It was first period. The agenda for the day was displayed neatly on the board, class planned out to the minute. I had just finished reviewing it with everyone, when a student’s hand shot up in the air.
“Ms. Gould,” he said, “Are we going to talk about what happened in Florida?”
My mind flashed back to my reaction this morning, while listening to BBC, when I heard about the school shooting in Parkland Florida. My stomach sank; my knees went weak. My thoughts jumped back further to the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the last time we discussed gun violence as a class. I remember that day, I cried in front of my students as we read about it.
I looked at my agenda on the board. There was so much to get to today.
Then, I looked out at the class of eighth graders sitting in front of me.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.
“Yes!” a body of voices answered.
“It’s one of the most pressing issues of our time,” added the initial student who raised the question.
The agenda would have to wait.
Providing a Pedagogical Framework
When discussing intense current event issues, a conversation with a parent from last year, when I was teaching in McFarland, WI, is always on my mind. This very wise parent said to me, “My son really likes talking about current events in your class, but sometimes he gets so worried afterward.”
This conversation left me wondering:
How can we give students a sense of agency in situations that are far beyond their control?
How can we discuss tough, complex, and unresolved issues in a way that leaves them better off?
As I quickly pivoted my lesson to dealing with current events for the day, my mind also raced to learning standards:
How can we tie current events in with skills we’ve been working on this year?
We started with read aloud. I pulled up the article, “Florida Shooting: At Least 17 Dead in High School Attack” from BBC. I projected the article, and read it aloud, modeling my thinking as I read. After each section, students turned and talked, sharing what they noticed, and asking questions.
At the end of the article, I posed the question, “What questions do you have now?”
Students talked in table groups, and then shared their ideas with the class.
After a class discussion, we came to one central question: What problems contribute to gun violence?
Then, we moved into workshop. Students were informed their job would be to find an article related to gun violence, read it, and take notes on the problem. We related this back to our earlier learning in the year by reviewing what makes a credible source, and briefly touching base on note-taking strategies. We focused our attention on our purpose for reading (discovering problems contributing to gun violence), and then students were off.
After reading and researching, students came together as a table group to share what they noticed. As a group, they began to list factors they were noticing as problems. Their responses included ideas such as school protocols, security, the availability of guns, and gun culture in the U.S.
Then, we moved into problem solving. Building on the strategies we used to address the problems we were having independent reading, today, we approached the issue thinking about spheres of influence. Students brainstormed potential solutions that could be implemented on a personal level, in our school, and by the government.
After this, two table groups combined to make groups of eight. In these groups, students shared their diagrams, which lead to rich discussions on their noticings, facts they read in their articles, and their thoughts.
Finally, students returned to their seat and completed a write-out. They answered the following questions:
- After having this discussion, what is one thing on your mind?
- Moving forward, what is one thing you can do today to have a sense of agency in the situation?
Overall, the lesson wasn’t perfect. Our knowledge on this topic is only beginning to emerge.
But today, the kids had real conversations. Today was a day where even the ones who struggle to engage were on task, reading, and contributing. Today, students left the lesson with a specific action they could take to make our school a better place.
Moreover, the reason this experience happened is because one student braved to ask for what he needed.
Our thoughts are with the families of the victims, and all those in the school and community who are affected. Our thoughts are with those in the U.S. who are intimately impacted by this. And our thoughts are with the problem-solvers and policy-makers who we hope will help fix this.
However, in the midst of the devastation, I think it’s also important to check-in and acknowledge what we have:
We have a classroom where we can ask for what we need. We have a community where we can discuss tough issues, try to make sense of the world, and problem-solve together. We have each other.
And that, I think, is no small thing.