How Tragedy Opened the Door to a Teachable Moment

Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov’s decision to reject a student petition to suspend failing grades this semester has sparked further debate over academic flexibility, the lack thereof, and the importance of final exams and grades. The petition garnered over 1,000 signatures calling for suspension of the normal grading system and a no-fail mercy period to allow for student participation in and distraction over the decisions turned down in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. Critics from all perspectives have weighed in, from those defending the student request to those questioning the students’ academic integrity. Other schools across the country, and not only institutions of higher learning, have grappled with student protests and the impact on classes and the routine in general. Amid objections to the petition itself and despite criticisms against the students themselves, we have to pause and consider the broader ramifications.

These events created more than a single teachable moment, and what is of primary interest is the nature of the challenge to the status quo and the response to it. How can we most effectively support students in the wake of such tragedies?

  1. Help raise awareness as a response to tragedy. Beyond the tragedy in the recent deaths of Brown and Garner, and those before them, some have spoken in hopeful terms of the response to these events, particularly that of a younger generation of Americans. In high schools and colleges, at dinner tables, and in the omnipresent social media, kids were talking about the verdicts while their parents, teachers and grandparents started drawing connections between events of the present and those of the past. As educators, parents and guardians, we should be prepared to deal with these conversations.

  2. Let the students drive the learning around their own concerns and interests. If ever there were a time to trash (or postpone) a lesson plan and let students drive the learning, it was in the days after the killings first and then the verdicts when kids were asking all sorts of questions, trying to make sense of what to so many seemed senseless, and trying to understand how to participate in the growing response to the events. In some cases where students did take events into their own hands, some groups did leave school buildings to hold vigils and discussions outside the purview of teachers and schools administrators. In other cases, like at Oberlin and other schools, students focused their protests on specific school locations (particularly libraries during finals week) for the purpose of disrupting the routine there.

  3. As administrators, support the teachers and families dealing with the aftermath of these events in the classroom. A lot of learning took place as students engaged in their own forms of protest and worked with other young people to organize these events. I suppose there was a substantial dose of learn-by-doing in all of that. At home, during dinner table conversations, young people attempted to find their voices and to learn from their parents’ experiences in earlier periods of social unrest. But what is the role of the school administration when it comes to such events?

In many cases, it appears that the school administrators left it up to the rank and file to make adjustments as necessary. Columbia and the New School, for example, encouraged faculty members to consider requests from students asking for rescheduling or extensions on papers or exams as a result of recent events. And even at Oberlin, although the administration would not officially alter its grading policy, they did extend the deadlines for requesting incompletes, and President Krislov also asked faculty members to consider “to exercise additional flexibility” in considering student requests for incompletes. Some schools brought in speakers, provided discussion time for students to air their feelings over the decisions and the implications thereof, and also instituted processes for dealing with similar events moving forward. Clear lines of communication with families and distribution of relevant resources for handling the difficult conversations (particularly for families in PK-12) would go a long way in providing a cohesive response.

The events following the Ferguson and New York verdicts revealed a powerful interest by and need for young people in engage in active conversation and protest around social justice and racial issues. While this was disruptive for institutions of learning at essentially all levels, adhering to the status quo is not a viable response and does not promote the type of learning that can result from such unfortunate and tragic events. A certain amount of flexibility is required in order to help us all through such times and to ensure that the needs of our learners are being attended to.

How did the young people and the institutions of learning you know respond to these events? What can we learn from these responses to make improvements moving forward?

Stay tuned to Designs2Learn for more insight on learning design and strategic consulting in today’s evolving educational landscape.

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© 2017 by Sheri Handel