Difficult Discussions

As I have tried to grapple with the rage in our world, and how people are supposed to help,  it comes back to educating our children. I teach in a predominately white school corporation, but I still give my students materials that focus on issues we are facing in the world and the world that they will eventually have to work and thrive in.

But, what bothers me is that adults want to talk with other adults about the “difficult subjects,” including, but not limited to: sex, drugs, school shootings, suicide, racism, poverty, equality. But, when teachers have opportunities to discuss these topics with their students, there is fear that they will get in trouble or that the conversation is inappropriate. As a result, the conversations are often watered down to avoid making anyone uncomfortable. The young adult books that include volatile real-world topics often get taken off of the shelves for being “too much.” We often don’t give our students enough credit for what they can handle.

I read All American Boys with my 8th grade students, and the dialogue that we had was powerful, but in all honesty, I was afraid that I would get in trouble for talking about the issue of police brutality and racial profiling. In the back of my mind, I was asking myself, who am I to be educating children on something that I have never personally experienced?

I was afraid of what the kids might say, but I did it anyway because I knew it was important.  And my kids did say some things that made me uncomfortable. They had a lot of questions, and they also understood more than I had given them credit for; we learned so much together through this honest conversation.

Teens are honest and insightful; we need to listen to them more. I watched them struggle with understanding why one kid from the novel was treated so unfairly, and why the other kid was so conflicted on doing what was right and being hated for doing it. Coincidentally,  while we were reading All American Boys, we watched a news story about a police officer and a black teenager where the officer punched the teen. We tried to follow the story, but it seemed to just kind of fade away, and we talked about that too. How do these type of events just fade away? As a society, we cannot just move on from horrific actions without justice being served. I always tell my kids to use their voices to make the world a better place. They might have to start small, but they have to start somewhere.

I am fearful of saying the wrong thing when students voice their opinions, but I am doing my best to engage in difficult conversations through honest discussions. I often ask a lot of open-ended questions, and have my students research information and draw conclusions without forcing my opinions or beliefs on them. I let them feel safe enough to say what is on their minds and in their hearts. More educators and administrators need to really listen to our kids. We cannot tell kids that everything is inappropriate because we are missing an opportunity for powerful dialogue amongst each other and with adults. Through this dialogue, people are going to say the wrong things, and people are going to be misinformed, and it is going to be uncomfortable, but these conversations will break barriers for future generations. Many kids don’t get the opportunity at home to engage in this type of dialogue and express their thoughts and opinions without fear and judgement. These are the future generations, and how can we call ourselves teachers if we fail to encourage honest discussions about real-world issues?

My goal as a teacher is to have kids interact with our world with empathy and compassion for others, and reading is the way I do this. If students aren’t getting information in the classrooms; they are going to get it somewhere else and often be misinformed. We are living in unprecedented times, and the education the students get today will shape the future of America.

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