Winnipeg teachers prepare to deal with world news issues

As students head back to school, two local teachers say they're preparing to have conversations about U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korea, U.S. riots and other world events.

Discussions about U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korea, U.S. riots expected in classrooms

Shahina Siddiqui, president of the Islamic Social Service Association in Winnipeg, says schools need to discuss this summer's news headlines with their students. (CBC)

As kids prepare to head back to school in Manitoba this week, two teachers say they're preparing to wade into hard conversations about U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korea, the Charlottesville riots and the impact of hate in social media.

Kevin Lopuck, a global issues teacher at Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School in Selkirk, says while world issues are often discussed, this year seems to be particularly turbulent.

"​Trump would be the No. 1 issue all the time," Lopuck said when asked what he expects will lead the topics under discussion. "Charlottesville, of course, and then the hurricane [Harvey] , North Korea."

Lopuck says it can be difficult to talk about some issues with students in the classroom, especially when the news is about alarming or hateful things.

"I always start the year by framing it with something author Martha Nussbaum wrote, called Cultivating Humanity," Lopuck said.

"She talks about cultivating humanity. We have to be self-critical, look at our traditions. We have to develop empathy, and we have to really look at ourselves in other people's shoes. So that's how I'm going to start framing all of this on Wednesday morning."

Deciding to talk about things such as hate, racism and world news in a sensitive manner can be tricky, especially with younger students, says Jody Van de vijsel, a Grade 4 teacher at Emerson Elementary School in Winnipeg.

"I think you have to look at what's most age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate to the grade that you're teaching, because there's a big difference between kindergarten and Grade 1, or Grade 4 and Grade 5," she said. 

"Some kids have a lot of knowledge about what's going on in the outside world, but often they come in with sound bites or headlines or just pieces of information, and they don't really, truly understand what's going on. It's a matter of settling them down and realizing that there's a whole story here that perhaps they don't understand."

Talking about the issues doesn't mean having to go into extreme detail, Van de vijsel says. 

"You don't want to traumatize kids or scare kids or worry them," she said. "At the same time I think it's good to acknowledge there are things going on in the world that are serious, and there are ways we need to deal with that. 

"As a teacher, you have to use your instincts and decide what's going to upset students and what's not."

Van de vijsel said she tries to weave ideas such as empathy, compassion and kindness into her everyday teaching when helping younger students understand complex issues.

Older students talk about issues and what they can do to react appropriately to what they see, Lopuck says.

"We were watching the Trump inauguration in class and I had a girl break down, because she has come out as being a lesbian and she just can't believe there was enough people to elect a person who is so critical of women," he said. 

"You comfort and console and say 'we've got to learn from this and we've got to move on, we've got to take action.' That's a big component of the course I teach, is taking action."

Making sure students have all the context is important, too, he adds. 

"Obviously, there are some times when I have a lot of kids who are very socially progressive that come into my room, and I am socially progressive as well," he said. "I might have to take a different point of view that I personally am not comfortable with, but they have to get both sides, all sides to a story." 

Resilience in the face of hatred

The ultimate goal is to bring about resilience in the face of hatred, says Shahina Siddiqui, president of Winnipeg's Islamic Social Services Association.

"We see a lot of traffic on hate sites and on social media, and that is where our concern is. If you see who is now participating in these hate groups, it's the younger population, it's the youth," she said.

"And we feel that the earlier you start building resistance to racism and resilience in the face of racism, the better off we are later on."

Last month, Siddiqui called on educators and school divisions to tackle the "hateful events, speeches and rallies that were dominating the headlines" this summer.

To help them do so, Siddiqui wrote a letter, delivered Monday to each school division, with five suggestions school policies divisions could consider implementing, including special training, creating a system to debrief students when a major world event happens, and even an "Adopt a Buddy" program.

"To have children just congregating with their own racial groups or cultural groups does not build bridges between communities, between the youth groups," Siddiqui said.

"How do you build relationships with people who look different than you or believe differently from you? So if the students would adopt a buddy from a different culture or a different race and build relationships and have learnings through that and conversations and then come back and report about their learnings, is again another way of building bridges of breaking walls that we sometimes seem to build."

Siddiqui said these conversations belong in schools. 

"How can they not belong in schools? We are bringing up the future citizens of Canada. This is a disease that inflicts a community. This is tearing us apart. This is creating hate and violence in our society," she said.

"Get parents involved in that as well. Where do children first learn these hate methods? Most probably at home."

There is a program, now in its fourth year, that encourages students to ask questions about different cultures. 

"The Winnipeg School Division has [a program called] Everybody Has the Right," said Rob Riel, director of aboriginal education and newcomer services. "We know that students ask questions with regards to who the other people are in the classroom, why is this happening in TV, and everyone has to be ready and prepared to answer these questions."

Students who ask specific questions have their questions addressed, Riel says.

5 strategies: Islamic Social Services Association

  • Teachers must be trained in Privilege and Anti-oppression. This will increase their capacity to respond to their students in an informed, empathetic and respectful way. Their response will be an example for students to follow and aspire to, in their own interactions with a diverse student body. Any training should include and explore terms like Islamophobia, trans-phobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Indigenous racism, to equip teachers with better and clearer understanding of the unique ways these can be countered in the classroom.
  • Implement a "Adopt a buddy" system, thereby each student adopts a buddy from a different culture, ethnicity or religion for 6 weeks and record and present their learnings.
  • Imbed anti-racism education in your school curriculum that is age appropriate and mandatory.
  • Create a system fo debriefing about geo-political events. This can be conducted by school counselors after incidents of hate are reported in the media. No matter how it is conducted, students should be allowed to express their feelings in a safe space. If a particular community is the target of a major event, inviting an elder from that community to speak at the debriefing may also help in the healing process. This could also be an opportunity for students to share with their peers about their own experience with racism and xenophobia when appropriate.
  • Teachers and guidance counselors should gain knowledge in how to engage students that may be influenced by online hate literature and websites. These beliefs should be challenged in a way that does not erode trust and should be done with respect and a non-judgmental attitude.

With files from Nelly Gonzalez