Be Present, Listen and Refuse to be Silent

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

The events of this past week surrounding the murder of George Floyd in police custody and the public outcry that followed has many of us grappling with what we can do to be part of the solution and be an upstander for justice, equity, tolerance, and progress. This is a lot for students to process, especially in isolation during a pandemic fraught with its own uncertainty and fears. Whether your school is still in session or has dismissed for the year, students may reach out to you with questions, concerns, anger, frustration, and grief.


As I struggle to process these unfolding events in our nation and how to best serve our youngest community members, I wrestle with a feeling of inadequacy. In this, I find a glimmer of hope in what I can do as an educator reflecting on a conversation I had with one of my administrators, who is a former student. We were chatting a bit after his post-evaluation conference of my teaching when he reminisced about being in my classroom after September 11th. He shared how he remembers how I came into class in the days that followed, shared what I knew to be true, listened, empathized with student concerns, and answered questions. He also said he could tell I was upset, but he reflected, “That was okay because it made me feel that it was okay to be upset and scared, too.”

We may be tempted to sidestep current events with our students for fears of being too political, but the events that are unfolding in our country right now are not right versus left, but racism versus liberty and justice for all. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

As educators, we have a responsibility to prioritize our students’ lived experiences in informing the essential questions we address in our curriculum. The proven practices mandated in the middle and high school civics requirement as well as the new Illinois social studies standards support such endeavors. We do not have all of the answers, but we can be present for our students, listen to their concerns, and refuse to be silent. And in these exchanges, we can model for our students that it is okay to be upset and scared while discussing what we can do in our communities to take informed action for systemic change.

Educators do not need to tread these waters alone. There are many civic learning partners that have created supports in these turbulent times.
For educators seeking a deeper dive into facilitating current and controversial issue discussions in the classroom, consider participating in the June cohort of our Guardians of Democracy Microcredential. Information can be found on the Guardians website.

This Wednesday, IllinoisCivics.org will be hosting a one hour webinar on Understanding the Proven Practice of Current and Societal Issue Discussions in the Classroom. You can still register on our IllinoisCivics.org Professional Development calendar. You may participate live at 9:30 a.m. or receive a recording of the session.

What are you doing to support students during these turbulent times? Please comment below. Together we can prepare ALL students for college, career, and civic life.

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