Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Providing a safe place

What exactly does that mean? A safe place? Safe? Who defines what is safe? And what does it really mean?

For teenager Anne Frank and her family, it meant hiding from the Nazis and relying on assistance from co-workers and friends who could be trusted. We just finished reading the play version of The Diary of Anne Frank last week. We also saw the play as a class the day before Election Day.

Following Election Day, the news filled with words like divisiveness, fear, divided, safety. And then we went into a long weekend. That long weekend came to an end with a horrific tragedy that rocked our community. A well-known sheriff's deputy was shot and killed. This impacted our county, but more than that, it brought great pain to our community and even more specifically, to some of our school's families. This provided a teachable moment. We had gone into the weekend hearing how divided our country was and we emerged from it united as a community in the face of tragedy. We came together in part because we were already a close-knit community.

As I walked into my classroom on Monday morning, I knew that our recent learning, our nation, and our community all offered something very important: an opportunity. What I did with this opportunity was up to me. I chose words such as safe, respect, and feelings. As class started, I invited students to find places to sit around the classroom, to emerge from behind desks and sit where they are comfortable. This is not unusual when they are going their own ways to work, but I wanted something slightly different. I wanted them to sit where they wanted, but remain as a group. I wanted to encourage them without insistence.

I explained to them what I just wrote: the difference between how we went into the weekend versus how we came out of it. Our class was not divided, but a reminder that we are a community was worthwhile. I told them that I wanted our classroom to offer them a safe place. A place where they can share their thoughts, ideas, and feelings. We have spent months discussing the election and it has always happened in a respectful manner. Encouraging them to continue their respectful dialog and allowing them an opportunity to share how they were feeling proved to be exactly what we needed to start this week.

We talked about everything from the election to international matters, but it was our local tragedy that remained at the forefront of many of their thoughts.

Our students need to know that they have a safe place to think and share ideas. We as teachers can do this, offer this, encourage this, and live this.

The following day a student asked why I kept wearing a safety pin. I replied, "it's a reminder." She asked, "that you're safe?" I responded, "yes, and you are too."

Not everyone will agree all of the time, and that's ok. As long as we maintain a safe and respectful forum, our students will know they are valued as are their thoughts.

If I am going to encourage students to think bigger, dig deeper, and ask questions, then I need to give them the right place to do that. Think, dig, ask, share, respect. The best part is seeing my students accomplish all of these.

Whitney Houston once sang, "I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride to make it easier..." We, as educators, can and should remember this. Always.

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