Our world has been forever changed as a result of the pandemic as well as the racial unrest of 2020. We learned new ways of being — how to be alone, how to distance, how to properly wash our hands, and how to deal with loss on a mass scale.
As students settle into their first quarter of being back in schools, there is a debate about what they should be learning and what parts of American history they should and should not be learning about. We have to decide who we are going to be, how we will show up, and what is important for our students.
What does it serve our students to teach them about some parts of our history and not all of it? When my students asked me for an example for the word ‘atrocity,’ I said, “The Holocaust was an atrocity.” To my surprise, my students had no idea what the Holocaust was, and I knew it was my responsibility to ensure that they knew. This was why we read Elie Wiesel’s “Night” as a class.
As a class, there were moments when we were shocked and disgusted while we read about the mass murder, separation, and racism that occurred because of the lies told by Hitler. We faced it because it is OUR history. My students were honored to be able to meet a Holocaust survivor as a part of the learning. I wondered why they had not been exposed to the Holocaust prior to the eighth grade. I wonder who we are excluding in our teaching, who we are erasing, who are we elevating?
While the fight over critical race theory rages on across the nation, I hope educators will teach students about all of the history of this nation, and also provide them with lessons that allow them to sharpen lifelong skills that they will need to be successful in school and beyond such as:
- Perseverance: As I reflect on what our students need to know, I know that our students need to learn about perseverance. Our students will continue to face challenges and difficulties and lessons that allow them to go through productive struggles that will allow them to practice perseverance. We cannot risk our young people growing up ready to quit when things get hard. We know that life will not be easy for them, and their ability to persevere will be the difference between success or failure.
- Decision-Making: Students need to be able to learn how to make decisions. Everything they will face in life will require them to make a choice. They need to learn that all decisions will have consequences that may be good or bad. Understanding how to weigh all options and make the best decision will be a skillset that all students will need beyond school. This can be done by giving students opportunities to choose what they want to learn as well — regardless of their age. There should be a variation of resources in the classroom that allow students to be curious about their learning while making decisions about what they would like to learn.
- Critical thinking: Students need opportunities to think critically about the world in which they live. Students should be exposed to local, national, and global news in order to make sense of their world. They need opportunities to make assumptions and to challenge those assumptions based on truth and facts. They need to learn how to think, as opposed to being told what to think.
- Empathy: Students need opportunities to exercise empathy for others. Unfortunately, we are living in a moment in time where people seem to not be concerned for the next person. As educators, we do not teach subjects, we teach people, and we need to teach those people to care about people. Creating lessons that allow students to get to know each other is one way to develop this skill in our students. Another way is to teach students about people who do not look like them so that they can learn more about others who they perceive as different. Breaking down those barriers through education and knowledge replaces the unknown and builds their level of empathy for others.
We have to think about how we can continually build these skills in our students through the curriculum, our instructional strategies, and the way we engage with our students. Students will leave us and become doctors, lawyers, electricians, educators, nurses, judges, law enforcement, military service members, artists, musicians, and many other professions, but ultimately, we need them to leave us as good people.
You can join the conversation as brightbeam hosts a series of #SeekingCommonGround virtual town halls every Wednesday at 12:00 pm EST in October. Let’s find a shared vision for how our education system can best serve all students and families.
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