A Writing Classroom in Troubled Times

Some of you are in the classroom right now. I’m just over two weeks out from those first days with students.

It seems, however, that we are teaching in troubled times. Perhaps it is our easy and instant access to media and information, our 24 hour news cycle that makes us much more aware of this.

I’m writing this with a heavy heart. There’s not much that I can open on my phone that doesn’t seem to put the terrible things that are happening in the world in front of me, and it weighs heavy. I have a family, a 6 year old and 4 year old who I’m responsible for, two beautiful little girls that I’m going to have to explain these terrible things to at some point.

And, I’ll be in my English classroom in a few short weeks, with Grade 9, 11 and 12 students who will want to talk about these terrible things.

This piece is by artist Panhandle Slim. It came across my Facebook feed.

As hard as it will be at times, I want my classroom to be a place where that happens. I want them to ask questions, to seek understanding, to work through their ideas and opinions. I think you do to. I hope you do. It’s not gonna be easy, because there is a distinct possibility that there will be young people who will take a position that is the exact opposite of my own. Some will do this to get a rise out of the room, others will believe what they’re saying.

My stance on this is so well summed up by a line from Jim Windisch’s blog this week, “No matter what happens outside of school, hate is not welcome in my classroom.” We will talk, we will debate, we will work with what the world gives us, but we will not let hate have a place in that.

This is a comfort zone issue for many teachers, I know. I’m aware of policies and procedures in my school division, as well as legislation in my province and country that back my stance. I’m going to be reviewing them as we start up, and I would encourage others to do the same. Find the things that exist that give you the power to allow your students to explore these things safely, and to protect them from the hate that too many might want to bring into a place of learning. This is especially important for those of us that work in places where that hate unfortunately holds more influence.

Now, I want to talk about doing the work, and ways we can approach it in the classroom. I’ve talked about this already here on Moving Writers. In the wake of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I suggested that we can use writing as a way to deal with tragedy. Writing in another voice, particularly one that is on the other side of an issue can be a powerful tool to help us understand where that other side is coming from, as I discussed in May, using a couple of songs that used this device. I feel, watching what’s happening lately, there might be some small comfort for our students in the simple action of writing rants, opinion pieces, or even open letters to those they see on their screens.

On a shelf at work, I have a copy of Thinking Out Loud on Paper by Lil Brannon, Sally Griffin, Karen Haag, Anthony Iannone, Cynthia Urbanski and Shana Woodward. A big part of the reason I have that book is the title, because it fully expresses what I want our writer’s notebooks to be – a place to think and work through ideas. There are any number of notebook activities that we can give our writers as a way of working through their ideas on these issues. If we pull an article, and have them do Austin Kleon stlye blackout poems, they’ll be looking closely at words used in the article, looking for a message to highlight. In Penny Kittle workshops, we’ve explored “writing beside” a piece, pulling lines or phrases that resonate with us for use in our own pieces. The last time I saw her, she showed us a brilliant piece in which a New York Times article had been restructured by Julius Lester into a poem. In doing this, the impact of certain statements was highlighted. I can only imagine how that could play out in the classroom with some recent articles. Powerfully, I’m sure.

The upside to our so very connected world is our access to things. I’ve written here about my favorite lesson of late, the Poetry and Image Pairing, or PIP. If you’re a follower on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen me noting images and poems that come across my feed as “PIP fodder.” The revolution may not be televised per se, but it will most definitely be captured and shared online. Images shocking and inspiring come out of terrible times, and I’ve found that putting them in front of students, and letting them drive the conversation has led to some powerful moments in my classroom. Pairing these images with poetry that echoes the themes deepens where those conversations can go.

I might have mentioned this before, but there is a searchable database of social justice related poetry to be found at Split This Rock! I’d also recommend following poets.org on Twitter, as they often share poems that are very topical. These sources have been my go-to poetry sites over the past year, feeding my classes souls and heads with inspiration and ideas, and will give you wonderful poems related to the difficulties of our world to respond to, write beside, or to use as mentor texts.

When it comes right down to it, I believe that it is our obligation as teachers, especially of a section regularly grouped into something called the humanities, is to facilitate the experiences that allow students to think critically about what they experience. It is our responsibility to see that this happens in a safe space. As a teacher on Twitter, I see that there are a number of teachers talking about how we handle what’s going on in our classrooms. I wanted to add what I could to that conversation. I also know that there are many teachers who are nervous about how this will play out in the classroom, and I hope that I can share some ideas to support them. As I’ve said before, teaching is a human endeavour, and it is one that we should undertake with as much compassion as we can, working to undermine hate wherever we can. Our students depend on us for that.

How do you deal with the harder parts of our world in your classroom? Do you have any go-to lessons, pieces or strategies to share?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-With love and hope,




  1. A great platform for this is Socratic seminar, which can be daunting when you’re not in control of the conversation. But I’ve seen some really good results from allowing those conversations to take shape without my directing. Students do a lot of work to prepare for each seminar we have, using articles from different perspectives on heated topics.

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