Having Hard Conversations with Students, One Year After Parkland

One year after the horrific events in Parkland, a teacher reflects on having hard conversations with teens and recommends three books to help start a dialogue on serious, timely issues facing young people today.

One of the most indelible memories of the last school year is when the voices of my sixth graders rang out with concern as we talked about the shooting that occurred on Feb 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

I recall one student shouting loudly and indignantly: “It’s not fair.”

A chorus of “Yeahs” followed and then another student said, “It’s not OUR fault that crazy people have guns! We shouldn’t have to wear clear book bags or walk through metal detectors.” Near me, a student whispered to her classmates, “Are they serious? Teachers with guns? I don’t trust some with a stapler.”

As the lesson came to a close, it became clear that the period was over but the conversation was not. The students had questions, and lots of them. They wanted to know how likely it was for a shooting to happen at our school. They wanted to understand if the protocols of intruder drills would actually keep them safe if the danger was real. They were curious if I would be willing to wear a gun at school and how far I would go to protect them.

There was a high level of emotion that day and some may wonder why I even brought it up. Certainly, I did not have to. In fact, across America, it is likely that plenty of teachers shied away from the conversation.

I understand that decision. It is difficult for students and teachers alike to talk about violence, especially the kind that is tied to controversial political issues. But, my teaching philosophy has always held in high esteem the kinds of classrooms that give space for critical analysis of news stories that directly impact the world students occupy. As Kylene Beers and Robert Probst say in Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters (Scholastic Teaching Resources, 2017), “In too many places, we ask kids to read (and write) so we can give them a grade that shows they’ve learned some skills.... Skills are important. But if we aren’t reading and writing so that we can grow, so that we can discover, so that we can change—change our thinking, change ourselves, perhaps help change the world—then those skills will be for naught.” As educators, we must consider how the issues that are the most difficult to discuss today are the problems our young children will be tasked with solving tomorrow. Nothing can matter more or make reading more relevant.

As the anniversary of the shooting in Parkland nears, I am thankful for the teachers out there who use student-centered activities to support young people and model how to lead hard conversations. In the spirit of this, here are three works of fiction that may help spark conversation around a multitude of timely national issues:

Hush by Jacqueline Woodson (Puffin, 2010; Gr 7-9) tells the story of Toswiah Green entering the witness protection program after her father, a black police officer, testifies against two white cops. Toswiah’s insightful diary entries are full of sorrow spun into lyrical prose.

Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos (S. & S./Atheneum, 2006; Gr 6-8) captures the experience of Bangladeshi immigrants struggling with citizenship post-9/11, told through the eyes of 14-year-old Nadira, who struggles to keep her family together after her father is taken into custody at the Canadian border.

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin (Knopf, 2018; Gr 9 Up) is a powerful novel about a six-year-old surviving a school shooting. It is gut-wrenching but full of heart and hope.

Valerie Sawicki-Bellomo is a teacher at the Young Women's Leadership School of Astoria, currently on maternity leave.

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