Embracing discomfort, maintaining safety

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History classes often discuss politics and religion, English classes define race, and Health students learn about sex. These topics are labeled as “uncomfortable,” but are vital to discuss as long as they are approached safely.

Safe discussion in classrooms—in terms of respecting opinions regardless of identity—is particularly important considering recent political events. However, it is important not to censor conversations merely because they are uncomfortable, as there is a distinction between uncomfortable and unsafe. Discussing topics such as race and politics allows students contribute thoughtfully to important dilemmas within society, thus helping them gain skills necessary to participate in democratic society.

In AP English Language and Composition, students are currently discussing contemporary and historical race issues in society, including topics such as colorblindness and Jim Crow laws.

Olivia Lin, who has been teaching the race unit for three years, described how the curriculum teaches students to approach controversial topics and formulate their own opinions.

“I always see the race unit as not telling [students]what to think but giving them the vocabulary to articulate their opinion on topics that they see on the news, especially in regards to race,” Lin said. “It give [students]the questions to ask and words to articulate what they’ve always kind of felt.”

Creating an environment in which students feel safe to express their opinions is also vital. Lin helps every student be heard by first ensuring that she “separates their identity from the critique” on students’ work. When students understand this, it makes these issues easier to discuss because “they know their identity is so separate from what they talk about.”

Mia Newton, who teaches AP English Language and Composition, elaborated on how she encourages uncomfortable discussion in her classroom.

“The best I can do is encourage discomfort but still remind them that they feel safe,” Newton said. “We’re trying to learn and these are difficult conversations. Those moments of discontent means it’s working.”

Senior Vicky Wong explained that from her perspective, when discussing controversial ideas, it is inevitable that individuals will feel uncomfortable.

“By pushing these comfort limits, we can learn at a much deeper level, so discussions about controversial issues shouldn’t be avoided altogether,” Wong said.

After the results of the presidential election, Principal David Grissom sent an email to MVHS staff members, instructing them to remain neutral when discussing the election. Two days later, World Studies teacher Frank Navarro said that he was placed on paid administrative leave for drawing parallels between President-elect Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler.

Navarro’s statements about Trump and Hitler were viewed by many as historically accurate and critical to discuss, and by a few students as inappropriate. This incident highlights the importance of distinguishing safe discussion from comfortable discussion.

Without discussion of controversial events, students do not have the opportunity to expand their views and grow from others’ perspectives. It is inevitable that participating effectively in democratic society entails confronting uncomfortable topics, especially those that are inherent features of our lives, such as race, class, and sex, and being able to articulate your thoughts.  In the upcoming years, we must open ourselves to the voices of others, rather than perpetuate our politically disconnected environment.

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