“Do I need to tell my teacher that I’m Jewish? Because in a lockdown, will they come for our class first?”
“What? So you mean people want to kill me more because I’m Jewish?”
These are some of comments I heard while dropping my children off at an emergency session of Hebrew School held the day after the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh. The horrific murders of 11 people because of the way they pray capped off a week in which pipe bombs were sent to public officials and others and two people were killed because of the color of their skin.
As a parent, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, an education professor and director at my university’s center for Holocaust and genocide studies, these tragedies affect me deeply and personally, as they do so many others.
Thoughts and prayers are not enough to staunch the flow of violence. But there are a series of of small and manageable steps, things we can do in our classrooms, homes, and communities that can help.
In school, teachers need to discuss what has gone on over the past week. Great classrooms create space for complicated conversations about politics, race and religion. Parents must demand that this delicate work happens and trust teachers to do it. Teachers need to engage students of all ages in the political process to make change toward a more inclusive, peaceful society shorn of violence. But they must do so without adding a partisan agenda.
Children, even very young children, are able to consider issues of “what is fair.” Some issues are scary or inappropriate for young children to think about but so many other issues can be discussed: Immigration, climate change and the tax individuals pay to the government to take care of the collective. These issues affect students and families and are worked out in local and national elections.
At home, when individual family members differ in their political views, they often either steer clear of discussing these views in front of young children or present just one view. Children then miss opportunities to learn how to talk about complicated political topics. It’s important to start this process gently. Giving children sentence starters like “I agree with so-and-so because…” or “I disagree with so-and-so because …” are powerful ways to begin.
Asking open-ended questions about political issues, and asking them without bias, is a reasonable second step. Allowing political conversations to remain open, without coming to a conclusion as a group, is a vitally important “final” step.
There can’t be any perceived winners or losers. The idea is to teach children to engage, to help them understand that everyone gets a say and to consider important ideas that influence our entire society.
Help the child to develop a conscience. While kindness alone can’t stop mass gun violence, I do maintain that it can slow the bullying and “othering” that leads to extreme anger. We can help our kids here by asking them to consider the perspective of others – “how would you feel if…”
Literature is an important tool in empathy and perspective-taking. In the context of a mass (school) shooting is Nineteen Minutes, by Jodi Picoult. It makes it hard to hate the shooter, and that is hard to understand. His perspective is so easy to relate to, the slippery slope to feeling all alone, the ways in which he was pushed slowly. It could be anyone. Much like R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, another book that presents different perspectives, it is invaluable in teaching children about empathy
We need to change our language to encourage a culture shift at home and in schools. A quick and informal survey of my college students lets me know that they received (and still receive) gendered messages. In their lives, the boys were always taught to “man up,” stop crying, be tough and keep their feelings inside. The girls were given hugs, praise, and tools for “letting it all out” and to express a full range of emotions. Boys were told to “act like men” and move on. Do better. Toughen up. Boys and girls need to be taught to express themselves fully. Feelings are not, in fact, gendered. The culture of toxic, angry, hyper-manly masculinity can be changed by the ways we talk about what it means to be a man. In this instance, the way to disrupt the narrative is to ask, “if a young girl was upset about this, what would I do?” If you would give her a hug, hug him, too. If you would talk it out with her, talk it out with him, too. Rarely do we tell our young girls to toughen up. Flip the script, and we can begin to change the culture.
This past week was heartbreaking, terrifying, a wake-up call and a reminder that democracy is an experiment. We need to nurture this grand experiment so that we see it flourish. It is not about raising our voices only when our own group is threatened, but speaking up when any group is under siege: as we see trans rights being rolled back, refugee children still separated from their parents at the Southern border and the Muslim travel ban are all reasons to protest even if we are not trans, refugees or Muslim.
I still deeply and passionately believe that our best chance is education. If we teach our children well, give them the tools they need to engage in the process and to think with empathy and compassion, they will build a world for themselves that is greater than the one we are leaving for them. I believe that we can do this together.
Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, and the director of research and education for the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her research and teaching focus on “hard histories” (such as slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Holocaust), and how teachers can talk about these time periods in more honest and inclusive ways.