September 2, 2009

Educator Marieke van Woerkom provides timeless guidelines for opening up discussion on difficult issues--like the current economic recession--with your elementary and middle school students. Also included: links to resources on the economic crisis to inform the class discussion.

For over a year now, we've been hearing alarming reports about the economy. People have lost their jobs, homes have been foreclosed on, and many families have had to cut back in one way or another. Few communities have gone unscathed and inevitably the kids in your classroom are aware of the crisis in one way or another. Even if the situation hasn't been discussed with them directly, they know something is up, especially if their parents or caregivers have been hit financially or are worried about their future. Though they may be too young to grasp the details, elementary and middle school students sense what is happening and their concerns may show up in their behavior or mood.

What kids need most in situations like these is to talk. Through class meetings you can provide a safe environment where students can share feelings and thoughts, clarify information, and receive support. If you have spent time building community with your class and establishing supportive group norms, much of the groundwork for dealing with sensitive issues such as these is already in place. In addition you may want to consider the following tips, pointers and thoughts about how to deal with crises or other sensitive information in your classroom:

Don't ignore issues. They are present whether you talk about them or not and are likely to come out in one way or another. If you, the adult, provide a supportive environment in which to address challenging and sensitive issues constructively, they can become powerful teachable moments. If you don't, these very same issues can become disruptive and divisive in similarly powerful ways.

Be present and available. During any crisis, students need to know that the adults in their lives are present and are available and ready to provide support when needed.

Invite student feelings and thoughts. When students are worried or upset, it is helpful for them to know that they are not alone. Feeling a sense of connection and support is more reassuring than a detailed explanation of what happened. Consider providing a space where all students have the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about the issue in question. You might do this through a "talking circle" (or restorative circle): pass an object (a talking piece) around the circle. Whoever is holding the object can either talk about what they are thinking or feeling about the issue, or pass. Students who pass will have another opportunity to speak when the talking piece comes around again. You can keep the talking piece going around for as long as it seems constructive and useful, or for as long as the time allows. Talking circles structure a conversation and ultimately allow the group to moderate itself.

In a talking circle, it's important to use ceremony as you set the space apart from other spaces in the school.  This may mean using a poem, quote or some quiet reflection time to open and close the circle. For a talking circle to work well you also need a good opening question and supportive group norms—for instance, speaking for oneself, confidentiality and no put downs.  You may want to encourage students to use their time wisely when they have the talking piece.  Talking circles are useful in times of stress, but can be introduced to encourage sharing throughout the year, allowing students to build the kind of community and trust that will allow them to deal more constructively with difficult or stressful situations, when they arise. For more on circles, see this introduction

Listen and paraphrase. Acknowledge student feelings and thoughts. It is important, especially in difficult times, for students to know they are being heard without judgment. Listening, paraphrasing, and acknowledging students' feelings and thoughts allows students to process their feelings and possibly move beyond some of their worries so that they can begin to explore the issue and generate questions that might further understanding.

Normalize student feelings and thoughts. Let students know they are not alone in feeling confused, upset or angry. Many people feel this way in times of crisis. It is not at all unusual and talking about it will help kids understand that they are not alone.

Check in with students. Some students will reach out themselves when they are struggling. Others need to be encouraged. Look for kids who are acting out of the ordinary, because even if they are not reaching out verbally, there may be behavioral telltales that they are struggling.

Provide structure. At times of uncertainty and crisis, it is especially important to structure how information is shared (whether through peace circles, pair shares, triads, microlabs and/or fishbowls) and to re-emphasize community norms. These structures and norms can provide some comfort and reassurance for kids to hold on to when their community is shaken. This is especially true if these structures have been used before and will continue to be used regularly.

