Having spent the better part of the day yesterday glued to the television set and poking through news feeds reading about the mass shooting of police officers in Dallas — one man’s twisted response to the videotaped deaths of both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — I thought about titling this piece, “After Dallas, What’s Our Role in Promoting Peace?”
But Dallas is just the latest in a long line of violent events in an America where income inequality, divisiveness and injustice have become the new normal — and just like the equally troubling stories of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and #ferguson and Freddie Gray, Dallas and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile will slide from our collective consciousness just as soon as another tragedy happens.
Need proof? Then consider the fact that the one-year anniversary of the Charleston Church Massacre happened just a few weeks back. Remember that? Seems like forever ago, doesn’t it? Who am I kidding: The Pulse Nightclub Shooting happened less than a MONTH ago, but as a nation, we’ve moved on with one big collective yawn.
What frightens me most is that we’ve become so desensitized to the endless cycle of violence against marginalized groups that we barely even acknowledge events that DON’T involve shootings anymore — think School Resource Officer Ben Fields tossing an African American student all around her high school classroom for being disruptive or police officer David Casebolt turning into Kung-Fu Panda to break up a pool party that had grown too large in McKinney, Texas.
So filling in the blank in my blog post’s title seems kind of pointless. After all, we are BOUND to have a new tragedy on our hands next week, right?
What’s NOT pointless is thinking about the role that educators can play in promoting peace in our country. Here are three suggestions:
Facilitate Classroom Conversations about Injustice in America: One of the things that drives me nuts about teachers and schools is that in the name of “protecting our kids,” we avoid conversations about the turmoil surrounding them. That’s flawed thinking, y’all. Instead, we should be helping our students to process what they are seeing and feeling in structured classroom conversations.
Doing so gives students an outlet to express their feelings, exposure to multiple viewpoints, and opportunities to better understand the role that tolerance plays in a healthy society. More importantly, doing so gives students chances to develop the kind of critical thinking and reasoning skills necessary to work through conflict and disagreement productively.
Teach Your Students to Spot Bias in the News Sources: In our click-first/ask questions later world, bias is easily amplified by cable news outlets who know that controversy sells, by fringe websites catering to either the extreme left or extreme right and by crazy relatives posting hateful memes in our Facebook streams. Instant access to MORE information — something that we often celebrate in #edtech conversations — doesn’t always mean access to BETTER information.
For educators interested in teaching students to think critically, though, every example of bias in new media sources that is amplified has real value.
So the next time you see popular news sources turning conversations about race and class in America into never-ending streams of angry shouting matches or fringe websites that lean far to the right or far to the left, turn them into teachable moments. Challenge your students to identify the bias in the source you have selected and respond to it. Can they spot the loaded words and phrases that give away the speaker’s point of view? Can they articulate the points that the speaker is choosing to ignore?
The simple truth is that the “news sources” that surround us must be questioned carefully. Do your students know how to do that?
Call Out Intolerance Over and Over Again: I think what troubles me the most about the America that we currently live in is that elected officials — and people running for elected office — regularly spew intolerant thoughts and spread intolerant ideas. Tapping into fears about people who are different, they push notions that immigrants or refugees or people with different sexual identities or preferences are threats to our safety. Light on evidence and heavy on hyperbole, Mexicans become criminals and rapists, Muslims become radical Islamic terrorists, and transgender citizens become perverts who want to shower with our daughters.
Can we really be surprised that we live in a divided nation when the people who we have chosen to represent us have very limited definitions of who “us” really is and stand ready to denigrate or demean or insult anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into those definitions?
What does that mean for classroom teachers? It means we need to use the intolerant statements made by people running for elected office as teachable moments, too. Ask the kids in your classroom to examine those kinds of blanket statements to determine whether they are true or false, to question the evidence used to support intolerant claims and to think about the impact that narrow-minded words have on members of targeted groups. Equality suffers when intolerance goes unquestioned — particularly when that intolerance is being spread by the people who want to represent us.
Long story short: Promoting peace in America isn’t going to be easy. Until our elected officials are willing to recognize that our economic and social policies have created an entire country of haves and have nots, we are bound to have more moments of senseless violence that rips us apart.
But teachers can play an active and important role in strengthening our fractured nation by engaging kids in conversations about justice, teaching students to question their news sources, and calling out intolerance in the comments made by elected officials. Doing so might just help to ensure that tomorrow’s citizens are better prepared to participate in a diverse, democratic society than today’s appear to be.
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