When a lesson is overtaken by global events, improvisation can lead to powerful learning
We are teaching in an age when major news events are broadcast to students instantaneously across portable devices and social media. There are fewer barriers between adults and children now, and educators must be prepared to react to tragic global events in real time.
I call them "unteachable moments" because, at first, it seems impossible to create learning opportunities out of terrible news. However, although a conventional lesson might be out of the question, education can still occur.
My template for these occasions is 11 September 2001. On that morning, the usually crowded school cafeteria was deserted. In the staffroom, no one was talking as they listened to the unfolding events that we now know all too well. A few of my colleagues were visibly shaken; some had been crying. In the corridors, students watched their teachers closely, looking for clues on how to react.
There had to be a new lesson plan. In my classroom, I was greeted by 18 wary sets of eyes searching for answers and guidance. My mind raced to define the moment, to grab it before it passed: "You and I will remember this moment for ever: where we were and who we were with." I knew that the way I helped the students to process the events would stay with them for ever as well.
Revisiting a habit from an earlier time in their school lives, we pushed all the desks to one side of the classroom and sat on the carpeted floor. I grabbed a pad of giant chart paper and a pack of marker pens and joined the students on the floor.
I divided the class into six groups of three students and made the oldest person in each responsible for writing ideas on the paper. I could feel the tension ease slightly.
The children spent the next half an hour generating responses to the question "How can we help our community when bad things happen?" Within minutes, the usual classroom banter had begun to return. The students seemed relieved to be speaking, arguing, persuading and listening to their classmates' views, perhaps more intently than usual.
When the charts had been covered with answers of all kinds - some unrealistic, some wonderfully naive, but all heartfelt - each group stood and presented their five best ideas. By the end of the lesson, we had narrowed the list of 30 down to just two.
Bearing in mind what might work best for our school, the students voted on the remaining ideas. They elected to collect money to plant a memorial tree on campus, and write cards and letters to the brave firefighters and police officers in New York City and Washington DC.
The lesson turned out to be full of positives and full of learning - something I had not expected. It wasn't a planned session but it had the structure of one, despite the emotional context and the subject matter. This is important if we are to respond to major news stories constructively.
More than ever, teachers and students are being forced to respond to crises with little or no preparation. Instant news and live coverage of significant, often tragic, events is the norm. And, as educators, we must be prepared to help our students make sense of a changing world, all in unscripted real time.
Kevin Kelly, of Charleston, South Carolina, has taught at schools in the US and Asia for 22 years. For lesson plans on current affairs as they happen, see Today's News, Tomorrow's Lesson
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