A colleague and I recently planned a class for our high-risk young male students. We agreed that since it was at the end of our session with the students, the lesson needed to be gripping. We wanted to leave an impression that would inspire students to think and re-evaluate their experiences long after they left class.
I thought back to a lesson I’d prepared on the inequalities of young men of color in the justice system. Since many of my students were in the justice system and on probation, I thought offering them a deeper look would prevent them from returning.
One element I included in a class several months earlier was a selection of clips from prison life and interviews with prisoners doing hard time.
As I showed the clips, I heard murmuring and noticed students fidgeting. I stopped the clip and began a conversation about what we had seen so far. What I heard surprised me.
“It’s making me mad, and I don’t want to be mad. I can’t control it when I’m mad,” Derek said.
I realized in that moment that I wasn’t aware of the unforeseen triggers for some of my students. It occurred to me that other discussions about violence or teaching materials like documentaries about wars or talking about the Holocaust might be triggers for some students.
If we are in danger, our defenses go up, our vulnerability evaporates, and we focus on self-preservation. If we are safe, we lower our defenses, open ourselves to new information, and hear the ideas of others without fear. What I had done unwittingly in that first presentation was trigger in some of my students the same warning bells that their brains had sounded throughout the ordeals of their lives. Their cortices may have known they were in class, but their amygdales did not.
I had to rethink our lesson and get back to a safe space.
We started a conversation. One student talked about the civil war he saw in Africa before he found refuge in the United States. Another student asked, “What good can possibly come from watching the pain of others?”
That question led to a discussion about social change and the fact that it is the suffering of people that often leads to a movement. We talked about our obligations to others once we understand the depth of their suffering. Though this wasn’t what I had in mind when I began the class, I was happy with the outcome. My students were, too.
Engagement happens in that space of intellectual safety, and when that is secured, the learning brain is free to learn from almost any subject at all.
We found intellectual safety together in our discussion, and that’s where the true learning occurred. It was transformative. That excitement of being creative and creating change is what kept my students engaged, even at the end of a long week.
Swoveland works with high-risk students in Massachusetts, primarily preparing them for the GED exam. He also leads enrichment and engagement programs in writing, photography and art.
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