It can be difficult to discuss current events in your classroom, especially if you feel as though you are not an expert on the topic. Leah Mauer, a Toronto District School Board educator, takes us through her thought process mid-January as she decides to overcome her discomfort and confront her students' fears and questions about 'World War III'.
At Facing History, we are here to support educators in bringing difficult contemporary issues safely into the classroom. 'Teaching With Current Events in Your Classroom' provides a checklist to help guide your planning, activities, and strategies to prepare middle and high school teachers to engage their students in current events.
I taught one of my best lessons last week, by accident.
During my first grade 10 history class after the winter break, my students came in asking if we could talk about “World War III”. I had a feeling they might ask such a question. I myself was not totally understanding what was happening, so I certainly didn’t feel equipped to open a class discussion about this. Instead of indulging them, I passed out the work I had planned for that day.
Throughout the lesson, I found students were more focussed on looking up Donald Trump’s latest tweets and contemplating what Iran’s next move would be (at this point, Quasem Soleimaini had been assassinated but Iran had not struck the US bases in Iraq). We had a short discussion about what might happen, I spoke about the cautions of perpetuating hyperbole, and then I redirected my students back to their work on the major battles of World War II.
But after that class, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had done my students a disservice. They clearly have questions and want to have this discussion, so I should harness their curiosity and provide them a space to make sense of what’s happening. If I didn’t feel I knew enough, it was my job to educate myself and model my learning process for my students.
Tackling Current Events in Your Classroom
While doing my own research, I came upon a great article from the CBC which explains the steps in US/Iranian relations that lead to the current conflict since 2018. In addition to providing a brief modern history of this conflict, it includes snippets of what world leaders have said to fuel escalation. I gave it to my students, and asked them to list 3 pieces of new information, 2 questions that arise for them, and 1 big takeaway from the article as they read.
We had a fantastic discussion. There were so many things they didn’t know about what was happening. At one point, while discussing their big takeaways, one student said, “I now understand that history actually means something. This didn’t just happen out of the blue, there were lots of steps that lead to this conflict”.
This, for me, is why I teach history. I always say to students from the outset of my grade 10 Canadian history course that my goal for them is to be able to turn on the news and understand what they’re hearing about. Things don’t happen in a bubble.
At first, I was hesitant to pick this up in my classroom because I felt I didn’t know enough about what was happening. In hindsight, I realize I wasn’t alone. In the days that followed Solemaini’s assassination, nobody fully understood what was happening. I heard news conferences with Justin Trudeau where he was asking questions too, especially in the days after a Ukrainian Airlines plane crashed in Iran killing 57 Canadians.
I often say that as a teacher, I don’t like to think of myself as a sage on the stage. But for some reason, I was hesitant to bring these questions of an unfolding situation into my classroom because I didn’t fully understand it. Had I listened to my initial instincts, I would have missed out on an incredibly rich learning opportunity for my students. In teaching this lesson, I reaffirmed for myself that being honest with my own knowledge gaps with students and modelling my own research process allowed them to feel comfortable with their own questions and attempts to understand the world. If I allow myself to appear imperfect, it permits them an opportunity to grow. In this way, together, my students and I chose to participate in understanding a difficult world issue.
The "Aha" Moment
This led me to think about the kind of teacher I want to be in 2020. As a mom of a wonderful 11-month-old daughter, I find myself struggling to find the happy middle ground between the kind of teacher I strive to be, the kind of teacher I think I am in the moment, and the kind of teacher I realistically have the time to be. This was an “aha” moment for me. I’ve been doing some reading and thinking about having a growth mindset, and this lesson really showed me how being open to what my students want to learn can lead to the best learning for them.
My goal for teaching this year is to approach my classes with a growth mindset. I’m hoping to show students that the point of school is to learn, not just to get high marks. In order to achieve this, I’m working to shift the conversation in my classes away from achieving high marks to being open to learning new things. One resource I’m using to help me do so is The Growth Mindset Coach: A Teacher’s Month-by-Month Handbook for Empowering Students to Achieve by Annie Brock and Heather Hundley. It’s given me lots to think about. I’m not a big proponent of new year’s resolutions, but I think this book and this lesson have come at the right time for me. In 2020, I’d like to work on developing my own growth mindset.
Are you a new year resolution maker? What are your plans for growth in 2020?