Let's Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable - National Council of Teachers of English
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Let’s Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

This post, written by member Danielle Ambrosia, is a reprint

I was in sixth grade when the Columbine shooting happened. I remember vividly because my mom couldn’t even speak about it without tearing up at the dinner table. My father kept repeating how he didn’t know why people kept guns in their houses. I remember not knowing how to react in front of my parents; my dinner table (regarding this topic) was not a safe space.

I remember, perhaps more vividly, the next day at school. All the teachers were sad. I was 12 and noticed; everyone spoke quietly. I got through 5th period and made the trek from the trailers outside to math class with Mr. Thompson. And Mr. Thompson did what no one else did that day: Mr. Thompson spent the entire class period talking to us about Columbine.

He told us that it was okay to be scared. He emphasized the importance of telling an adult when you think another student is struggling or in trouble. And he used those words, too: “struggling, in trouble.” He never once slapped judgement on the shooters and I honestly believed by the end of the 47 minute period that if I knew someone was planning to hurt me, or someone else, I could tell Mr. Thompson and he could help. What was most remarkable about that class period was he let the students talk. He didn’t tell anyone their opinion was wrong, or their feelings were misguided. He simply let us talk. He also kept it respectful; he explained before calling on anyone that this classroom was our classroom and we “owned it.” He discussed having respect for others because we only know what we know; we cannot definitively say what we would or would not do in situations we are not directly in. Because he led the conversation with honesty and a high level of expectations of respect, students started talking.

Almost 20 years later I still recall that specific class period because it was honest. It was possibly the first time an adult treated me like a young adult rather than a middle school child.  I still think of his discussion with us when I speak to my 9th graders about Intruder Drills, or the game plan when there is an “active threat.” His kind tone echoes in my ears; I remind myself to stay calm, even if I don’t like the subject matter because it will resonate better with my students. I remind myself to emphasize that our classroom is owned by us and the tone we set is one of respect, and kindness, even when we disagree.

As a teacher, I understand how uncomfortable Mr. Thompson must have been. Maybe the night of the shooting he was watching the news with his wife and said, “I’m going to talk to my kids tomorrow about this.” Maybe she reacted negatively because we know as teachers it’s tricky to talk about controversial issues and remain totally neutral. Perhaps he sat down with the principal later in the day and had to have a conversation to rationalize his choice to have this frank discussion with a bunch of 6th graders. But here’s the deal, folks: we must have these hard conversations.

Currently in our country there are a plethora of issues going on, both political and social. And some of it is extremely frightening, even for adults. I challenge you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s positive for students to be able to have classroom environments that tackle tough issues. It’s positive to listen to those they disagree with. It’s positive for them to see you, as their teacher, discern the difference between strongly-worded tactical rhetoric and the facts of arguments based on data.

I’m not sure which news outlet you’re tuning into lately, but it’s entirely possible students are not seeing enough respectful interactions between opposing sides. They maybe aren’t able to articulate the difference between ethical journalism and cheap reporting yet. It is possible that YouTube comments may be their main source of discussion. While all of the previous examples are “at least something” as some will point out–isn’t it part of our job to help them critically think, examine, and evaluate the world they live in? As English and Language Arts teachers we have a unique opportunity to provide a safe space where students can ask questions, research facts, speak intelligently, and walk out feeling like they contributed to something in a meaningful way.

I spoke with some students regarding this topic, as we spent a portion of the previous year discussing gender and racial social issues through the texts Speak and A Raisin In The Sun. Below are student responses to the question: What are the benefits of classroom discussions regarding social (racial and gender) and political issues?

The biggest benefit of having open discussions regarding sensitive topics in our classroom was how it brought our class together as a whole, and helped us to open up with each other and feel comfortable sharing our thoughts. There was this reality and truthfulness that I didn’t feel I got from other classes. It helped me to understand different sides of things, whereas at home I am only taught to believe in one side of things.

Having discussions in the classroom on topics such as race and gender allows us to see that these things are worth learning about. Some people our age have interest in activism or are already seeking out more information for themselves, but others have only really seen these types of discussions in social media comment sections – with varying levels of legitimate fact. Discussions such as these are very important for the growth of understanding in high school aged students, and having them in the classroom lets us give our full focus to the topic. If subjects such as these are brought up in a classroom, where we have access to texts and the minds of our peers and teachers, we can benefit from it far more than if we were solely scrolling through comments of teenagers on the Internet trying to pioneer a social movement through their Instagram pages. Having classroom discussions helps us to constantly formulate our own opinions and gain insight from other students that we may not otherwise talk with about gender or race issues.

I feel like in a classroom there is no wrong answer, and other students know that they are expected to not necessarily agree with, but respect the person sharing their opinions. It’s nerve racking talking about something so sensitive such as race and gender being one-on-one with someone because saying something possibly offensive could make the situation very awkward. I’ve grown so much this past year because of the way we discussed mature topics in English, and I truly hope I’ll have more opportunities to share my opinions in a classroom and not have to worry about judgments from others.

…I still can’t talk to my mom about Columbine. I’m a teacher and she still freaks out. But I bet you anything I could talk to Mr. Thompson about it to this day.

I challenge you to tackle one social or political issue in your classroom this year. It doesn’t have to be through discussion; maybe you have students journal, or research and analyze a YouTube video, or a speech. Start small; collaborate with other teachers and compare notes. These discussions have the potential to build community and trust if we hold ourselves and students to high expectations. We must remain vigilant in our cause to educate and promote intellectual conversations; demonstrating that even when we disagree, we can be kind and respectful to our fellow citizens. We must lead by example and show students that there is more than political circus rat-racing and that when ethical people stand together we can achieve things.

Danielle teaches English to 9th graders at State College Area High School. She enjoys cooking, organizing, and spending time with her family.