In the weeks since the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, educators have been asking tough questions:

  • How do I help my students reflect on the violence in Parkland, and on violence in their own communities that perhaps hasn’t garnered as much attention?
  • With student activism making headlines, should I talk about protests and walkouts in class?
  • Do I dare address controversial topics like gun control and the Second Amendment?
  • And what is my role when students ask for advice or support around their own civic actions?

These teachers’ urgent questions are shaped by our current moment of loss, anger, and fear, but they’re not new.

Students at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, CA, hold a vigil for the victims of the Parkland shooting. Students at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, CA, hold a vigil for the victims of the Parkland shooting. © Fabrice Florin / CC BY-SA 2.0

Over the past few years, America’s divisive, even vitriolic, political climate has complicated once-routine class discussions of current events. A UCLA study from last May found that school climates are more hostile and polarized than before, making teachers’ tasks of nurturing civil dialogue, finding reliable sources of information, maintaining professional neutrality, and creating an inclusive environment more difficult. It’s not surprising that many teachers say it’s just too hard and too risky to engage students in discussion of contentious current issues.

Yet this essential civic task of schools is more important than ever, at a time when studies reveal declining support for democracy itself, especially among millennials. Schools may be one of the few places left where students can learn to value democracy, practice civil discourse, and gain skills essential to citizenship. In the coming weeks, on March 14 and 24, many middle- and high-school students plan to participate in nationwide protests against gun policies that have enabled school shootings—and local educators are debating about how to respond.

At the education and professional development non-profit Facing History and Ourselves, we’ve spent more than 40 years helping teachers and students use their study of history and literature to nurture deeper reflection, engagement, and agency in our world today. In that time, we’ve developed some promising practices that can help educators wondering how best to navigate this inspiring, challenging moment of youth activism.

1. Foster civil discourse and reflection

There’s no question that young people across the country are engaged with the Parkland shooting and its aftermath. At Facing History and Ourselves, we have been hearing from teachers around the country. They’ve voiced their admiration for the Parkland survivors and other young people who are speaking out to demand safer schools. Many are closely following students’ attempts to organize protests and build a movement for change. They are also trying to make space for students who do not support more firearm restrictions.

Students may want to express fear of further violence or anger at inaction by lawmakers; they may want to advocate for gun control or for arming more adults in schools. A teacher’s role isn’t just to take time for such a conversation, but also to establish a respectful atmosphere where students can speak and question without fear or intimidation—including those who may not believe that the changes to gun laws sought by Parkland students are the answer to the problem of school shootings.

A reflective classroom community is in many ways a microcosm of democracy. It’s a place where explicit rules and implicit norms protect everyone’s right to speak; where different perspectives can be heard and valued; and where members take responsibility for themselves, each other, and the group as a whole.

2. Establish classroom norms

One step in creating a reflective classroom is to establish—or revisit—classroom norms.

Creating a classroom contract helps to make norms of respect and civility explicit and visible—and makes everyone in the classroom accountable to those norms. Preview the potentially challenging topic you want to discuss and ask students, “What do you need to be able to have this conversation?” Capture their responses in writing. Some helpful items for a class contract include:

  • Make comments using “I” statements. (“I disagree with what you said. Here’s what I think.”)
  • Offer evidence to support your opinions.
  • If someone says something that hurts or offends you, do not attack the person. Acknowledge that the comment—not the person—hurt your feelings and explain why.
  • If you don’t understand something, ask a question.
  • Put-downs are never okay.

Denny Conklin, the director of social studies in the Arlington, Massachusetts, public schools, recently led a conversation with his students about gun control and gun rights. He shared how a conservative-leaning student said, at the end of the discussion, “I really believe in people’s rights to weapons, but I understand what my classmates are saying and I get why you feel the way you feel.” He attributes the successful exchange of ideas not only to the work the class had done earlier to set norms, but also to the many times the class had paused to check in on how they were doing: “Metacognition makes norms stick,” he said.

3. Embrace silence

Civil conversations about controversial topics can also be supported with teaching strategies and structures that encourage reflection, active listening, and the consideration of multiple perspectives. Before beginning class discussion, provide students with opportunities to formulate and process their ideas.

  • Active Listening

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Silence is one of the most powerful and underused tools in the classroom. It creates space for thought and sends students the message that we trust them as thoughtful learners who need time to reflect. As a tool for silent reflection, keeping a journal helps students develop their ability to critically examine their surroundings and offers a space for both intellectual and emotional responses.

4. Encourage informed dialogue

In some cases, you may need to give students more information to ground class discussion.

One source of rich and reliable information and ideas for teaching with current events is the New York Times Learning Network. Their recent teaching activity using the Times article “Walmart and Dick’s Raise Minimum Age for Gun Buyers to 21” offers a helpful entry point for discussion.

Once students have had a chance to learn some key facts, invite them into dialogue with others using strategies like Barometer, an activity that helps students share their opinions by lining up along a continuum to represent their point of view. It is especially useful when trying to discuss an issue about which students have a wide range and variety of opinions.

Or try “Save the Last Word for Me,” a discussion strategy that requires all students to participate as active speakers and listeners. Its clearly defined structure helps shy students share their ideas and ensures that frequent speakers practice being quiet. You can find more information about these teaching strategies and other ideas for discussing controversial topics in Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide for Classroom Conversations, from Facing History and Ourselves.

