Discussing Current Events with Students & Children: If, When, and How?

The unfortunate reality for children growing up right now is the prevalence of senseless tragedies. I myself, even as a grown adult, struggle time and time again to make sense of the catastrophic violence that pervades our day-to-day. For my students, I cannot fathom the panicked bewilderment and anxious uncertainties that events such as the Las Vegas attack bring to their frightened, yet curious, minds. During these formative years, how can we mediate the thin line between informing and frightening our students and children? If we decide that information is power, how do we present such heart-rending topics to young people in a way that equips them to do better for the world? Conversely, if we instead choose to shelter our innocent young people by preserving their naïveté, how can we expect to bring up the next generation to be culturally responsive and informed citizens?  

When considering conversations with young people involving tragic current events, such as this week’s Las Vegas mass shooting, adults must be extremely cautious. From the educator’s perspective, I am personally conflicted about my exact role as the adult in the classroom when it comes to conversations of a sensitive nature. Even as a middle school teacher, where my students assert themselves as “informed” or “aware” community members, I find it irresponsible of me to take on the role of informant for other people’s children.

Yes, our students are privy to infinite amounts of and avenues for any and all information, thanks in great part to the 1:1 ratio of school-aged children to smartphones. However, I firmly believe that the family (parents and guardians) know that child best. Therefore, as a teacher, my obligation begins and ends with parental consent. I can, and have, encouraged curious students to speak specifically with their parents about current events and the questions they have regarding those events. Additionally, as an English teacher, I have provided students with criteria for credible sources, smart searches, and strategies to detect bias and objectivity. But that is where my responsibility ends. This is not because I don’t want to hear their opinions or thoughts on the world’s happenings, but rather because it is not my place to open such an emotional or sensitive topic up to discussion.

Suggestions for parents regarding if, when, and how to broach these types of discussions with your children vary from family to family. Obviously, you know your children better than anyone else. Parents are also in control of the extent of info to which children are exposed. Parents are the gatekeepers of information, charged with filtering, limiting, and explaining the events that you deem appropriate for your children.

If families decide to discuss emotionally-charged current events, such as terrorism or mass acts of violence with their school-aged children, parents should consider multiple factors, including age, social and emotional maturity, and peer influence. Let your children do the talking first. Take the temperature of their background knowledge on the topic before you begin. Ask if they have heard or seen anything about the specific news story. It is likely that, if your child has a smartphone, she has some level of prior knowledge. Between social media and other communicative platforms, preteens and teenagers are presented with a deluge of news stories, photos, and videos.

Once you’ve gauged their level of prior knowledge, plan to direct the conversation with the goal to inform on a broad scope—do not necessarily delve into specific details, as details rarely serve to comfort or answer questions. A curious teen will inevitably stumble upon more details, but remind your teen to check the validity of the source before forming opinions or drawing conclusions. Furthermore, be prepared to some answer questions, while leaving other questions unanswered. Especially with unanswerable questions like “how?” it is more than okay to respond with “I don’t know” or “we may never know.” Find some security in the fact that a senseless act will never make sense—and share that important realization with your teen. Finally, encourage your teen to focus on the heroic deeds of bystanders, first responders, survivors, etc. Tragedies cannot be explained or reconciled, but the focus of the aftermath should always center on taking measures to lift up, help out, and affect change for the better. Always.                        

How-To Stay in the Know: News for Middle Schoolers

With the prevalence of smartphones, middle schoolers have almost constant connectivity and sources of information. Today’s middle schoolers may not be 100 percent enthralled with current events; however, with the current state of affairs for national and global news, it is important that preteens are receiving accurate, appropriate information. As much as we want all kids to be properly informed, they must be careful with what they are watching and the information that they are receiving. Much like the qualms with social media, middle schoolers are equally vulnerable when it comes to today’s current events. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with middle school-aged students.

Be cognizant of the inevitable biases present in news media. Middles school is right around the time that students begin to learn about performing sound research, obtaining evidence, and citing sources.  Whether reading articles, watching national or local news outlets, or simply receiving social media updates and tweets, adolescents need to be aware of the fact that nearly every news story contains some thread of subjectivity or bias. Of course, people in the business of reporting the news go to great lengths to simply report—with total impartiality. However, the human component of news just inevitably does not allow for stories to remain 100 percent neutral at all times. For this reason, students should know how to identify bias in anything they watch or read involving news. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip?

