I remember, vividly, as if it were yesterday, when my parents received the letter home from my elementary school explaining how we would be learning about sex and puberty in our fifth grade health class. I was mortified because then my parents started talking to me about it. The last person one wants to talk to about sex is their parents. It’s super awkward. Then came the actual sex education class. The boys were separated from the girls and put into different rooms. The girls apparently talked about girl stuff and the boys learned all about boy stuff. So, the boys watched this very old and incredibly boring filmstrip; yes, I said filmstrip. I’m old, well not really. I’m older than some people on Earth, but as my grandmother liked to remind me, age is just a number; it’s all about attitude. So, I feel like a 23 year old. Before I digress too far from my actual point, I should get back on track. So, we watched this awful filmstrip that showed cartoonish diagrams of male genitalia. While it was very awkward to watch this and talk about our changing bodies, it was also quite hilarious. My friends and I couldn’t stop laughing and giggling. For some reason, boys find talking about male genitalia the funniest thing since the invention of toilets. Although we talked about a somewhat mature theme in school, it was much more of a laughing matter than something to take seriously. Not until high school, did my teachers have us explore more mature themes in a serious manner as they knew we would not be able to handle talking about more “adult” issues in the earlier grades.
But, was that right? I wonder if some mature themes should be discussed in the younger grades so as to expose our students to life in a global society. Life is filled with both good and bad experiences. Fortunately, not all people have experienced everything life has to offer and so learning about unfamiliar yet important life occurrences is crucial. People need to learn more than one story or side of a topic in order to completely understand it in an open-minded manner. Allowing students to explore mature topics in the middle grades is important if we want our students to have a broad perspective when they enter high school. Being exposed to topics and ideas regarding all facets of life including the good and bad parts, helps students be open to new information and ideas and not encounter new topics with a fixed mindset filled with biases.
Today in Humanities class, we discussed the country of South Sudan and an issue plaguing that region of the entire continent of Africa: Children being taken or kidnapped and forced into being child soldiers. I want the students to understand that not all topics we’ll be discussing in our unit on Africa impact only the adults. Some issues affecting Africa impact people their age or younger. My hope was to broaden their perspective on the world. I was also very careful to mention that this is an issue for not just Africa, but all parts of the world. Children are taken from their families and homes and forced to do things against their will. While at first, a few of the students struggled to take this discussion and lesson seriously, after reminding them of the fact that this is a mature issue and we need to treat it as such, they were much more focused and mature about it. After introducing the concept of what it means to be a child soldier and how it is allowed to happen in some parts of South Sudan, we viewed a short news clip about a boy who had been taken from his village and forced to be a soldier. This video showed, first-hand, what these children have to endure. It is difficult to watch as it conjures up all sorts of emotions. Viewers are filled with disgust, anger, sadness, and shock. Following this video, we debriefed the concept on a more tangible level as the students now had images to put to the facts I had provided them with. This discussion then lead into a writing activity in which the students needed to imagine that they are a child forced into being a soldier. What would that experience be and feel like? While this is a difficult task as it requires students to be empathetic and address serious and real emotions, it is also a great way for the students to apply the skills we’ve been working on all year in Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop. Although the students definitely had strong emotions about this issue and topic, they seemed to understand the gravity of it as well. My hope is that it will enable them to more easily learn other issues and topics impacting our world that may not be so easy to comprehend or understand. A subgoal for this lesson is that learning about this difficult topic will empower my students to want to make a difference to change the world. Seeing this adversity and indifference, I hope, will inspire them to want to do something about it as they see how awful it is for all people involved. Helping the boys learn to be empathetic and compassionate at a young age will hopefully allow them to develop into thoughtful and active members of our global community. We need more changemakers in this world. Helping my students see the awfulness that exists everywhere, will hopefully motivate them to stand up for their beliefs and make the world a better place for all citizens.
So, while it is challenging to discuss mature themes and issues with students, it’s vital to their social-emotional growth and development. We want to help our students grow into compassionate and empathetic adults. Getting students to understand how to discuss and talk about mature and “adult” themes and topics is only better preparing them for the real world. We can’t shade our students from the brightness of real life forever. Life is full of both beauty and horror. Preventing our students from learning the whole story about a topic, issue, or idea will only help them further develop biases and be unprepared for the global society in which they will be living as adults.