On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, was killed in the streets of Ferguson, MO. On August 11, just two days later, school was scheduled to begin. As I watched the story unfold over the weekend, I was met with an anger and frustration I had not experienced since Trayvon Martin was killed on February 26, 2012. I thought to myself, “again. It happened again” and I began to think about all of my students, many of whom, in size, shape, color, and temperament, could have easily been Michael Brown, or Trayvon Martin, or John Crawford, or Eric Garner, or Sean Bell or, just three short months later, Tamir Rice. And I wept. Again. But I knew this was a crucial moment for my students and I knew it had to be addressed. So I did.

We live in interesting times. The entire world seems to have been overcome by chaos and in many ways these days seem to embody Thomas Paine’s famous quote “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Every night on the news we are met with images of death, destruction, terror, fear, sadness, tragedy,  and we as teachers are required to process all of it whether we want to or not. Whether it be Syrian refugees, police brutality, racist rhetoric, terrorism, abortion clinics, or affirmative action we don’t have the luxury of pushing any of it into the far recesses of our minds because at some point we will be faced with a room full of students who, in some way, are trying to process this information too. So what do we do?

If we are honest, many of us will choose to do nothing; not because we are heartless or unconcerned but because talking about these issues opens the door to emotions and conversations we just aren’t prepared to handle. And, with all that must be done to prepare students for the compulsory end of the year testing frenzy, many of us simply don’t have the time. I get it. These are all the things I told myself before I decided to launch out into the deep for the first time in 2012. Since then, addressing challenging issues and addressing the necessary standards became a part of my yearly practice. Below, I will share with you some strategies I have successfully used in my 9th Grade English class that allowed my students and me to tackle the most sensitive issues together.

Note: Just as a point of clarity, I work at a suburban high school in Atlanta that is 99% African American. While we lack ethnic diversity, we are very diverse in terms of socio-economic status with students who are homeless taking classes with students whose parents drive Bentleys. I have taught students who came to me reading at Grade Level 3.5 and students who stretched my intellect as a teacher. These strategies worked with all of them. Additionally, the standards attached to each are from the State of Georgia but are very closely aligned with the National Common Core.

1) A Picture Says a Thousand Words (ELAGSE9-10W2a-f; 10W4-6)

In February 2012, my daughter was a freshman in high school. She also happened to be in my Honors Literature class. On Monday February 27, the day after the Trayvon Martin story hit the news, I walked into my 1st period class and was met with a mixture of sullenness and lively discussion. Although I had my plans for the day, I knew before I ever arrived what my students were going to want to discuss, so I let them. Every class period that day, the topic was the same; the emotions, which ranged from outright rage to tears of despair, were the only things that separated one class from another. When it came time for my daughter’s class I noticed she was scowling which I knew meant she was thinking very heavily. As the class progressed, my normally loquacious child said nothing. Instead she doodled on a piece of paper. Ten minutes before the end of class she raised her hand and spoke. “Yeah. Okay. All of this is good but what are we going to DO about it?” The class erupted into a series of suggestions but the picture below was the end result. The students titled it “We are Trayvon Martin.” (The girl in the center by the way is my daughter.):

CH - Goes with Strategy 1


While the picture was great, I knew I wanted to show them how the standards they thought were frivolous could actually help them address challenging issues so I came up with an explanatory writing assignment that had to be no more than 1000 words. In this assignment, students had to follow the Jane Schaffer Method of writing and explain why they felt it necessary to take this picture. After going through a series of revisions, the letters were sent to our representatives in the state House and Senate. Additionally, because one of our media specialist went to high school with Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, we were able to send the picture directly to her with words of encouragement. Unlike the representatives, she responded and thanked the students for their care and concern.

2) OPTIC (ELAGSE9-10RI1, RI7, W1, SL4-6)

At the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, the same name kept floating through the conversations of my students, Michael Brown. I wanted to allow students to discuss the issue but I also wanted them to learn what it meant to analyze a text. In my class, I teach my students that a text is anything from which they can gather information. This releases them from only seeing books or other written forms as texts and opens their minds to the idea that music and art are texts as well. To do this, I used an AP strategy called OPTIC, which is used for the analysis of visual or graphic text. (For the sake of length, I am not going to include all of the specifics of this strategy but you can find a graphic organizer that I’ve used by clicking here.)

