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What Do We Teach Students In Times Like These?

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I've been turning off the radio whenever the news comes on, having exhausted my capacity to consume any more details about the latest atrocity, whether it's a 5-year-old girl being murdered along with her mother in Calgary, or a huge truck crushing people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice. I don't even want to know what's happening in Turkey, and I absolutely do not want to think about TrumPence in the US. Yes, I am being selfish, trying to protect my heart from any more hurt and horror.

But I know that, as a teacher of teens, I can only have a temporary reprieve. Before September, I need to find some way of explaining it all.

And how in the world do I do that?

In our schools we offer students tidy packages of information in textbooks. The four reasons for WWII, the 'correct' interpretation of novels and Shakespearean plays.

In their exams they're asked to regurgitate that information, with the highest awards going to those students who tell us exactly what we told them. We reward them for telling us what we already know: the answers to the questions in textbooks and tests.

But teenagers begin to realize that the answers they've been given do not explain the world as it is, and that realization leads to many questions, the kind that find their way into the Question Box in my classroom.

Although students can place anonymous questions about anything and everything into the box, the most common topic is conflict, from the personal to the political. They want to understand conflicts with parents, with siblings, and with friends. They also want to understand why humans resort to violence and aggression so frequently when there is conflict.

Essentially, my students want to know why it's so hard for people to get along with other people.

In the past I've explained the psychological, sociological, cultural, political and evolutionary basis for human behaviour but, given recent events, I no longer believe that that's enough.

Unlocking the World

As a teacher-host, tasked with what Claudia Ruitenberg calls "unlocking the world" for my students, I feel as though they've been invited to a home that has been trashed by earlier guests. They have newly arrived in the world and are eager to learn about it, but what do I offer as explanation for the mayhem they see on their screens?

What does one teach in times like these?

A few months ago, after we'd had discussions on all the questions in the box, one of my students asked: What are you adults not telling us?

The question stumped me. I had no answer then, but I think I do now:

We adults appear to be in charge, to be in control of what happens in the world, but we're not. We know the solutions to many social and political problems, but we don't always act on them. And the reason we don't is because we lack the courage to do so.


Courage is not something that students can learn about from textbooks. It's not something that can be tested in exams. There are no cheat sheets or Spark notes for it.

Knowing how to solve a quadratic equation will not help to bridge the divide between the descendants of slave owners and the descendants of slaves.

Knowing how to parse a sentence will not help to tell the story you are too afraid to tell.

Knowing the causes of The Great War will not help you to act when you see someone being bullied.

Only courage can help you to do all these.

Teaching courage takes courage, I've discovered. The old adage that children learn more from what you do than what you say, is certainly true. Students will only believe what I say about courage if I can show them what it means to be courageous in the way that Brené Brown explains:

Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor - the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant "To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart."


I speak from my heart often in my classroom. Ironically, it's usually after I have been angry and am using the situation to teach students about anger. My students learn that anger is a secondary emotion that acts as a cover for hurt or fear or pain. They also learn that it takes courage to express those primary emotions instead.

I know that one of the best places to teach and to learn courage is in classrooms. Our public school classrooms, where students of diverse backgrounds and experiences meet on common ground, are a perfect place to discover what it means to be courageous.

Over the years students have shown me in many ways what courage looks like. Here's just one example of many stories :

When I came to this class and saw my enemy N, I was so angry. We had been enemies since elementary school. I wanted to switch out of the class because I couldn't stand looking at her miserable, lying face. So, H and I decided to sit at a different table from N. But the teacher moved us all into our Myers-Briggs personality groups and guess who was in my group? N! I wondered how she could possibly share the same personality traits as me. I talked to my other classmates in my group and ignored her.

The second day N asked me how to do an assignment. I was so close to walking away but I answered her and she thanked me! I was really surprised that after all the fights and arguments she had the nerve to ask me a question. After that day everything changed. Soon we all got together to prepare a skit and everybody got along fine, including me and N. A month into the course N and I were talking like we were best friends, I don't know if I changed or if she changed but we never brought up the rumour or fights again.

It took the kind of courage that Brené Brown talks about for M to see N as she really was, and to work with her. How different would the world be if more adults could do the same?

As I prepare to host a new group of students in September, I'll listen to the news differently, keeping an ear open for demonstrations of heart-based courage so that I can show my students an alternative view of the world compared to what is currently on their screens.

And I hope that showing them these examples will encourage them to have courage as they explore the world beyond the answers in their textbooks and the chaos on their screens.

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