Encourage students to generate questions. Generate lots of questions, open-ended questions, questions from different perspectives. (For more on how to generate good questions, see Alan Shapiro's Thinking is Questioning.) The world is a complex place and the tools we use to engage it should embrace that complexity, rather than ignore it. It's easy to resort to black-and-white thinking, assuming that things are either good or bad. But this thinking promotes polarization and pits people against each other. Instead, try to promote thinking that recognizes not only shades of gray but the spectacular colors that bring the real world into view, accepting and respecting a multitude of varied thoughts and opinions.

Brainstorming open-ended questions that do not assume answers, especially not "the one right answer," cultivates critical thinking and encourages students to think creatively, without judgment or fear of giving the wrong answer. A classroom environment that emphasizes good questions rather than right answers prepares students for the complexity of today's world and the wealth of information that is available to them if they know to look for it.

Promote dialogue. Too often young people are only taught to debate issues. And though debating skills are useful to have in today's world, dialogue is perhaps a more valuable skill when it comes to better understanding complex issues. Debate is about competition and convincing your opponent. Dialogue, on the other hand, is about cooperation, understanding your partner and opening up new ways of thinking. Dialogue promotes a widening of horizons and openness to change. (For more on teaching on controversial issues, see our guidelines for Teaching on Controversial Issues.)

You don't need to be an expert to facilitate a discussion on the economy. But to feel more confident and to prepare a lesson (or series of lessons) on the economic downturn, once students' personal feelings and thoughts have been processed, you may want to review some materials on the subject. This website includes many lessons for high school students on economic issues, including, most recently, 'The Roof is Caving In."

Also consider using some the following multimedia materials:

VIDEO: "How to Explain The 2008 US Financial Crisis To Your Kids (And Most Adults)" by Say It Visually!
This short video explains how the financial crisis came about in a fun and engaging way. The explanation moves very quickly, though, and may require you to pause or rewind it a few times to capture what is being shared. Though marketed as a student piece, it may be better suited for adults wanting to teach the subject to their younger students.

IMAGE: "What does a trillion dollars look like?"
Over the past year there has been a lot of talk about stimulus packages and bailouts. Huge numbers are thrown around as if it's nothing. This slide show allows you to grasp these numbers somewhat better by showing images of what the different amounts look like.

RADIO: NPR's "This American Life Explains the Economic Crisis in 59 minutes"
NPR radio show This American Life tackles the financial crisis, explaining the collapse of the banking system, in 59 compelling minutes.

WRITTEN/RADIO: "Finding the Flexibility to Survive," from This I Believe
This particular essay was written by Brighton Earley, who was a high school senior at the time her piece aired on NPR's All Things Considered (June 2, 2008). It is a very personal essay detailing a teenager's thoughts and feelings around her family's economic struggles:

WRITTEN: "The Growing Divide: Tools for Teachers" & "A Glossary of Economic Terms" by United for a Fair Economy
The educational materials provided on this website were created to raise awareness about "how concentrated wealth and power undermine the economy, corrupt democracy, deepen the racial divide, and tear economies apart." Though the materials are too complex for your elementary and middle school students, they provide a useful perspective and backdrop for any teaching you plan to do on the economy:

In recent years, terms like trade deficits, deregulation, financial derivatives, subprime borrowers, mortgaged backed securities, stimulus packages and bailouts have been introduced to us without much explanation. A glossary of these and much other terminology and jargon can be found at the United for a Fair Economy website:

WRITTEN: "Understanding the Financial Crisis: Origin and Impact" by Junior Achievement Worldwide
These two pdf pieces were created by Junior Achievement Worldwide to explain, and help young people understand, the financial crisis. Junior Achievement Worldwide develops "hands-on experiential programs [that] teach the key concepts of work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy to young people all over the world." The first PDF is geared towards adults, the second towards young people. Once again, the resources are quite complex. Both may provide background information for adults wanting to grasp the economic crisis better themselves.
pdf 1: Understanding the Financial Crisis: Origin and Impact for Volunteers and Educators
pdf 2: Understanding the Financial Crisis: Origin and Impact for Students



How did this activity work in your class? Please share your stories and other feedback with us! Email: info@morningsidecenter.org.