April 22, 2020
We need to be intentional and consistent in creating spaces in our classes for students to engage with the evolving world around them, write Jill DeTemple and John Sarrouf, who provide suggestions to help instructors do so.
Twice last year, one of us — Jill, a professor at Southern Methodist University — walked into classes populated by students who were acutely aware of horror. They wrote in discussion posts in real and profoundly personal ways about feeling helpless, and hopeless, in the wake of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting and the New Zealand mosque attack. As they studied philosophical, comparative and social scientific approaches to religion, students wanted — needed — some way to make sense of their relationship to horrendous violence and its consequences.
One student wrote about realizing for the first time that people wanted to kill him because of his religious heritage. Another expressed profound frustration that such things happen despite education, governance or other factors that we commonly think of as mitigating.
We’re in a similar place today. Disruptions caused by the COVID-19 virus have left students, faculty members, administrators and parents profoundly uprooted. With classes moved online, students and faculty displaced from campuses, looming economic fallout, and the threat of a very real contagion and its devastation, it is a deeply anxious time for all of us.
What can we do to acknowledge that anxiety without letting it take over? How can we create the conditions that will allow us to speak openly about what this experience means and go deeper in, rather than avoid it? How might we meet this moment in such a way that our students and our communities find the sources of strength we so vitally need in the days and months ahead?
We must first recognize that anxiety will be in the [Zoom/Canvas/Google Hangouts/Groups] room, whether we address it or not. Finding structured ways to acknowledge that anxiety and transform it into meaning and purpose allows it to exist without completely taking over, thus making space for connection to one another and to course content. In addition, reflection exercises — brief journaling, check-ins and -outs, time to think on a guided question, opportunities to ask questions of each other — lead to the kind of engagement that allows students to better understand themselves and their connection to other people and ideas. Taking a pause, in other words, can lead to the kind of productive curiosity that allows us to find strengths and even hope in the midst of disruption.
So, what does this look like? It can’t happen by chance or accident. We need to be intentional and consistent in creating spaces for students to engage with the evolving world around them. Based on processes pioneered by Essential Partners — where Jill is a faculty associate and the other of us, John, is co-executive director — and developed in collaboration with a team of academics from several disciplines, dialogic classrooms structured for listening and deep engagement offer some models.
Taking a few minutes at the beginning of class to ask students to think about a time when they’ve faced a major life challenge and found the strength to overcome it, where they found or learned that strength, and who helped them at that time is a start that may keep some of the demons of chaos at bay. Students can recall that this is not the first time that disruption has touched them. READ MORE