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Why we should bring social unrest into the classroom

Rebecca McGrath, a teacher at Westfield High School in New Jersey, US, writes:

During the past few weeks in America, history has been unfolding before our eyes. Several deadly altercations between citizens and police officers have spurred a national conversation about police brutality and racial profiling. But in the largely white, upper-class school where I teach, the conversation has been… well, silent.

Despite the anger and passion this issue prompted in the media, my school has continued with business as usual. I overhear conversations in the hallways, in after-school clubs and around lunch tables, but I have not heard this issue discussed once in the classroom. Why?

Perhaps because addressing these issues presents many challenges. It is difficult to teach something new for the first time, especially when we don’t know how it will play out in history. Think about the texts and topics we teach – they are overwhelmingly related to events that occurred in the past.

The more time that passes since a particular event, the more the information has been digested by experts. As teachers, we do our research and become experts ourselves, passing information on to our students. It is scary to stand in front of a class and not be the expert. Unpacking current affairs challenges you to do just that – to ask a question that you don’t know the answer to.

But our students are immersed in media every day and it is just as important as the novels we ask them to study. These messages create our students’ reality, shape their understanding of the world and the people in it. If we aren’t teaching our students to “read” these texts and to think critically about them, we are not preparing them for the real world. Should we really rely on Facebook to teach our students how to take meaning from important events?

Of course the answer is “no”. It is our duty to respond to events and protests like those in Ferguson, Missouri, the scene of so many protests after the shooting of teenager Michael Brown. As a teacher, you have the power and the responsibility to make your classroom a safe place for students to think critically about the world.

It is important to lay out clear core concepts before undertaking an analysis of the media. The key idea I discuss with students is that different people can have different perceptions of the same event. Use the classroom environment to help students to practise listening to alternative viewpoints and conversing about them in a respectful, purposeful manner.

Of course, understanding the world from someone else’s viewpoint is very difficult for some students. This is the power of storytelling. Reading, listening to and viewing the stories and life experiences of others helps students learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Students need to see their own experiences reflected back at them, but they also need literature to be a window into other ways of life.

The definition of what constitutes a text or document worthy of study also needs to be updated. Our students’ primary source of entertainment, socialisation and news is visual media. In fact, most adolescent students do not read outside of class. But they do watch television and movies and search the internet.

When we give our students a vocabulary and knowledge base about how to analyse visual rhetoric, we enable them to engage in this medium. No longer are they passive viewers and consumers. They become informed, active citizens, who think critically about the world around them.

We should encourage active learning by using media studies of current events like Ferguson to engage students and elicit deep discussion and analysis. Isn’t this what we want in the next generation?

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