Empowering Educators to Discuss Hard Topics

  • May 6, 2019
sxsw edu adl

By Jinnie Spiegler | ADL Director of Curriculum and Training

This year, ADL had the opportunity to present three separate sessions at SXSW EDU -- a component of the big annual South by Southwest conference that focuses on teaching and learning. ADL’s sessions covered discussing and framing current events in the classroom, acting as and developing better allies, and the role art plays in promoting social justice themes in the classroom. An overarching theme was turning teachable moments into enriching classroom conversations.

Speaking at and attending sessions at SXSW EDU enabled us to hear and participate in lively conversations about controversial topics, and solidified a few key themes as we continue our work in this space. 

First, teachers are concerned about current events and how they translate for their students. Much of the hate and bias we see in the news is top of mind for teachers. Teachers are sometimes unsure how to best broach the topic with students, but know they must address it. At ADL, we believe that combining current event topics with the key themes of anti-bias training can help students become more civically engaged and better allies to their classmates. Taking an active stance on current events, and discussing them with students, removes the stigma around these issues and allows for open dialogue. ADL has and will continue to work alongside educators to discuss ways to bring these conversations into the classroom, so that they are more confident in this practice when they return to their students.

The second theme we heard while attending sessions at SXSW EDU is that the current system of professional development for teachers is not adequate for handling these issues. Teachers want training that focuses on developing and practicing skills that allow them to better connect with students in the classroom. Currently, most professional development training is more of a lecture than an opportunity for growth. The resources for teachers should be more personalized, differentiated and interactive. By allowing teachers to take an active role with the material being taught, they will better recall the information learned and feel more ownership over it. Then these teachers will be better prepared to discuss bias issues and current events in the classroom. Teachers who take a more active role and practice discussing these often-uncomfortable conversations will then be more confident in the classroom setting.

The final theme is there are many different mediums for teachers to connect with students and for students to tell their stories. Some of the sessions explored alternative ways for students to express themselves, for example the role art plays in the classroom and how teachers can tap this creative outlet to help engage students in difficult conversations. At a sessions I attended, one student used spoken word poetry to discuss the bullying she faced. This form of expression allowed her to cope with the pain she was feeling, change the narrative and turn this negative experience into a beautiful work of art she now owns. Technology advances also offer different entry points for organizations like ADL to provide resources for teachers. There might not be an opportunity to meet at a school for anti-bias training, but with video technology we can join the classroom remotely and create video tutorials with a community educator guiding an anti-bias training.

Overall, this experience at SXSW EDU enabled ADL to listen and learn more about the needs and priorities of students to help us tailor our educator materials around current events, facilitated conversations, anti-bias training and ally empowerment. We are excited by the new opportunities in art and technology that allow students to express themselves, as well as opportunities that provide teachers another entry point for tough conversations. We look forward to working with educators as we continue to work to fight bias and foster alliances in schools.

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