Toxic Discussion or Teachable Moment

Posted by John Connelly on January 11, 2013

The classroom can be a dangerous place.

It was last period of the day on a Friday afternoon. The weather was unseasonably mild for late November, and there was a basketball tournament going on all afternoon in the gym. These were not what you’d call conditions conducive to introducing new material to my Grade 10 English class. I knew they’d be antsy to begin the weekend. They’d be grumpy at me for responding in the negative when they asked me to take them to the basketball game in the gym.

I was worried the conditions might derail my lesson. I needed something to grab their attention and hold it for an hour. I ultimately decided on an article by Tony O’Brien: “My Search for the Friend I Left Behind.” It’s a brief memoir in which an American journalist tells the story of being captured in Afghanistan and imprisoned as a suspected spy during the waning days of the Soviet occupation. O'Brien's cell mate is a man named Nader Ali with whom he develops a close friendship, forged by the conditions in which they find themselves. O’Brien is eventually released and returns to Afghanistan to find Nader Ali.

I had delivered this lesson before, and I knew most students enjoyed the essay. “Okay,” I began after we had read the piece, “Does this essay have an implicit thesis statement, and if so, what is it?” I generally get a variety of responses, and in the course of discussion, we usually conclude that the piece is written to demonstrate the bonds of humanity that have the potential to unite all people, regardless of ethnicity, cultural background, religion, and so on. Despite the horrors of his captivity, the author expresses gratitude that the circumstances allowed him to connect with a man whose language and traditions would once have seemed abject and alien.

I always try to anticipate any number of possible responses to questions posed in class, but I was not expecting the response I got from one student. He raised his hand and said, “Sir, not to be rude or anything, but why are all these people in Afghanistan terrorists? I mean… why do they want to blow everybody up? Is it just ‘cause they’re Muslims or what?”

There was silence for the briefest of moments, and then a storm of outrage from several members of the class. I raised my hand and took back the floor. Whenever something like this happens, I experience a brief moment of cognitive dissonance. Part of me feels driven by the fight-flight reflect, while the other part detects the all-important “teachable moment.”

I have been too well trained to lose my temper in front of students, so I took a cleansing breath and asked to speak to the student privately while the rest of the class re-read the conclusion to the essay to identify the thesis. I had a private conversation with the student in which I probed whether he truly understood the gravity of the epithet he had just assigned to all Afghans. I was convinced that while there was a measure of attention seeking in the comment, the student genuinely surprised by my having taken offense and by the response of his classmates.

The student apologized of his own volition for his comments, and said he understood the importance of thinking before speaking. As a class, we had a good discussion of perception versus reality as the concept relates to cultures and nations with which we may be less familiar. I folded the discussion back into the notions of humanity, empathy, and friendship, as espoused by O’Brien in his memoir.

It was a good discussion, and one from which I hope students walked away with more than the idea of explicit versus implicit theses.

It was partly dumb luck and partly the dynamic of the group that allowed a potentially explosive (and certainly offensive) comment to transition into a profitable discussion whose import refuted the sentiment behind the comment. As teachers, we’re not always so lucky, however, and an unexpected slur, stereotype or epithet can very easily derail a lesson. This risk is amplified when we try to integrate discussions of equity, tolerance, and respect into the delivery of curriculum.

I feel strongly that we’ve come too far and invested too much in bringing issues of social justice to the curriculum to back off now. We need to double down and continue to address the tough questions students bring to the task of learning. Still, what strategies do we have to attend to the sometimes raw and painful comments that remind us of how much work we have yet to do?

What is the best response (if any) to an offensive comment dropped into an otherwise profitable lesson? How do we approach ideas that may threaten the peace and security of the learning community? Do we take a punitive approach and assume bad faith on the part of the speaker? Do we attempt some sort of Restorative Practice to deal with situations such as these?

If you are an educator, what has worked in your classroom? If you are a parent, how do you talk to your children about inclusion and culture? If you are a student, how have you responded to peers who have made offensive remarks in your presence? It’s worth considering how we respond in tense situations and always to add to our arsenal of strategies for attending to teachable moments.

Note: The article referenced in this entry is "My Search for the Friend I Left Behind" by Tony O'Brien. It can be found in Sightlines 10 from Prentice Hall Canada, 2000. ISBN: 0-13-082171-3

Topics: Identity, We and They, Strategies, In the news, English Classroom, English

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