Empowering Students with Knowledge

To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights pioneers from around the world, my school cancelled classes yesterday and in their place arranged powerful presentations and insightful discussion sessions for the students.  Our goal for this special day was to help the students broaden their perspective and see all of the injustices happening around the world.  Our hope is that by opening their eyes to child soldiers, sex trafficking, racial profiling, religious persecution, and many other social crimes against people, they will be moved to make a difference and bring about change in the world.  Knowledge is power.

I led a session for ninth graders on the issue of child soldiers.  As I began my lesson, I realized how challenging teaching ninth grade is.  They sat in their chairs like bumps on a log.  Getting the students to participate in the discussion was like trying to cut my dog’s nails.  He hates it.  I was jumping around the room, changing the tone of my voice, showing emotion, and calling them by name.  And still I got nothing from them.  I don’t know how high school teachers do it.  I could not teach high school.  Give me energetic and excited elementary students any day of the week over those kids who seem to be too cool for school.  However, there were a few students in each group that got involved in the discussion.  They answered some difficult questions and a few boys shared how outraged and shocked they were by some of the statistics.  It was something.

I began my session having the students discuss some basic questions regarding their prior knowledge on the topic.  Where are child soldiers being used?  How does being a child soldier impact young people?  What do you know about child soldiers?  I had them participate in a quick pair-share to get them talking and thinking about the topic.  They had some good conversations while I walked around and observed.  Some of the boys seemed to think that the problem was easily solvable.  “The government can stop the groups from employing child soldiers.”  If only it were that easy.  While I applaud their willingness to solve the problem, their perspective on the issue is quite narrow.  I then had the groups share out big ideas discussed.  This then led into a definition of child soldiers and some statistics.  I showed them a map that highlighted the many areas worldwide where child soldiers are used in conflicts.  They seemed a bit shocked by this.  They also seemed a bit horrified when I told them that four out of every 10 child soldiers is female.  The looks on their faces when they heard this was powerful.  Some of the boys in the group have younger sisters.  That must have been difficult to process.  I then showed them some videos of how child soldiers are used in various places around the world.  After each video I provided them the opportunity to reflect in writing on their emotions, thoughts, and questions.  A few of the boys wanted to share what they had written.  They were processing the information learned while still trying to rationalize how this issue is possible.  A few of the students were angry and upset.  My response, “Good.  If you’re not angry, then you are not paying attention.  My hope today is to make you so mad and angry about what is going on around the world that you want to do something about it, bring about change and make the world a safer place for children everywhere.”  I closed the session talking about how the students can help make a difference.  I talked about Red Hand Day that is celebrated in some European countries.  I mentioned how we in America don’t recognize it, but perhaps we should.  I wanted to get them thinking about what they could do to bring about change in the world.  I then emphasized the importance of awareness and education.  The more we know about a problem, the more knowledge we have when trying to brainstorm solutions.  I told the boys to further educate themselves on this topic so that they can find a way to help prevent two million more children from killed because they are child soldiers.  The students left my session equipped with knowledge and power.  While the topic discussed was very serious in nature, they seemed to understand it.  I’m hopeful that it struck a nerve in some of the boys so that they will spread the message and find a way to bring about change and make a difference in the world.

Empowering students with knowledge is our goal as educators.  We want our students to feel like they can tackle any problem and make the world a better place.  Sometimes, to do this, it means that we must discuss sensitive topics and issues.  While these aren’t easy conversations to have, they are necessary.  Change doesn’t happen through ignorance.