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?