Lessons from COVID-19: Passion versus Problem in Discussing Social Topics

This is the second essay in the series that will encompass lessons drawn from current events and circumstances that teachers can incorporate in their writing and reading curriculum. These lessons are tested in my own classroom and will sometimes include some stories from my own teaching adventures.

Many teachers feel anxious about talking privilege and other controversial topics in the classroom. Things may get passionate amongst students and out of hand for the teacher. Passion is good, however. It means that the student is engaged and invested in the conversation. This is a student who is ready to learn and who will be more than happy to write their views in a short essay. The passionate student is not the problematic student, however, and so many teachers get these two confused.

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Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

I took a temporary teaching assignment at a charter high school, teaching English for six months. One of my classes was a group of girls who were deemed “difficult” (and were probably placed in my class because I was the only black teacher — let’s be honest). Well, I taught them about analyzing texts and one of the texts I used was Franz Kafka’s The Emperor. It is a micro-flash fiction piece that features a messenger who has an important dispatch for the emperor. However, after seeing the crowd and how difficult the rest of the route is, the messenger decides, “What’s the point?” and leaves. Two students got into a passionate discussion about the messenger’s duty and whether he was being negligent or just lazy.

Anyway, they got very loud, so loud that my neighboring teacher came over with disciplinary staff, thinking that a fight had broken out. These students were regular fight participants. I had to explain that the loudness was passion. No one was angry. In fact, although the voices were loud, they were also happy. The students were smiling. They were throwing in a joke or two as a rebuttal. No fists. That’s passion. This student is not a problem. Well, the problem may be in keeping the noise down during discussion.

The problematic student, however, is the one who is holding onto views that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or anti-intellectualist. This student may speak their views calmly and try to advance their views using fallacy and dismissive tactics that include gaslighting. While the passionate student may get loud and animated, the threat is the one advancing the problematic ideas.

Telling the problematic student that their views are offensive is actually a move that affirms many of their views. What you want to do is challenge them. I have done this successfully by requiring students to support their views with credible, collegiate level, reliable sources. The source of their material, author, and publication must pass the credibility standards the class sets for source material. I have found that this point is usually the way that I can challenge the student without looking like I am directly attacking their ideas. Don’t challenge the student. That makes it personal and injures the trust you’ve built so far. Challenging the ideas/sources is a safer approach.

The first time I encountered this was the first time I taught college students from a white rural area. One student wanted to write an argument for drug testing people who receive SNAP benefits, commonly called “food stamps”. I taught the students that if they could find sources for their topic that fit the standards for a credible source, then they could proceed with the topic. This student did not find credible sources. I informed him that he would have to change his topic.

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Photo by Russ Ward on Unsplash

Well, that student did alter his topic. He found the sources that were credible to support his stance, which was still for drug testing people who receive SNAP benefits. His approach changed, however. The student’s paper-centered addiction — specifically how drug and alcohol abuse impede the ability to budget. People who receive SNAP benefits need to be able to budget in order to use the funds they are allotted each month in a way that feeds the family. So, he reasoned that drug testing is needed to ensure that each recipient can budget to get the most out of their monthly benefits.

Do you see the pivot this took by my challenging a problematic view? Sure, the endpaper was not something I would back politically, but it was a solid, well-reasoned argument with credible sources. Along the way, the student actually figured out that his views were flawed. He didn’t change them completely, but the door was open to learning. That’s all I required.

As teachers, we must know when to encourage and when to challenge our students. We also have a duty to stop the advancement of problematic ideas. The previous lesson in this series is one of those ways. Another is to set rules that require students to support their views with credible sources. The research process alone will expose them to so many new ways of looking at their views that the student will learn something about their views and themselves before they even draft the paper.

Written by

Jonita Davis is a writer, film critic, and professor. She’s a member of NABJ, AAFCA, a Rotten Tomatoes critic, and an adjunct professor.

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