wars knowledge), and the friend working beside him had been researching hers about the Holocaust. The images and information on her screen had stayed with him, and he was overwhelmed by sadness. Not scared — he was adamant about that — just incredibly sad that people could do such things to other people.
My kids have dealt with the death of people they love, at an age where they have at least begun to grasp the concept of death, and so they seem to comprehend the horror of death and disaster more than many others in their group. At my house, we have made a choice, at least for now, to turn off the radio news when it’s bleak, and while we talk about global issues, we try and keep the “gory details” to a minimum. We also work to share “good news” stories when we can.
Talking about KONY at school
After this happening on Wednesday night, I went to school (somewhat foggy) on Thursday, and threw the French curriculum out the window. Instead, I talked with my students about the KONY campaign. We looked at the way the story was evolving minute-by-minute and read three newspaper articles together. (There’s an excellent piece at the MindShift blog on how other educators made this a teachable moment as well.)
The articles, from Canada’s national Globe and Mail, let us look at how quickly the KONY story was changing; from “wow, cool viral video,” to “wait a minute, what do we know about this charity?”, to “maybe we should get an African perspective on this African issue.” The newspaper really seemed to hit the ground running on this story and kept updating it as the story shifted.
What I did not do was show my students the original video.
I prefaced our discussion by asking them, as “big kids” (these are Grade 7 and 8’s), how they dealt with “news of the world” that is sometimes bleak and graphic and horrifying. There were great comments — we had to make sure that everybody’s opinion was respected — but great responses. I had some kids say that they just had to let it go: it’s far away, and doesn’t affect them, and they have to get on with their lives. I had other kids who are part of our social justice group, who were planning on taking part in activities on April 20 around the KONY campaign, and had trouble with the previous viewpoint. And I had kids who admitted bleak news kept them up at night. It was very revealing and terrific discussion.
I then reiterated that I was not going to show them the video — they could choose to watch it on their own at home, or not. They could share it with their parents, if they chose. (I did put a link to the video on my own school- based webpage, as well as information about our class conversation, plus links to the articles we discussed and to a Canadian organization, WarChild, which has been working for years with former child soldiers and others affected by war.) I talked about my own learning — as a parent and a teacher — that not everyone has the same tolerance for graphic details.
Most of my students accepted this, but a few Grade 7 boys really took me on. They genuinely felt that to truly understand how bad the situation was for child soldiers, students needed to know that these children had been forced to kill their families, mutilate other people and participate in rape. They also felt that if their classmates lost a little sleep, it was nothing compared to what those children were experiencing.
How much is too much?
Later in the week, I listened to a panel discussion on a national radio show talk about “what was too much.” The immediate subject was coverage of a current trial, involving the abduction, sexual assault and murder of an 8 year old girl. How often did we need to hear and read the graphic details? (This is the trial of the second person accused — we have been through this once already). The responses of people calling in ran in very much the same range as those in my classroom, but with the difference that these were adults.
What are your thoughts? I stand by the decision I made in my classroom to not show the KONY 2012 video. I think it’s the right one for a mixed group of children under my care. I am not the person to decide if a 12 or 13 year old can cope with this or not. They need to make that decision individually (and hopefully a parent can help). But you may have another point of view. And anyone who has ideas for getting my 10-year old back out of the spare room and into his bunk bed, I’d happily take those too.
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You raise some really important questions. I’ve taught the holocaust to both gr. 8 and gr. 10 students. And they’ve looked very different. In gr. 8 we tended to concentrate on the stories of people the who lived or perished during the time. It was an incredibly powerful way for them to learn and relate, without needing to get into the details.
In grade 10, we begin to unravel the injustice and look at the reality of it. We often do this by researching what happened; last year we actually created a Holocaust museum as an inquiry/PBL project.
I think it’s important to talk to kids about these issues, but it looks different at every age. My youngest daughters are 4 & 7, and we talk to them about poverty and slavery in a way that isn’t traumatizing, but teaches them to stand up and make a difference, however small it might be. We teach them about other cultures, and the extreme privilege we have in our country.
If I was still in my classroom, I likely would show the video for the purpose of talking about issues like white privilege, the saviour complex, and why the answer they offer is much too simple.
I agree that some kids have more tolerance than others, and at the end of the day, you don’t have to make all of your students happy. If you believe you shouldn’t show the video, then you shouldn’t. I think, as teachers, we need to follow our consciences.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful response – I loved the concepts (which I would definitely take on with a high school class) of white privilege, and the saviour complex. Some of my intermediates were pushing at the edges of this that morning, and I would have loved the chance to look at it with them.
My kids (8 and 11) do talk with us about “big issues”, and we try and do it in a way that isn’t too upsetting. They help us out with a number of social justice initiatives through church, so they are fairly aware that it’s a pretty wide world, and that they are privileged members of it.
Thanks for your thoughts on teaching the Holocaust as well – I’m finding that the girls reading Anne Frank are getting younger and younger, and that sometimes leads them to some material that they’re not quite equipped to handle without an adult in tow. (and many of our classes read Hana’s Suitcase very young, and that can also be difficult)
You indeed bring up an important question in which many if not all teachers have to grabble. For me, I take the role of a more conservative nature because the more senstive child could be affected in profound ways. Let me explain.
I grew up in a lower middle class family in a surburban neighbored, sheltered from some of the more graphic elements of city life. I will never forget that when I was 9 years old, my dad drove my 8 year old brother and I to the Bowery in New York City. The Bowery was a section in New York at the time where many of the homeless “lived.” Here was my first glance at the faces of homeless men, women and children. I cried as I asked my dad about them. I will never forget him stopping the car and turning to us and telling us that our grandfather was found here dead many years ago. You see, my grandfather never came home from work (in the late 1920’s). My dad was just a few months old when he disappeared.
After relating this story, my dad told me NEVER to look down on any person that was homeless because they could be a member of your family! He taught me tolerance in a way I will never forget.
For me, the line is always about “readiness” of the child. In a classroom, that is always a varied point. A teacher needs to be conscious of that line.
What a powerful story! I sometimes wish I could give that sense of “never looking down” to my students. Sometimes, in my very mixed socio-economic classroom, a wealthier student will make a comment, not even realizing it’s disparaging the situation of someone else in the room. It’s one of the challenges where I teach.
The first time I drove through Vancouver’s Lower East Side (a similar neighbourhood to the Bowery as you describe it), I wondered how I could live in Vancouver, and drive my kids through that neighbourhood, without also showing them ways that they could help. For me, that would simply be an absolute must-do. It’s that thought that Lani Ritter-Hall brought up in another discussion a few days ago: “I cannot be who I want to be without each of you”.
That’s a big part of what I was trying to get at – we have to be willing to watch out for each other, and help each other understand the big issues, in ways that reach all of our learners.