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.