A Teacher’s Perspective: Talking about Guns with Students

I’m a retired teacher so am no longer in direct contact with students. In a recent conversation I had with a 5th grade teacher, I queried, “What are your students saying about guns and gun violence?” He told me he doesn’t talk about guns with his students–“its too close to the reality they live in their neighborhoods. Besides it’s too controversial to bring up in the classroom.” “But don’t you teach current events?” I inquired.  “I teach reading,” was his response.

I’m afraid there are a lot of teachers who avoid controversies like this by focusing on basics. Talking about guns with students just opens up a touchy subject with strongly held opinions on all sides. However, I venture to suggest, it’s for this very reason that we, as educators, are obligated to help our students develop opinions that are based on objective facts. In addition, we are obligated to create learning environments that embrace community and the worth of every individual’s voice and that provides support for those who are isolated and ostracized.

First Step: Start by following

The Parkland students, and students across the country, are taking the lead and providing direction for stopping gun violence in our schools. I stood with 20,000 students and adults on March 24 in St. Paul, MN, as student voices were raised in opposition with the refrain “Enough is Enough.” What can we, as teachers, do to help strengthen the legitimacy of these student voices? And how can we do this within our classrooms in ways that are respectful and caring?

Youth in FrontMiddle and high school teachers can start with Youth in Front, an initiative that is part of a Harvard School of Education’s “Usable Knowledge.” The resources and ideas on the Youth in Front website are not specifically about gun violence, but rather about student activism and how to nurture it in the classroom. It’s about engendering the desire, ability, and confidence in our students to speak out. The ideas explored in Youth in Front can provide a pedagogical foundation for fostering the skills students need to be active participants in our society. Teachers need to see how they can bring about strategies found in Youth in Front.

Getting the Facts straight

I was once challenged by a parent for talking about gun violence in my 6th grade classroom. We met with the principal and the parent called into question my right to discuss this topic calling into question what he considered were my clear biases against guns in our culture. I was teaching current events and was using a Time for Kids article to frame the conversation and to provide the objective facts. Thank goodness facts won out and the principal stood with my right to teach controversial subjects through an exploration of multiple perspectives.

Teach with the Lowdown

Teachwlowdown  So where do you turn for these objective facts? Check out KQED News’ The Lowdown: Gun Violence, Gun Control, Gun Rights: Where We Go from Here –facts about gun violence through interactive media that will your students and arm them with accurate data to develop their own conclusions about what to do about gun violence in our society. Here are a few of the resources available through the Lowdown:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W1 Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

Resources include the interactive graphics  Gun Deaths in America and an interactive map from the CDC with 2016 death rates attributed to guns and total gun deaths by states (including suicides–which makes up 2/3, homicides, and accidents).

Amplifying Student Voices

We’ve all heard the voices of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students. Hopefully you have been engaged in what the students in your classroom are saying and writing about gun violence. I’m not in the classroom so I’ve been actively seeking out student voices through public blogs and other authentic outlets for students to publish their thoughts and opinions on guns in their lives. Although I’m not finding much online it was encouraging to recently receive an email from youth in my church seeking lobbying support for gun violence legislation they originally drafted as part of a mock legislative assembly. Its empowering reading their words and feeling their commitment.

Beyond a few online posts, I haven’t found any current student writings, but in that searching process  I did discover a wonderful initiative (worth duplicating here in Minnesota) from a group called the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. Clearly this group has an anti-gun focus to their work, but they open wonderful creative opportunities for students to write, draw, and produce multimedia about their thoughts on guns and gun violence.

“The Student Voices Program is designed to get youth thinking, speaking and acting in response to gun violence. Affected by gun violence in all its forms (community violence, accidental shooting and suicides), youth in Illinois have much to say on this issue. Through our Contest, we provide an outlet for expression and a platform for youth to be heard. “

ICHV-Student-Voices-June-2015-Winners-Packet.pdf

Students are encouraged to submit entries in poetry, essays, art, and spoken word. Here are the K-12 winners in 2015. This program is for Illinois students only. I share these student expressions to spark your imagination of how you may frame a creative challenge for your students. Do you have strategies to amplify your students’ voices? Are you having students write and publish on guns and gun violence? Share what you are doing below and I’ll include them in future blogs right here in Making Connections.

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