“Do Something Instead of Sending Prayers”

When I was a student in the 80s we debated gun control– the gun homicide rate in the United States had grown rapidly since the 1960s, and was 6.6-7 per 100,000. The 80s were a crime-heavy time in this nation– politicians often ran for office by promising to be tough on crime. We used the issue of gun control to learn the art of debate, arguing the controversial sides of handgun ownership, along with others issues such as abortion rights, euthanasia, and pesticide use in agriculture– we were taught to research, create arguments for both sides, and be able to deliver regardless of one’s own personal viewpoint. While there were many points to argue about gun ownership, the guns we argued about were handguns and rifles, and the idea of a mass shooting as we have started to see unfold in our nation did not hover over our minds, classrooms, or teachers as a ‘what if’.

I look out into my seventh grade classroom today, and  I am overwhelmed when I think about all that my students need to filter on a daily basis. I started teaching before smart phones and 9/11, and I have seen anxiety levels steadily rise in my students every year since. The accelerated growth of mass shootings since Sandy Hook, and the inundation of media imagery has placed my students in a world where they ask each other when will such a shooting occur in our school, instead of if.  And as a teacher, I am now instructed to stand by the door should I need to act against an active shooter, as if my pencil cans or milk crate file cabinet is any match for an AR-15. The policeman tells us it is really a last resort, and shakes his head while he speaks as if saying, “Yeah, good luck with that.” So we practice crouching in the dark and pretending we are not really there, which feels as futile as when we see images of the drills for the drop of a nuclear bomb, children tucked under tiny desks and holding their heads, waiting.

There are so many debatable questions:

How do we approach a topic that already creates heightened anxiety with or without speaking it? How can a teacher or parent discuss the issue while at the same time promote a sense of well-being? Should we discuss mass shootings at all, or plan and practice for the improbable, or should we focus instead on building the deep connections needed to help prevent such tragedies in the first place? Or is there a shade of gray, somewhere in between?  And, since crime in the United States has actually decreased over the last quarter of a century, why do we feel things are so dangerous and uncertain?

One way to explore the issue in the United States is to examine gun violence and ownership as compared to other nations. Here are 17 charts that explore America’s unique problem in relationship to other nations.  “America is an exceptional country when it comes to guns. It’s one of the few countries in which the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected. But America’s relationship with guns is unique in another crucial way: Among developed nations, the US is far and away the most violent — in large part due to the easy access many Americans have to firearms.” What about the constitutional right to bear arms in other nations? Do other nations allow gun ownership protected by law? What does the 2nd amendment really mean, anyway? 

According to a study by the Pew Research the rate of US gun violence had actually fallen 49% from 1993 to 2013.  Yet since Sandy Hook, there have been 1,500 mass shootings. (Defined by the Gun Violence Archive as all shootings in which four or more people were shot but not necessarily killed, excluding the shooter.)

“So many people die annually from gunfire in the US that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipses all wars ever fought by the country. According to research by Politifact, there were about 1.4 million firearm deaths in that period, compared with 1.2 million US deaths in every conflict from the War of Independence to Iraq.” According to the Gun Violence Archive, America’s firearm deaths total more than 32,000 each year.

And it is a hard fact that the more guns there are in an area, the more gun deaths will result. Not only do guns kill people, but so do people with guns. “States with higher gun ownership rates have higher gun murder rates—as much as 114 percent higher than states with lower gun ownership rates.” Fewer guns in a state or more legislation, lead to fewer gun homicides.  Mother Jones magazine’s 10 Pro-Gun Myths, Shot Down, uses infographics and data to fact-check and explore the pro-gun myths that the NRA uses to argue their stance.

Perhaps the latest mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida will be the tipping point this nation needs to make positive change. Many students are using their experiences and survival as a platform to promote social change and call for tougher gun laws.  These brave youth are calling for politicians to take a stand, planning walkouts, and asking our government and citizens to do something instead of sending prayers. It is time we all listen.

Syria: Teaching about the Civil War and Refugee Crisis

“This is happening right now?” a student blurted out and smacked the table with her hand. “Yes, while we are all sitting here, this is happening,” I responded. “How could anyone allow this to go on?” she continued. And she was not alone–this level of engagement was classroom-wide.

“What was Syria like before the war?” another student asked.

“How many refugees do we have in America?”

“What about in our town or school?”

The conversation and engagement continued for three days.

Syria is a hard topic to teach, as the war itself is complicated and the outlook is bleak. Yet there are also stories of hope, refugees who have survived and thrived, heroic actions by people such as the White Helmets, the International Rescue Committee, and Doctors without Borders. So while there is a lot of heaviness to wade through, there are also stories of hope, selflessness and humanity that can be used to teach empathy and activism.

A great starting point is the website I Am Syria which offers a curriculum and page for educators which can be modified to fit the needs and structure of a classroom. Start with their background resources for an overview.

For my lesson, I followed much of the video tour. I created a reflection sheet based on the videos. We viewed a clip together, students had an opportunity to write, and then we had a discussion. While initially I was planning for students to watch the videos at their own pace, I decided to watch all together using my projector and screen and I am happy that I did. The videos provided good detail and were great conversation starters, and the sequence walked my classroom through the start of the war to the journey of refugees. The material was pretty heavy, and the camaraderie and community viewing allowed for us to process what we viewed.

For elementary students there are more basic resources and a page for activism after kids learn about the situation. As I told my students, your first responsibility to learn as much as you can, then you can teach others and make your voices heard. I ended the unit with opportunities to make change and an impact that varied from talking to others about the situation, teaching other students, writing letters or editorials, creating fundraisers for an organization, and learning about the refugees who live in our town and attend our school.

Self-Esteem and Helping Strangers

From NPR, Teen’s Self-Esteem Grows When Volunteering To Help Strangers

“While kids may bristle at the thought of posting fewer selfies, surveys indicate 55 percent of adolescents enjoy volunteering. And according to a recent study, when it comes to helping others, teens may benefit psychologically from spending time helping strangers.”

In the three-year study of 681 youth between the ages 11 and 14, researchers found that youth who assisted strangers reported higher self-esteem a year later. “Questions like “I help people I don’t know, even if it’s not easy for me,” and “I voluntarily help my neighbors,” helped researchers assess the various ways teens support others, while statements like, “I am satisfied with myself,” and “I feel useless at times,” helped the researchers evaluate the teens’ self-esteem.”

How can we incorporate helping strangers into our classroom curriculum? 

How can parents encourage children to commit to community service and helping strangers?

Some recent idea from my Social Studies classroom:

  • Study and support the organization Skateistan. Examine the political and cultural geography of the areas they serve, explore big issues such as equity, the rights of girls, the impacts of poverty
  • Examine food scarcity, watch the film A Place at the Table, and work with the local food bank to raise money, food or help at the facility
  • A unit on the issue of child labor globally with the reading of two texts Iqbal and Free the Children
  • An exploration into global terrorism and the way it impacts girls’ education by reading the young readers version of I Am Malala. Have students use their knowledge to educate others through writing editorials, creating bulletin boards, working with other classrooms, etc.
  • Create a Day of Service where the entire school-wide community helps local organizations and neighbors. Have students and faculty brainstorm things they can do in their local community to reach out and foster connections.

The Benefit of Helping Teens Find Their Purpose in Life

From KQED news, a story from Mind/Shift about a semester-long elective called the QUESTion Project designed to give adolescents a space in which to wrestle with big questions about who they are, where they are headed and what matters most in their journey through life. The project helps students answer the most difficult question: What is my purpose? What do I want to become in life?