Empowering Educators to Discuss Hard Topics

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May 06, 2019

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 (1) discussing and framing current events in the classroom through an anti-bias lens, (2) acting as and developing better allies, and (3) 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 those of us who attended to hear and participate in lively conversations among educators about controversial topics and solidified a few key themes as we continue to do our work in classrooms and schools. 

First, teachers are concerned about how to talk with young people about the hate and bias we are seeing in the world.. Teachers are sometimes unsure how to best broach the topic with students, but know they must address it. We believe that combining real life events and what’s happening in their schools 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 these issues removes the stigma 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 state 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 and talk about tough topics. Educators would like to see their professional development more personalized, differentiated and interactive. By allowing teachers to take an active role with the material being taught, they will 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 ways for teachers to connect with students and for students to tell their stories. Some of the sessions we attended 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 another session 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. Overall, this experience at SXSW EDU enabled ADL to listen and learn more about the needs and priorities of teachers in order to help us tailor our educator materials around current events, facilitated conversations, anti-bias training and ally building. 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 allyship in schools.