At Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center in Israel, there’s a photograph of a father with his hands covering his young son’s eyes moments before they are shot. In a world where parents could no longer keep their children safe, it seemed the last protective gesture a father could offer. It’s also a painful reminder to those of us who work with children, that we’ve kept our own eyes and mouths closed too often in history when we’ve needed to act.
We teach about the Holocaust today so students can understand the dangerous depths into which human nature can descend when innocent people are blamed and we give in to hate. We teach civil rights lessons so they understand the struggles people face to overcome injustice. We teach so that our students can make better decisions for their own future.
These are uncomfortable times. Aspects of our democracy and many families feel at risk. Hate incidents are rising. Educators may not be able to control what happens outside of our schools, but we can control the decisions we make in our classrooms. When students in our communities are targeted and afraid—immigrant, Muslim, LGBTQ—educating and protecting our children means confronting current challenges, not ignoring them. It means choosing to address falsehoods and hate.
In Chicago, in the wake of painful shootings and presidential orders, Mayor Emanuel is promoting police reform and mentorship programs, and reassuring immigrants of our sanctuary status. Following Muslim bans and anti-Semitic hate crimes, Cardinal Blase Cupich is tweeting the post-Holocaust refrain, #NeverAgain. Yet many of us teaching children every day still hesitate to address current events or talk to students who are fearful and confused.
The role of teachers has always been to open up channels of exploration and knowledge, not shut them down. Having long grappled with how to teach empathy, we know too well that saying nothing in the face of injustice and pain has dangerous consequences. Whatever our discomfort or political biases, we cannot shy away from those responsibilities now.
Our silence isn’t neutral. If teachers avoid relevant controversial topics when teaching history, literature or science, we tragically close doors. If we teach the Civil Rights Movement, the Holocaust, the Constitution, but ignore religious bans, deportations, violence or laws, how can we equip students to apply knowledge or think critically for themselves? If we retreat from difficult discussions, how do they learn that even when they can’t control their surroundings, they still have a voice?
It’s precisely these times, when rights are threatened, safety compromised, and facts challenged, that tough lessons must happen. When the landscape is confusing and difficult, kids need help making sense of their world.
In our own classrooms, we see students struggling daily to connect these dots. Following a recent Pledge of Allegiance recital, a sixth-grader asks, “Did you hear the last few words…’with liberty and justice for all?'” A fourth-grader worries her mother will be forced to leave the country without her. An eighth-grader’s cousin has been shot. A 10th-grader fears we’re abandoning our planet.
Finding ways to address these issues without compromising needed math and reading time is important and possible. International Baccalaureate programs expanding in Chicago schools use rigorous inquiry and evidence-based learning to help students connect subjects to the real world around them. Curriculum like Facing History and Ourselves pushes students to apply painful past lessons to their own experiences. This is how we reach kids.
Beyond curriculum, teachers need basic training about the social-emotional issues we face. We need guidance from administrators and veteran colleagues as we navigate this challenging terrain. But no matter the discomfort or backlash, we can never shy away from our children’s curiosity, plight or pain.
The poet Mark Nepo tells the story of a man who picks up a drowning poisonous spider everyday and brings it to shore. Each time he does this, the spider stings him. Finally, the spider asks the man, “Why do you keep picking me up when you know I’ll sting you? That’s what I do.” To that, the man replies: “Because this is what I do.” Teaching and supporting our children no matter the challenges is what we do. And we can never forget that.