Understanding Current Events:
Educators Discuss Recent Events and How to Handle Them In the Classroom
By Madyson Fitzgerald
“I think at the end of the day, I want my students to leave my classroom feeling a sense of connectivity to the world, in a sense that ‘I can
make a difference in some way,'” Janelle Marshall said. “It may not be in every area, but the area where I’ve found myself in, I can make a difference.”
Marshall, a professor of communication studies at John Tyler Community College, has witnessed the events of the past year through the lens of an educator. The COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the transition of presidential power, and the recent raid on the U.S. Capitol have occupied much of what the media shows.
As educators continue to understand the world around them, many are beginning to realize the importance of their own role. Cheryl Black began teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business in April, with the backdrop of increasing coronavirus cases plaguing the United States. As the year progressed, and the news began to reveal more and more concerning incidents of illness and unrest, she realized her lesson plans needed revision.
“My initial reaction [to the influx of news] was that these events are things that we need to figure out how to integrate into our lesson plans and teaching the students,” Black said. “It’s real life. It’s disruption. And it’s important that we help them to understand what’s going on. We can’t excuse it, we can’t ignore it. We have to bring it into the classroom because it’s happening and they’re experiencing it in real-time.”
Bringing these conversations into the classroom begins with acknowledging that there are two sides to every story. In her Legal Environment of Business course, Black begins the semester by defining civil discourse and its guiding principles. Being that her course is asynchronous and online, she allows students to communicate with each other through discussion boards.
In one assignment, she encourages her students to talk about a situation they either lived through or witnessed where an argument was not executed civilly. Then, students explain how, “the guiding principles of finding common ground of arguing issues- not identities – and embracing the humility that maybe they were wrong,” Black said.
Black said that she hopes her students can apply this to the events of last Wednesday when supporters of President Donald Trump invaded the U.S. Capitol. “And so, in doing that with what’s going on right now,” she explained,” it gives them a platform to talk about what they observed, and how that could have been done differently.”
When it comes to a lot of the conflict portrayed in the media, it is also necessary to recognize personal biases, according to Michael Rutz, professor of sociology at John Tyler Community College. As educators, talking about current events requires objectivity, so that a safe space can be created for students.
“I just think that it’s important to put our emotions aside for a moment, and even our personal biases, and try to figure out why we’ve gotten to this moment, or these moments that seem to be very tense,” Rutz said. “These events are not abstract, you know. These are events that are having direct impacts on our students’ lives.”
As a sociology professor, Rutz mentioned that nothing is ever “black and white, like, either you’re with me or against me.” This is also what he tries to tell his students. “First off, we are much more complex as humans than that, and our viewpoints are much more complex than either being for or against something, regardless of whatever issue it is,” Rutz said.
“And so, we have to dive into that complexity,” he continued,” and we have to have the patience to dive into the complexity of views.”
Recognizing different views can be challenging, but Thad Williamson of the Jepson School of Leadership at the University of Richmond tries to fully prepare his students for situations they may find themselves in. Williamson teaches in political theory, social justice, and political science, and after Trump was first elected in 2016, he knew that a lot of things were going to change.
“You could see pretty evident that this was going to be a challenge for institutions in a more fundamental way,” Williamson said about the election. “And so, I felt like when he first got into office, the best thing to do was not so much to talk about him, but sort of going back to first principles, like ‘what do we mean about democracy?'”
In this way, Williamson provided a “toolkit” for students to keep in mind when they have to make their own informed judgments about everything, from the pandemic to president-elect Joe Biden’s plans for the coming transfer of power. That way, even when opinions are introduced that go against the grain, students are prepared to effectively communicate their thoughts.
“We can’t create a self-contained bubble in which we don’t allow different views to come in because it might feel good in the short run, and it might be useful if you’re in a group therapy session,” Williamson said. “But this is an academic classroom, and we are obligated to prepare you for a range of views.”
The global pandemic has touched everyone’s lives. The recent raid on the U.S. Capitol has shaken much of the country. The transfer of power between Trump and Biden has shown the darker side of America’s democracy. Professors and students alike have seen the news, but it is up to both to effectively create change.
“They [students] have to recognize that what’s happening right now is not new and that this is just a moment for them,” Rutz said. “They can rise to this occasion however they choose to. It’s up to them.”