Discussing Fear: Facing Painful or Polarizing Subjects

News reports in the last few months have been disturbing. There are mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and police violence. The resulting responses, right or wrong, are understandably emotionally charged — gun law debates, the Black Lives Matter movement, and racial profiling, for example.

As a white woman, I have never experienced the kind of discrimination from police or employers that my fellow black citizens have faced. My lack of direct experience with it makes me hesitant to broach the subject with peers or, in the past, with my students. I don’t want to talk about things I don’t know about and inadvertently say something offensive.

But not talking about it leaves another kind of destruction and insensitivity in its wake. So how do we approach these difficult, uncomfortable, unfamiliar, potentially emotionally dangerous conversations with our students? How do we make room for the pain or fear our students might be experiencing around these events?

There is no easy answer here, no lesson plan that can explain or make right, no app that can have the conversation for us. Since most schools, in the US anyway, aren’t in session, it would be easy not to think about recent events from our students’ points of view at all and not consider what conversation we ought to have. I think, though, that summer vacation offers an essential break from the normal weekly workflow. We can use this time to reflect more deeply on what our students need when it comes to troubling news such as these last few months have brought. Here are some points on which to reflect as you consider your own students:

What Experiences Might Your Students Have?

As I mentioned above, my own experiences have not brought me face to face with extreme violence or discrimination, but what about my students? Have they possibly faced this in their own lives? Maybe their experiences more closely mirror my own and they also don’t know when or how to talk about it.

What Have They Heard?

What kind of information have our students likely received about recent events? Are they students who watch the nightly news, read tabloids, or hear about events on social media? Are they likely to have heard polarizing rhetoric?

What Questions Might They Have?

Given the information they might have heard, what questions might they have? What questions exist that they may not realize need to be asked? What questions might they be afraid to ask? How can you help surface those questions?

What Emotions Might They Need to Express?

When students are not immediately forthcoming with their thoughts and emotions, it can be difficult to remember that they may still be having an emotional reaction and are very adept at hiding it. Consider if they might be feeling fear, pain, confusion, guilt, sorrow, anger, indifference. What emotions might be hiding under the surface and how might you help surface those in a healthy way?

What Other Points of View Might They Need to Hear?

No matter how well informed one is, we still know our own experiences best and it’s difficult, especially as a young person, to even realize how different someone else’s perspective can be. As you think about what your students need, consider where their blind spots might lie. What points of view might be foreign to them but important to understanding the whole picture?

What Role Might Silence Play?

Silence can be an uncomfortable prospect no matter how simple the topic. Even when asking the most basic of questions to our students, we teachers can struggle with the ensuing silence. We’ve all felt the discomfort of waiting for a student to speak up and offer an idea. Imagine how much harder it may be for students to speak up when the topic is painful or polarizing. We will need to get comfortable with long silences and not interpret them as a lack of interest in the topic.

Our Critical Role

These reflection points are a good place to begin any kind of difficult discussion. But I specifically encourage each of us to consider how we will approach the subject of the persistent racial divide in our country and how it is contributing to acts of prejudice and violence. As teachers we play a critical role in shaping how our students will be able to consider, face, discuss, and ultimately improve difficult situations in the future. We must be a model, no matter how uncomfortable it feels.