The BIG NEWS STORY as classroom disturbance and teachable moment.

From time to time an event happens that dominates a college’s consciousness in a way that not saying anything about it can cause students to lose trust in their teachers. These events can be local, national, or international and may coincide with faculty interest or expertise or not. When the Arab Spring occurred in 2010, I found my interests high but my expertise low. When one of our local sports teams wins or loses, some students’ interest and expertise can be high, where I bring little to the party. So, I’ve learned to be attentive to events in our world, big and small, in our world so that I might connect better with my students.

The events of Ferguson, Missouri are of the sort that dominate the nation’s consciousness. For example, several high schools in Minneapolis had students walk out of classes today to protest the Ferguson grand jury decision.

How can we respond responsibly as teachers to these big events, in general, and Ferguson, specifically?

1. Acknowledge the event in class and recognize that students may be upset, angry, and looking to talk.
2. Have a plan that meets your goals. Some faculty may find a way to incorporate elements of a news story into the daily lesson.
3. Listen first to students, then talk. Big events may affect students differently than you. This is not the time for sage on the stage.
4. Encourage students to consider multiple viewpoints (not all viewpoints – as state institutions we are responsible to provide an “educational environment that is collegial and free of illegal discrimination or harassment based on race, sex color, creed, religion, age, national origin, disability, marital status, status with regard to public assistance or sexual orientation, or membership in a local commission as defined by law.”)
5. Give students tools to further their knowledge of events.

As an example, I posted this “News in History” page to my online students.  In it, I encouraged them to go to the primary sources of the grand jury decision, explained how to search twitter for information using the #ferguson hashtag, and offered them a worksheet to help them refine their understanding of the issue.

Teachers respond to almost every  news event today by posting their impromptu lesson plans to the web, often under a twitter hasgtab #newseventsyllabus. For Ferguson it’s #fergusonsyllabus . For example, see this former U of MN student’s piece on talking about Ferguson on the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As educators we aver that we’re helping students understand the world around them. Big events require that we keep helping, advancing our students’ understanding, even when we’re operating at the ends of our expertise or comfort.


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