I, Joy Kirr, am a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. My 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of my learning experiences... Want to have me speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is my PORTFOLIO.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A Nudge to Have Difficult Conversations

 ...with your students.

To my white friends, peers, PLN, administrators and parents reading this, I believe we should have provided a space for our students to ask questions and share concerns the day after our nation's Capitol building - and all those inside - was attacked. 

It was an insurrection. What happened did not just happen out of thin air. Many of my seventh graders know that the Capitol building was protected with armed guards during a BLM protest, and they did not see any during this "March for Trump." They saw photos and videos. They shared many on social media. True. We are not their parents. Some parents had discussions with their children and some did not. If their parents did not have the discussions with them, are they supposed to make sense of this by themselves? What if more questions arose overnight, and yet they were not able to process them with someone?

If you did not feel you needed to provide space for our students to discuss what happened, we disagree. I am very well aware you have a lot of things going on - I'm going through them WITH you. Wednesday night, I was thinking about all my students, especially my black students - present, past, and future. Yes, this year (as we should every year, I suppose) we need to put our own mental health first. I hear that. I understand that. It actually HELPED my mental health to provide room for discussions the day after. And it's not too late.

If you feel you were not comfortable enough to do so, I'd like to nudge you - strongly. I am not an expert - by any means! - yet I feel as if I was able to facilitate a useful discussion with students who wanted the chance to participate and learn from one another. Here I will simply list resources that have helped me hold these conversations (which are all on this LiveBinder). Just try these four for starters:

As for my own discussions led, since my seventh graders are all remote this week, I started with two Jamboard questions (a platform my students are familiar with): What do you KNOW about what happened yesterday? What do you WANT to know? We were going to begin class with independent reading, so I told students they could either stay in the main room for the discussion, or if they'd already discussed it with an adult and didn't want to participate, they could read independently for this time in another breakout room. After students moved, we started by looking at their answers on Jamboard. When I saw a thought or opinion, I moved that sticky note off to the side. I let students know we'd only focus on the facts, clarify misconceptions by looking at various sources if we needed, and then I'd try to answer their questions. I warned against using words to represent one group (such as Republicans or Democrats), and told them I'd try to facilitate and guide their discussion. I had a time limit (20 min), and their statements and questions led the way. The reason this helped my mental health? I was able to teach a bit (they didn't know what was supposed to be happening in the Capitol building that day, we looked up terms they'd heard, we discussed finding our news from many reliable sources instead of one sole source, and we discussed how easy it is to create fake accounts and hide behind anonymity), some of my quieter students shared openly and privately, myriad questions were asked and answered by peers, they took turns, and I found out they have faith in the election process. We ended each discussion with hope - that this event leads to positive changes.

If I were to try to have a discussion in the next week, I'd find a way relate my content to what happened. I'd allow for student questions - verbal, in the chat, via small slips of paper students put in a hat. I'd let the conversation roll out from there. When students bring up what they've heard or seen, ask, "Why do you think this is? What evidence have you collected? What sources did you use? What do you think about that? Why do you think this?" The list goes on. When students ask questions, ask their peers the same question. We don't have to have all the answers. Our students need to know that, too. If we don't provide space for our students to inquire, what are we teaching them?

If you provided space for your students to have discussions, I'd love your help for me and other educators for the future. Please tag me on Twitter or add your own ideas in the comments below.

During this year especially, when safety and connections come before instruction, I believe we should be helping students learn. What message will our students receive from us? What will they remember of our content from this school year? Events of 2020 and 2021 are learning opportunities that our students won't forget - with or without our guidance. After my first class had their discussion, I received this direct message:


As an aside... this is Day 302 of my IL village staying safe due to a pandemic.