You can turn on the news at any time and see so much hate that all you want to do is curl up in a ball and never come out of bed. It is hard for anyone to digest what is happening in our world today. Now, imagine how difficult it is to navigate this at a point in your life when you are forming your own identity, when you are trying to decide what you believe in, what you stand for and who you should emulate.
These are the complex issues that high school students bring to the classroom every day. Students wake up to tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting and are still expected to focus on their textbooks. How can anyone focus when so much is happening around them?
That's a question I must answer as a new teacher trying to help young people make sense of this world — even when I'm not sure how to respond to the news. The fear of how to handle these complex issues weighed on me when I started student teaching in Hartford. Fortunately, I could observe students and learn from their teacher.
I watched when students came into class following the election and cried in fear for their loved ones, families and friends who are at risk of deportation. The teacher answered their cries with acts of love, support and encouragement. This taught me that to help students address their fears, I must provide them with what every human being needs in a time of crisis — a safe place, someone to listen to them and a platform to engage in meaningful conversations about the world.
As I began my teaching, the lessons learned from my cooperating teacher and in my teacher preparation program, made me determined to teach my students to believe in humanity and to believe in the power they hold to effect change. My hope is to not only instill a knowledge of reading, writing and critical analysis but also the belief that they truly can change the world — that the only way to keep from curling up in a ball and shutting out the world is by behaving in a way that defies small mindedness and ensures that their voices are heard and valued.
To do this, I had them write about the tough topics in our world and their own lives. Through their writing and discussion of it, my students were able to form their opinions, debate with each other and understand the steps to solving global problems.
The students' journals opened up a pathway to powerful and moving discussions on racism, justice, judgment, love and more. The class analyzed Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" and held a mock trial to debate issues of race relations in society today. We read poetry from TuPac Shakur, and students wrote about their struggles and triumphs. We watched Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Same Love" music video to analyze how art and music can advocate for change. Then students wrote and performed their own songs.
Although our ideas differed, the class was a space where all opinions, beliefs and cultures were honored. We came from different ends of the Earth, some metaphorically and some literally, but differences did not divide us. Instead, we united in this environment of respect, care and trust.
I will never have the answers to every complex problem this world hands us, but, in 12 weeks, I learned that we must come together and have tough conversations in order to change the issues that plague our society.
If our classrooms could offer a model for the response to hate, we might not be so afraid to turn on the news. We might even wake up to stories of love instead of stories of hate.
Emily Anna Cipriano, 23, from Marshfield, Mass., graduated with a bachelor's degree in secondary English education from the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education in May. She is completing her master's in curriculum and instruction at Neag and is a teacher intern at Bulkeley High School in Hartford.
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