Preparing Students to Face Troubling Issues

I asked my students to identify organizations that did the most good for the neediest; another student created poster to boost those charities with other students in the school

When we teach our students about death in the trenches of World War I, what do we want them to learn? And how should they feel? What comes of a 15-year old considering some 300,000 dead at the Battle of the Somme? I would find it chilling if a student had no emotional response to the scale of the death, but which emotions do I want them to feel? Misery? Shame? Anger?

I could ask the same question about the migration crisis or climate change. Or about historical events like the Holocaust. Surely, our students need to become conversant with the challenges of our times but when they are daily confronted with horrible events and confounding problems, should we be surprised that some of them become depressed or turn away from the emotions such issue evoke?

I have spent the past two weeks talking to colleagues and educator friends on Facebook about how we teach about difficult issues. It’s clear that there is a broad sense, at my school–and across the Western world–that secondary students are less resilient than they were ten years ago. I am weary, though, of condescending criticisms of “snowflakes”: our students are children and if they are indeed very sensitive it is because of how they have been parented and educated. They are products of their environment.

Some may argue that we as educators shouldn’t turn them away from potentially upsetting topics. I agree. But I have no interest in scaring my students. Fear and anxiety and guilt are not useful emotions. They lead to shutdown. Care, concern, resolution, feelings of community–these move students towards lives of engagement.

Are we talking about mindset and our students’ image of the world? Part of the issue here is certainly the way in which our students have been raised to think about the world and their place in it. Secondary school students in the US, for example, have been raised in an era of continuous military conflict: most of those entering university this fall were born in 1999 and were toddlers when the “War on Terror” began. Of course, students in other nations weren’t raised under the Bush and Obama Administrations. Nevertheless, rising concerns about student mental health are seemingly universal, in wealthier nations because of quickly rising rates of anxiety and depression, in poorer nations because of lack of access to adequate mental health care.

This is a first stab at categories! It is probably askew. But here goes …

Types of “Issues” That Trip Up My Students

Historical Issues: African and African-American slavery; the Holocaust; the violence of imperialism in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are things that happened in the past, but discomfort our students.

Issues They Can’t Change At All: Sometimes historical, sometimes contemporary. When my students saw a video about the coltan mines where the mineral is gathered for their phones, some were devastated and said their relationship with their iPhone changed. Their sense of guilt was worsened by their knowledge that their horror wouldn’t change their habits.

Issues in Which They Feel Implicated: For my students, this often means racism in the US,  it means climate change. White privilege is something some of us talk about a lot at my school. The students in the high school understand it as a concept. But do they know how to deal with it emotionally? I suspect that when they don’t they are far more likely to become reactionary. When this happens we have failed.

Issues They Can Change (but that change feels marginal or meaningless): climate change fits here too, as does global poverty.

Types of “Strategies” for Dealing with the Issues’ Issues

Building empathy. Many people I have spoken to have told me “charts and graphs” do little to help students navigate difficult topics. Statistics obviously have their place and they can explain the scale and scope of something, but it is stories, human stories, that allow our students to step into the shoes of another and truly understand migration or climate change or women’s rights from a position of compassion. One resource for this, that came to me from my colleague Ann Fyfield, is the Global Oneness Project. It houses short films, slide shows, lesson plans, and other resources on things such as vanishing cultures, nature, migration, and climate change.

One thing I have noticed this term: ironically perhaps, raising empathy can raise stress. The dull dread of avoidance can quickly blossom into real unhappiness for a student suddenly connected to someone who is suffering. Perhaps empathy is better for buy-in than helping with troubling emotions? I’m not sure.

A number of other colleagues and friends shared that they use what we might call the “Helpers Strategy.” Students hear the story of those who resisted, those who came to the aid of others, those who shared what they had. David Ellenberg, who teaches in Catlin Gabel’s middle school, asks his students to research “Upstanders” who fought against the Nazi Holocaust. This seems especially useful when thinking about historical events that seem hopeless. I can also see how students can be encouraged to move from celebrating helpers to thinking about how to become allies.

Another strategy, one I have championed, is offering solutions–at least partial solutions–for the enormous problems we uncover. Some of my students this term told me that the fact that they learned about the Paris Agreement, successes moving away from fossil fuels in other countries, Oregon’s consideration of a cap-and-trade program, the lawsuits brought by Our Children’s Trust against the federal government and the oil companies, and Portland’s aggressive work on reducing emissions, made them feel less hopeless about climate change.

With the goal of raising optimism and engagement about battling global poverty, I had my students watch Peter Singer’s TED talk on effective altruism. They loved it Peter Singerand I felt on the right track. I then asked each of my students to come to class with a pitch on behalf of an organization that would do the most good with a $10 donation. They dutifully came and presented and then we voted on which organization sounded most helpful. We picked out a couple, but then the energy seemed to flag. Had I convinced the students that, as Singer argues, their loose change can save lives? Or had we rehearsed a litany of awful problems?

I am left with strategies that do more than narrate the problems themselves. Students with a “helpers mindset,” who see themselves as allies ready to pitch in, are much more likely to be inspired to action rather than depressed by lessons about gendercide in India or the history of US foreign policy in Guatemala.

So, as if teachers needed anything else to do, I’ve come to think that it would be a good idea to match a reading on ethics or philosophy with the more content specific readings we use to deliver material. I think we need to help our students develop philosophical outlooks to prepare them for world we are giving them. This could happen in courses on ethics or religion, I suppose (and the Finnish national curriculum comes to mind here), but I am thinking if should be part of the lessons I am offering. I want to make the link between the historical information and the “mindset” work explicit.