Know the difference between credibility and unreliability. Again, this is likely a newer concept for middle schoolers. When it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that middle school students can do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Today’s school libraries and media centers have wonderful resources that help with providing credible sources. Whether primary or secondary sources, schools purchase multiple paid forums, anthologies, and online databases for students to conduct research or investigate specific topics.

Middle schoolers should utilize age-appropriate outlets to ensure that the news is something that they can understand and appreciate. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Discovery Channel, Channel One, Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for middle schoolers.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for High Schoolers

With the almost constant connectivity and media availability for today’s adolescents, high schoolers have the option to remain in the know at all times. Especially today, while major national and global news stories are constantly rolled out, students should have no issue staying informed. However, like all technology and social media, students need to be careful with what they are watching and the information that they are receiving. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with high school-aged students.

Be aware of the inevitable biases present in news media. Whether reading articles, watching national or local news outlets, or simply receiving social media updates and tweets, teens need to be aware of the fact that nearly every news story contains some thread of subjectivity or bias. Of course, people in the business of reporting the news go to great lengths to simply report—with total impartiality. However, the human component of news just inevitably does not allow for stories to remain 100 percent neutral at all times. For this reason, students should know how to identify bias in anything they watch or read involving news. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip?

Know the difference between credibility unreliability. Hopefully, by high school, students have experienced and completed enough research assignments to identify credible sources. However, when it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that high school students can do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Of course, Wikipedia, every high schoolers favorite resource for “research,” can be helpful, but only if students fact-check the links and sources at the bottom of the Wikipedia pages.

Teens should utilize age-appropriate outlets to ensure that the news is something that they can understand and appreciate. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for high schoolers.

No Name-Calling Week: A Teacher’s Approach

 

blog pic

Many people are unaware of No Name-Calling Week. To be honest, I did not know about this week-long movement until recently. We educators, however, are all too aware of the name-calling that occurs regularly in our schools.

As a former teacher, I have been privy to the impact that name-calling and other bullying can have on an adolescent. As we’ve all experienced ourselves, when students mature into adults, they become less concerned with how others view them, the names others call them, or any rumors being spread. Thankfully, with age and maturity comes a secure sense of self and disregard for teasing, bullying, etc. For middle schoolers and teens, however, arriving at this notion of self-awareness and confidence can be a rough and seemingly endless road.

As teachers and educators, it is our job to be tuned in to the goings on in our classrooms and hallways. Now more than ever before bullying, whether cyber or otherwise, can have tragic outcomes. It is no longer a case of “toughen up,” “shake it off,” or “pay no mind to what others have to say about you.” Hormones, emotions, and peer pressures have the potential to brew the perfect storm of misery for a bullied teen. With consequences as serious as depression, school violence, and suicide, we cannot simply chalk it up teenagers being teenagers. We cannot simply ask victims to “brush it off.”

Even more difficult sometimes is the fact that adolescents may not come right out and say that they are being bullied. In fact, teens tend to think that “tattling” on the bully will undoubtedly make things worse–which is often the case. A keen awareness can sometimes make all the difference for a teen that is struggling with being bullied. These are some common indicators that a student may be a victim of bullying:

  • Unexplainable injuries such as scratches, bruises, etc.
  • Frequent health complaints such as headaches or stomach aches
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations, refusal to work in groups
  • Suddenly feeling sick, faking illness, or asking to go to the nurse regularly
  • Changes in eating habits, such as suddenly skipping meals or constantly asking to complete classwork during lunch
  • Lethargy, low-energy, or falling asleep in class
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or frequent absences
  • Depressed demeanor or frequent crying
  • Self-destructive behaviors or mentions of suicide

If you notice some of these signs in a student, make a point to discuss observations of the student with colleagues, guidance counsellors, and other adults. Bullying is often an embarrassing and sensitive point of contention for students–the last thing they may want to do is discuss their personal woes with a teacher. Gather as much information about the student’s behavior trends and peer groups first. Then approach the student or parent if necessary.

Too often, victims of bullying believe that no one notices or cares about their struggles. Teachers can shatter this notion by being a listener, advocate, or disciplinarian if need be in bullying situations.