Teaching the Tough Topics

In every age there are those topics that are the “tough” ones.  We know there are valuable lessons there, but the content isn’t directly in the curriculum.  Sometimes we skirt around them because they’re often controversial.  They deal with the important life lessons, and the content contained within them is not only controversial (at least to be talking openly about it) but sometimes graphic. Topics vary from sexual health, to aboriginal education, cybersafety, bullying and LGBT rights.  Of course this is not an exhaustive list, but each of these brings up so many questions:  Should we teach about (or through) these topics?  Should we leave it to parents to broach the subject?  Should we inform parents ahead of time if we choose to “go there”?  Should there be some sort of protocol for dealing with these types of topics and appropriately preparing students, and debriefing afterward?  There are no shortages of examples out there, good and bad, that give us opportunity to reflect on, “what would I do in that case?”

Just last month, a teacher in St. Vital, Manitoba showed the Love Is All You Need Video to his grade 7 class and got in hot water when one of his students suffered a medical emergency and passed out as a result of viewing the video.  In it, a “hetero” girl is bullied by the dominant LGBT culture in a role reversal that results in her committing suicide.

Of course, if we don’t teach about these topics, and give students the tools they need to navigate an increasingly difficult adolescence, then the results can be as just as devastating, as was hammered home by Amanda Todd’s suicide, shortly after posting this video on YouTube.

In my classroom, I take these topics very personally and teach through them.  We regularly hold talking circles in which we do our best to respect the ancient tradition, and use it as a tool to build community and have open, frank discussions about the hard topics and what’s happening in student’s lives: both the good and bad.  One of the norms that we rely on, is what’s said in the circle, stays in the circle (with the caveat that I am bound by law to report some things).

Not only has First Nations’ tradition given me a tool to work on these topics, it is one too.  I work hard to break down stereotypes and racial barriers in my class.  Of course, many of the stereo types have deep roots in the Indian Act (in Canada) and in Indian Residential Schools (on both sides of the boarder) and the atrocities that took place there.  Dealing with these has the potential to bring in a lot of graphic discussion and material–but it’s also the truth; and there can be no reconciliation without it.  I think it needs to be done though, and I don’t ask permission and I don’t send out warnings, but I do respect students, I do respect culture and varying viewpoints, and I do both prepare and debrief students.  Perhaps I should do some things differently.  Perhaps not.

What do you do?

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5 thoughts on “Teaching the Tough Topics

  1. Great topic. I loved the video, but I can see how that would have caused a ruckus in most schools.
    I used to show a PG-13 movie (lots of swearing) in class ever year, but never got a complaint. The difference was the hero of the story looked like my students and rose above the bullies.

  2. Good morning Jeremy
    Thank you so much for bringing up this important topic. One of the things I believe is that these themese need to be embedded in everyday life and not just a single lecture. The following are examples of cirricula I’ve found to support Social Emotional Intelligence as a whole school initiative, and not just the job of the counsellor or parent. http://casel.org/why-it-matters/benefits-of-sel/ http://www.resiliencyinitiatives.ca

  3. Hi Jeremy,

    I feel as though it is our responsibility to teach through these topics. While it may be “uncomfortable,” for teachers and parents, simply ignoring the topic or leaving it in the parents (or teachers) domain may result in the conversation not occurring.

    What I find interesting is that some parents who struggle with “heavy” material in the classroom are sometimes the same parents who purchase violent video games, allow their children to listen to sexually explicit songs/ lyrics in music, or create very few boundaries on media exposure either online or television. Some however, work very hard to protect their children from the injustices and atrocities of our world. It’s a gentle balance. The traditional talking circle is a great avenue for having these conversations as students have the ability to pass and can ‘opt-out’ if topics get too heavy.

    If we as a society do not have these ‘hard’ conversations with students about the touchy subjects you mentioned then where do they take place? First nations culture believes that children are “the golden thread of the future.” That beign the case, how can our children inherit our world and move towards a peaceful and just society if they are not made aware of the mistakes of our past and present?

  4. Reblogged this on Erin Luong's Reflections on Counselling, Education, Leadership and Technology and commented:
    The Fellowship of the Open Spokes are planning to tackle some “tough topics” this week. Please check out the following blog writen by my fellow openspoker Jeremy .One of the things I believe is that these themese need to be embedded in everyday life and not just a single lecture. The following are examples of cirricula I’ve found to support Social Emotional Intelligence as a whole school initiative, and not just the job of the counsellor or parents.
    http://casel.org/why-it-matters/benefits-of-sel/ http://www.resiliencyinitiatives.ca

  5. Hi Jeremy,

    and thanks for posting with your thoughts and experiences.

    In my teaching, it rarely comes up. I’m typically dealing with adults, who have specific needs, the contexts generally don’t loan themselves to a serious degree of personal development, or investigations of social or civic responsibility.

    When the issues do come up, I tend to fall back to my role as the environment designer and facilitator, and my desire to create safe environments in which to express oneself, speak, engage and disagree.

    My students are primarily adults, and my relationship with them is, in most senses, often one of equals, and where there is imbalance, or any form of hierarchy, it often ebbs and flows between us as a group.

    That relationship does change, and my response to challenging topics varies in response to context. Where students expect or want me to set the agendas, and are expecting me to police or direct discussions, I’ll be more forthright, and declarative, and where the class dynamic is one more characterised by a co-operation ethic, or where individuals are expressly more self-regulating, my role recedes, and I try to be a guarantor of minimum standards.

    As a function of those minimum standards, I will expressly cast, for example, gay marriage, or gay rights as a civil rights issue, and expressly apply the same rules that my institution insists on in terms of respect for race, gender and culture.

    Once those minimum levels have been attained, the conversations that occur are up to the adult students to resolve.

    Where issues of religious or racial intolerance have been raised, I will explicitly engage with them, but I tend to try to facilitate curiousity, and, as I usually teach mixed culture and race classes, curiousity about each other has been a massively fertile ground for conversation, and learning.

    …lots to think about here…

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