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What They Didn’t Teach You in College- How to Have Tough Talks in the Classroom

Guest Writer: Stephanie Machado @givethatgirlasnack
Stephanie Machado is an educator and blogger from Central Florida who has a passion for writing and sharing her thoughts with others. She launched the transformational blog and Instagram campaign @givethatgirlasnack where she shares “snack-size” bits of information filled with teaching tips and educational strategies that parents and teachers alike can implement as a Quick-Fix, along with her personal lifestyle favorites.
“Ms. M, why are people so mean to each other.”
“Ms. M, last night on the news, I saw people fighting and lots of fire.”
“Ms. M, did you see that there was a really bad storm and people need help?”
“Ms. M, I had to leave my grandma in my country and I miss her. My country is a bad place.”
With so many different issues playing out in the media, our young students often have questions. Will I be sent back to my country? Am I safe in school? Are the police good or bad?  Having tough conversations can feel awkward, uncomfortable and sometimes out of line. The media has such a strong impact on our society – students are bound to be exposed to things such as racism, antisemitism, hate, fear and more. They see the marches, they see the crowds outside, they see your pain and frustration in the classroom and they hear it around the dinner table at home.  However, as educators, our classrooms are often the only safe space children have to process their emotions and to gain an unbiased understanding. How can we lead these discussions with integrity?
It is important to put the power in our student’s hands. It is not our job to impose our beliefs and ideals onto our students. We are merely facilitators of discussion as we impart the curriculum. This is one of the most important aspects of our ethical responsibilities as teachers.
One way to encourage that your classroom is a safe place to discuss confusing topics for children is to allow them to search an article that caught their eye and share it with the class. You may be thinking that 2nd graders are not able to do this but a 2nd grader can use a phone and the internet way better than you can. I had students bring in articles or video clip links and then they would be able to share them with the class after I vetted them. This would start great conversations and it gave the student’s ownership. A positive of this approach is when students bring in an article or link, it usually means that parents already knew that their child was curious about a certain topic and helped them write it down or print it out.
Another idea is to read diverse children’s literature daily! These books help to explain different scenarios in a way that children can understand. Reading books about race, cultural backgrounds, women, families with different socioeconomic statuses, etc. all give a glimpse of the world and history to our students.
Excerpt from The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes by Julia Finley Mosca:
Now the problem with that? Every nearby high school…was only for white kids with money – NOT COOL! So to high school by TRAIN, nothing stopped her, you see. And though most kids took four years – she finished in THREE.
I read the above book with my second-grade class and stopped at this part to let them process what I just said. For some of them, this was the first time they had really discussed racism and for others – it was clearly a topic they had processed before. You see, all of your students have been exposed to different things but taking opportunities to teach meaningful lessons is not only our jobs but our responsibility as educators.
I asked my students: what do you think it means that the school was only for white kids with money? They shared that only people with white skin could go there because they were rich to which I asked them why? This opened up the discussion and lesson that we cannot judge people based on how they look or how much money they have. To hear second graders converse with each other in this way was beyond powerful.
While it’s critical to make your classroom as a safe space, it is key to get parents onboard from the beginning. They know that their little ones see what is going on. They have trouble with these conversations, too, no matter their political views or beliefs. When you work together as partners, parents usually will not have an issue with you allowing students the outlet to share their thought processes. Anytime a discussion gets deep, I will send an email home to the parents simply stating “Today we discussed the effects of Hurricane Katrina – some students had questions and we had a meaningful discussion lead by the students.” When you give them a heads up, the parents are prepared for questions and have a moment to think of how they will respond. Please understand this is much different than a child going home and saying “Mom, today my teachers showed us horrible pictures of people living on the roof of their house and being cold and wet” and the parent not having a clue what the child is talking about.
Remember that you and the parents are on the same team! From time to time, you may face parents who resist these conversations or feel you are crossing the line. This is why it is crucial to use vetted sources and materials aligned to your State standards. Scholastic News and Time for Kids have great articles that align with many of the standards and are also age appropriate. When you face a parent who is resistant but you are confident you have only used school related sources to teach students the facts behind the issues at hand, then you have something to substantiate your lesson. Never be afraid to reach out to a parent with concerns and hear them out. Often times, there is reasoning or misconceptions about the parent’s resistance. A respectful conversation can make all the difference. Should you still have issues, make sure to ask your administrators how they would like you to proceed.
 Shielding and protecting our student’s innocence is often viewed as the main objective but forcing them to suppress their feelings and emotions often leaves them confused. If they see something and are asking questions, then the thoughts will be there whether we brush it off or give them the power to understand. Am I suggesting to show our children videos of violence and other atrocities? NO! I am simply sharing that our kids see everything that is going on and they are always listening. Do not shy away from learning opportunities.
Remember, it is up to us, teachers and parents, to work together to teach children about our world. It takes a village. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone – their future is dependent on you!  

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