For example, more than one colleague has spoken lately of “radical hope” as a strategy for dealing with feelings of hopelessness and despair–specifically in response to the daily trickle of dysfunction and meanness from the Trump White House. Writing in the New Yorker, Junot Diaz defined it this way:

“What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’ Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence.’ Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future.”

Lear’s book, from which the phrase comes (the subtitle is “Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation”), tracks the life of the Crow chief, Plenty Coups. It’s a profoundly saddening but inspiring narrative about fighting on when his entire civilization was threatened with destruction. I wonder if he is the person in his story that I, or my students, would empathize with. I might be the Indian Agent in Plenty Coups’ biography, bringing someone’s way of life to an end (through globalization) more than I am Plenty Coups himself. Yet in him we have an example, a way to open up conversations about fighting on.


“Climate Change: Above All a Moral Issue,” from Yale Climate Connection


A better way to begin a discussion about climate change might be to frame it not as political or scientific, but as a moral issue. Do we have a moral responsibility to bequeath the earth to future generations unharmed or at least liveable? Perhaps we need to begin a unit on climate change with sections from Pope Francis’s encyclical, “Laudato Si.” If we begin here, rather than including Francis as a political actor (and I a hopeful about his upcoming meeting with Trump–we’ll see), we can frame climate change in a way that makes space for moral, individual action on the part of our students. Perhaps this is where Sisyphus comes in again.

My colleague David also uses an old Jewish folktale about King Solomon to help his students consider “the nature of impermanence and how it may inform our lives.” In an age of personal brands, of Instagram and Snapchat, we need more than ever to help our students prepare for the deep realization of the meaning of “dust to dust.” Their lives are so filled with celebrity hero worship. David uses a story–and I think the story as a form is so important to reaching young people–to help his 13-year-old students work on their transition to adulthood.

Aline Garcia-Rubio, a friend who will soon take over as head of my division at Catlin Gabel School, has also been thinking about the moral lives of our students and how their philosophical outlooks guide their learning and development. Recently in conversation she expressed to me the distress of students overwhelmed by the number of tragedies they’d learned about in school.

Aline suggested that the sweet spot for our students might be the intersection between working toward change and the realization that life is a struggle. Students’ education must include the experience of working, in community, on difficult issues. Coming away from our talk, I realize that there is a soft tyranny in the emphasis on “solutions.” Aline thinks instead about the ways in which Buddhist practice is a practice, not a solution.

Education is also a practice, choices on the micro-scale, with plenty of mistakes! Each day in school or each assignment is a contribution to that process of knowing the world, but also of  knowing themselves. But just as math doesn’t come automatically, neither will wisdom, in this case wisdom about pain, suffering, and the fact that, even for the brightest student, life is not a series of triumphs and achievements. (It’s worth noting that the most privileged and most successful might find this the most difficult.)

So this has to be taught. But when? Before a lesson? As a course? Personally, I am going to try to find brief texts for my globalization course next fall, to discuss the issues of feeling helpless about global issues for example.

After World War II, leaders in the West struggled to create new frameworks to increase interconnectedness between nations, in part to stem the kind of nationalist fervor that resulted in genocide. The UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, whatever their problems and shortcoming, were pieces of a plan to create a world in which global conflict might be avoided.  But that wasn’t all the work that had to be done. Philosophers, ethicists, and artists also grappled with what had just happened. Young people gravitated to the works of the French existentialists, the Beats, the abstract expressionists, and others who sought to make sense of what had happened or, at least, to reflect on what the horrors of the modern world meant for our visions of ourselves.

Now, I feel, I owe it to my students to engage with them the great ideas of past and present in order to help them (and myself, frankly,) to understand the world we live in and, crucially, to envision a better one.


3 thoughts on “Preparing Students to Face Troubling Issues

Add yours

  1. Speaking of curriculum in Finland, have students compare Star Spangled Banner to Finlandia.

    This is my song
    Oh God of all the nations
    A song of peace
    For lands afar and mine

    This is my home
    The country where my heart is
    Here are my hopes
    My dreams my holy shrine

    But other hearts
    In other lands are beating
    With hopes and dreams
    As true and high as mine

    My countries skies
    Are bluer than the ocean
    And sunlight beams
    On clover leaf and pine

    But other lands
    Have sunlight too and clover
    And skies are everywhere
    As blue as mine

    Oh hear my song
    Oh God of all the nations
    A song of peace
    For their land and for mine


  2. Now that I’ve had a chance to read through the entire post, I think it is very good and should inspire some critical thinking on the part of readers. I particularly like the focus on moral choices rather than ‘solutions’, strategy, or winning. This leads nicely into the idea of the importance of practice (in the Buddhist sense). In fact, our culture leads people — young and old — to place far too high a value on ‘winning’.

    The students would be ignorant or uneducated if they didn’t learn how this country was founded on genocide and white supremacy, and they would be equally ignorant if they didn’t see Standing Rock as a continuation of that — both from the point of view of ‘erasure’ of the Indigenous people and the ongoing theft of resource extraction for profit taking precedence over treaties, human rights, the rule of law.

    When they hear of our undying special relationship with Israel, do they see settler colonialism and the ongoing oppression of the Indigenous people there? When (if) they read about the joint effort by Palestinians and Jews (from Israel and around the world) in the Sumud camp, does that help them reconsider the propaganda that passes for news? What do they think when the Israeli army tears down the camp and steals the people’s belongings as they pose for ‘selfies’?

    No, they cannot solve these problems, but they can be aware, lend their voices on the side of truth and justice for all people. At a minimum, they won’t suffer the moral injury that could occur if they are complicit in them — either actively or by remaining silent.

    Peter Crownfield
    Bethlehem, PA  18015 

    Interdisciplinary Teaching on Climate & Sustainability  []


  3. Also see ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ for one person’s ideas on how students can understand and appreciate the truth of complex issues.


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