5. Let students drive the conversation

As a teacher, you set the standards for discussion in your classroom, but your students should drive the agenda.

The topic of gun violence and the ensuing student protests are worthy of discussion in any classroom as important current events, but even teachers passionately engaged with this issue should bring it to their students in an open-ended way.

“If you don’t acknowledge what’s happening, it’s invisible,” says Adrianne Billingham Bock, social studies program head in the Andover, Massachusetts, public schools. “Let students pose questions, hear their conclusions, and give them the opportunity to express themselves.”

Teachers can contribute to students’ thinking by asking probing questions and encouraging students to use evidence to support their opinions. 

6. Expect the unexpected

Some students may react to the coverage of Parkland in ways their teachers don’t expect.

“I am just giving them as much time and space to discuss the events openly and ask questions as I possibly can,” says Michelle Livas, a social studies teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. “Many of them are somewhat unsurprised or unfazed by talk of violence unless it truly hits home, as it does with Chicago violence. We are located on the west side of Chicago, so our students are no strangers to violence.”

Ebony Davis, a teacher at North Miami Senior High School, reported that many of her students were surprised the accused shooter was captured alive. They had been engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement and discussed cases when law enforcement used lethal force against African American suspects:

In this case, when the police looked at who was the accused, and they knew he was the individual who committed the mass shooting, they did all they could not to shoot to kill once they captured him. A lot of my kids were confused, asking, “How did this happen?”

Students may voice frustration that the media and the general public have been so quick to amplify and support the Parkland student protests, where it was harder for young people involved with Black Lives Matter to gain similar support and encouragement.

7. Encourage student agency

When teachers take students’ concerns and reflections seriously, we show respect for students and encourage them as civic agents. In these conversations, teachers can support students’ right to expression regardless of whether we’d agree with or endorse their particular opinions. Some students might be uncertain about whether or how to participate, and an open-ended conversation about the range of ways to make a difference can inform their thinking.

When students do approach teachers sharing their intention to walk out or join other protests, one of the best ways to support them may be to ask questions:

  • Why are you interested in joining the walkout?
  • What do you know about what’s happening, and what do you have questions about?
  • How are you educating yourself and others?
  • Where can you find friends and allies?
  • What might be some consequences of your participation?
  • What impact are you hoping to have?
  • Beyond the walkout, what are other ways you can stay engaged to push for the change you seek?

These questions can be as impactful as any other message, and they put agency where it belongs, in the hands of the students. 

8. Connect curriculum and current events

Sometimes, teachers have to put aside their planned lessons to address breaking current events. But often, we can make meaningful connections between issues in the news, our curriculum, and our core goals in the classroom. Our current moment is a powerful entry point for exploring issues in American law and government, moments in history, and civics.

Ebony Davis teaches American government to seniors. “We had been talking about the principles of the Constitution and the idea of federalism,” she says. “What I did on Friday [February 15] was look at this situation and consider the constitutional issues. What amendment are we going to deal with, how does federalism apply to the situation? That opened up a way to talk about it aside from the emotion and the politics.” She found that the lens of social studies helped her students, most of whom live just 40 minutes from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, to “gradually enter into the issues.”

Today’s student-led protests also recall the powerful history of student activism in the United States and beyond. Studying the past offers students powerful models of civic engagement. In a recent Facing History blog post, Charles Mauldin, a student leader of voting-rights protests in Alabama including the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, said:

It was young people in Montgomery who helped to win the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Young people in Birmingham who provided the leadership in the Birmingham movement. It was the young people in Selma who sustained the movement until the adults showed up. Young people in South Africa who helped with the liberation there. Young people are always a fire that causes change. I think it’s because they don’t have the disadvantage of being overexposed to what the consequences of their actions could be. They respond more innocently to the issues at hand and they don’t have the restraints on them that adults have, like paying bills or losing jobs. Just as in Florida right now, they are responding passionately to an issue they see that is vital to them, and the response is simply open honesty.

Social-studies teachers can probe the role of young people as leaders and changemakers at key moments in history—and you can try these lessons about the practice of nonviolence in the U.S. Civil Rights movement from Facing History.

Teachers can also focus on this moment of student activism as a case study in social change and civic participation writ large, asking questions like, “How do we determine the most effective way to make a difference in our neighborhoods, our nations, and the world? Which strategies are best for bringing about the changes we want to see?”

This lesson from my colleagues at Facing History and Ourselves introduces two powerful lenses for examining activism and social change both past and present: the Youth Participatory Politics Framework created by political theorist Danielle Allen, and legal scholar Martha Minow’s map of “levers of power.”

9. Listen to young people

Perhaps the most important advice for being in the classroom after Parkland is simply to listen to young people. Offer the skills and support to let students reflect, test new ideas with others, and examine models of social change, and assure them again and again that their voices matter. As a high school senior from Massachusetts recently told me:

I would encourage teachers to assure their students of the power of their voice and acknowledge the fact that truths that we hold in society are not always true. ... This generation can break down misconceptions about teenagers. We have a voice that cannot be ignored. We know how to use words, we know how to connect with people and each other. And that power is going to shape the way that we affect this country, I think for the better. So just holding on to the fact that we are students that can be heard, that have useful things to say and beautiful things to contribute to this country—that’s something that I hope all students know.

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