Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Interesting Times - How NOT to Address Tragedy and #muslimrage in Schools

"May you live in Interesting times" 
- A saying from the counterweight continent, Discworld (among others)

War. What is it good for?
I was flipping through Facebook one morning this week and came across a few disturbing posts to the effect of: 

“Why isn’t the [US Government] administration doing anything?  Do they want another 9-11?”
Comments like this tend to activate the snarkiest part of my debate mind. I immediately start crafting cross-examination questions:
  • “You would like to go on record that it is your belief that our politicians (or any Americans) want another tragedy like 9-11?”
  • “What specific action would you like to see taken?”
  • “Can this action be accomplished while maintaining or respect for sovereignty, innocent life, etc?”
Ultimately, though, while these mental exercises are fun, they don’t really help to solve any problems. Understanding the full expanse of the tragedy in Libya last week would require an understanding of a number of complex issues: international politics, recent history, religious differences, the interplay of government and religion in extremism to name a few.

News organizations, politicians, and the vast political and media machines that they control (or are controlled by) do not have the profit or vote motive to explain these issues. Decades of sound-byte culture have stripped away most of the mechanisms that could even deliver complex explanations anyway. Thus, in the light of smirks and anti-smirks, vague pleading for action on social media, and the real feelings of anger, fear, and sadness that surround any loss of life, the questions becomes “how do we educate the next generation on these issues?”

Everybody get together, Try to love one another right now
School is rarely like what we see in the movies. Few schools actually pull all of the girls into the gymnasium in order to convince them to stop being cruel to each other through trust falls. More often than not, big showy gestures end up feeling more like that scene in HEATHERS where well-meaning teachers, apathetic students, and a dash of media or parent hype create awkward eye-rolling moments.

Interlude (Overheard):
“Can you believe what is going on in the Middle East? It’s tragic”
“And on 9-11!”
“Have you seen the video on YouTube that started the whole thing?”
“We should do something. For the kids. An assembly or something.”
“For the whole school. Something to really address this whole thing”
End Interlude

There are a lot of logistical issues with putting something like this together. I don’t want to address any of those.  There is also a strong argument to be made about when to "pull the all-school trigger” or, put another way, what makes this particular event worthwhile over so many others? Not going to write about that either.

Instead, I would like to approach this idea of teaching about the middle east tragedy as a worthy subject for our students. I will further assume that the logistics can be easily overcome and that the loss of classroom time in any other subject is relatively minimal. And yet, despite these two (rather significant) assumptions, there should still not be an all-school convocation on this topic. 

Why?-- it’s just bad education.

It’s not that all-school convocations are universally bad. We hold all-school masses and prayer services to worship together as a community. We bring students together to raise the emotional bar before homecoming games or to pay honor to students and alumni who exemplify the school's mission. We remember significant moments in our history (Martin Luther King Jr., Holocaust Remembrance Day), particularly when we have the rare opportunity to hear first person accounts that are increasingly rare and always precious. 

The best of these gatherings have a simple straightforward message that can be easily comprehended. The appeal,  when they work, is not an intellectual one, but one of emotion. Conversely, the worst large gatherings strip away emotional appeal entirely (boring), present a message that is too complicated (confusing), or make assumptions about the audience that interfere with the one-way messaging (offensive).

A large gathering about a currently-unfolding tragic event for any purpose other than grieving or solidarity is difficult to justify. Once we decide that the event is worthy of being taught, it becomes important not to become caught up in the chance for a big-moment if that same moment sacrifices the opportunity for true understanding, for true learning by the students. Instead, we should begin with the end in mind: if our goal is to achieve some sort of understanding about the underlying cause and potential actions possible in the Middle East, we need to construct learning opportunities that will likely lead to this understanding -- fortunately, for these situations we have a the solution:

It's called SCHOOL.

Teach Your Children Well

Context: The best classroom environments take into account student context. This context has a variety of factors, including grade level, maturity level, and the amount of information on the topic to which students have already been exposed. Teachers are trained to understand the context of students individually and as a group and expose them to information and experiences in units that can be processed and understood.

A world civilization teacher at the Freshman level will help students trace the cultural, religious, and historical factions that influenced the diversity of perspectives in the Muslim world.  
A teacher of a senior World Religions course will setup time to research the religious differences within sects of Islam and discuss the impact of specific religious texts within the context of extremism. Students in mass media or film production classes will dissect the editing of the YouTube video to maximize negative reactions.

Experience: One of the advantages of the modern age is the sheer amount of information that is available to our students. One of the disadvantages of the modern age is the sheer amount of information that is available to our students. Teachers have the two-fold task in situations like this to expose students to the relevant information (appropriate to maturity level, subject matter, etc.) while also beginning to help students form their own filtering processes to adapt to and account for all of that information.

Students in the Digital Citizenship analyze  the growth of viral Youtube videos compared with claims about causality. Use of #muslimrage as a pressure release and context shifting use of social media.
 Sophomore Speech and Debate students can break down the claims on the same event as covered by a variety of media types and sources.

Reflection: This information is processed (and the information filters are created) through processes of reflection: merging prior knowledge with new experiences through discussion, journaling, debates, and other thoughts.

Use concentric circle discussions (personal, partners, small groups, large feedback on butcher paper) to identify opinion/fact, overstated claims, insufficient research for conclusion, and fact checking. Compare papers as a class (gallery walk) and do the fact-checking on articles and op-ed broadcasts

Additionally, breaking the learning into cross-curricular units has the advantage of providing repetition in a variety of contexts (this strengthens the subject itself and weakens the intellectual silos that students tend to build in schools). Students also have more opportunity to share feelings, listen to multiple points of view, and confront passionate and, at times, contradictory material. Finally, in smaller settings with a teacher who is a subject-matter expert, they have the safety of the group and a guide as material become complicated or frustrating.

This is learning. Real learning.

There is an oft-used expression that is popular in science-fiction: "May you live in interesting times" 

We do...And they are. 

It is easy to long for a simpler time and easier solutions. 
One big event. 
One simple message. 
One cathartic moment. 

But life is messy. Politics and religion are...interesting. We do ourselves and our students a disservice to pretend that it is otherwise. Embrace the complexity and allow the students to do the same. In that struggle to comprehend and the structured experience and reflection provided by our classes, we can challenge our children to do more than passively absorb -- we can ask them to understand and, based on that understanding, to take action. 

Now that would be interesting.