For their assignment, students were presented with the following two pictures from the protests that followed:

CH - Goes with Strategy 2-1 CH - Goes with Strategy 2-2


1) Their first charge was to choose one of the images and use the OPTIC strategy to analyze it as a group.

2) Then each group member was to take one of the letters in the acronym and write a complete, detailed response to what that component was requiring.  This response had to be at least one full paragraph and had to include a claim and the evidence to support the claim. For example, the “T” in optic stands for title. Because these are photos that came from the media and do not have titles, students had to first decide on a title for the photograph and then defend their claim that the title they chose was appropriate by finding evidence from the visual text to support it.

3) The next step required students to put each of their analysis together into one cohesive document written in formal voice.

4) Once all the responses were read, they worked together to create a visual of their analysis. How they chose to represent their claims and evidence had to be decided within their group and a consensus must be reached. They then used a large Post-It Note on which to create their visual.

5) Finally, each group presented their OPTIC findings to the class. The member responsible for writing the individual OPTIC component was responsible for presenting that component of the picture. You can see a few examples of their work below.

CH - Goes with Strategy 2-3 CH - Goes with Strategy 2-4

3) Socratic Seminar (ELAGSE9-10SL1a-d, SL3)

When most teachers think about Socratic Seminars they think primarily about literary texts and/or honors or advanced classes. However, this is a great way to get all students engaged in quality conversation while teaching students the skills of annotation and collaborative discussion.

There are a number of ways to hold a Socratic Seminar. Simply Google it and you’ll find a ridiculous number of resources. One that I’ve used in past can be found here. However, I sometimes use a different method depending on the level of students I am teaching at the time. Ideally, you want students to have read an article that will be the basis for their discussion that day. This can be assigned as homework the day before or, if it is a brief piece and students already have a number of other texts to pull from, it can be given as they walk in the door as a Do Now or bell ringer. Students are tasked with reading the article, annotating for information they deem important, and then coming up with questions they can use within the Socratic Seminar format. Whether they are advanced students or emerging scholars, I allow them to develop their own questions but I also provide a set of questions stems to assist them if they are having difficulty coming up with suitable questions.

The beauty of using this format for discussion is it is completely student-centered. As teacher, you are not part of the discussion. Your job is to make sure it remains a discussion and doesn’t turn into a debate or a series of arguments while also helping the discussion along of it stalls. Admittedly, unless students are already familiar with the format, it takes a few seminars before they get comfortable with it. However, once they do, rich and meaningful conversations begin to develop and can even evolve into argumentative essays that allow students to delve even deeper into the issue. But, what really makes these special is it allows students to speak in their own voices about issues that matter to them, especially when they may not have any place else to discuss them. At the end of one particularly emotional seminar, one of my students approached me and asked if she could give me a hug. Of course I obliged. I am a hugger after all. When I asked her why she said “Because I’ve been wanting to talk about this at home and my parents won’t talk about it. They tell me to stay in a child’s place and not worry about adult matters like what’s on the news. But Mrs. Holliman, what’s happening does matter to me! Thank you for letting us do a Socratic Seminar. Can we have another one tomorrow?”

Addressing controversial issues is scary, especially in an environment where teachers are under such scrutiny so I would not suggest just jumping into it blind. I have the distinct advantage of having worked at my school for 11 years so I’ve built up enough credibility that parents trust what I do in my classroom even if they are not quite comfortable with it yet. However, before I delve into anything that I think might cause and issue, I send an email to my parents at least a week in advance outlining for them what students will be doing in the upcoming week so I can make modifications if necessary. And, because everything is attached to a standard, I don’t get much push back from my administrators. (Even if I did, I’d do it anyway because I ascribe to the “ask for forgiveness not permission” rule, especially when I know that what I am doing provides not only the rigor but the relevance that is needed for my students to be successful.)

In this new year, I encourage you to find some way invite your students into a conversation about a significant local, national or global issue whatever that may be. You might not use one of the methods I discussed above but commit to doing something. Future generations are counting on us to sort things out and who better to solve the world’s problems than teachers and the students they teach.

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