Guns in the Classroom

How—and why—I talk to my young students about complex, distressing current events
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David Goldman/AP Photo

When I asked my middle-school students what an AK-47 is, they flung their arms up so quickly that I thought someone might dislocate a shoulder.

A rousing (and mostly accurate) description followed. Then, I asked my favorite question:

"How do you know that?"

More limb-flinging.

As the cacophony of "It's an assault rifle!" and "It's the most popular gun!" gave way to debating the merits of various Grand Theft Auto sequels, I silently thanked the violent video-game gods.

Middle schoolers love to talk about things they know, and they love to talk about things they do. Put these two together, and we could very well have an enlightening discussion about gun control.

It was a fitting moment to segue:

"So, what do you know about the gun fired at the LAX airport shooting?"

It may seem unusual to talk to young students about such an unsettling topic, but it's business as usual for me, as I teach current events to 6th, 7th and 8th graders at an after-school academy in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles.

Adolescents often have fragmented notions about real-world, R-rated themes: violence, death, sex, scandal. Sheltering students from these distressing subjects only keeps their frame of reference limited to the grapevine. And I fear ignorance far more than scruples. Talking about difficult issues such as gun control from a young age is a positive way to influence students' developing sense of belonging in society.

A gratifying byproduct of current events education is how it enhances their other school subjects. Social studies becomes palpable. Literature suddenly has social context. History is thought-provoking, like the time our discussion about marijuana legislation turned into an analysis of Prohibition.

My job is to link students' existing worldview with ongoing world events. Context is king, and this particular class is all boys. First-person-shooter video game slang was the doorway to discussing gun control.

My prepubescent AK-47 experts had heard about the airport incident, and our conversation expanded to the recent Washington Navy Yard and Newtown shootings. We shuddered when sizing up our small classroom, not so unlike those at Sandy Hook Elementary.

They had heard a lot about these tragedies, but context works both ways. Being born in the 2000s limits context quite a bit. They had never heard of Columbine. We couldn't even begin to discuss specific gun control issues, such as magazine capacity or the Second Amendment. One student even asked, "Has there ever been another school shooting?"

And employing context through a video game can be worrisome. I began to squirm when someone wondered aloud why no one had yet designed a mass-school-shooting game (a thought that repulsed them, thankfully).

I have a weakness for tangents, so our discussions sometimes run amok. To stay on point, I follow this formula:

Familiarity + Context + Devil's Advocacy = Meaningful Discussion

After the first two are underway, playing a devil's advocate is my best defense against political favoritism. In this case:

Video Game + Recent Shooting + Ammunition Limit Debate = Gun Control Dialogue

It's like unpredictable math. We jump back and forth among these variables as they skew with bias. I have bias. We all have bias. But middle schoolers are much more wide-eyed than adults.

We spend a lot of time talking about opinions, so I often turn to a particular infographic, "Left vs. Right" by David McCandless, for help. It illustrates the liberal-conservative spectrum with examples students can relate to, such as "red" and "blue" nuances of parenting styles.

This kind of context brings multiple views into the fold. Too often, young adults have only heard a sliver of one side of an issue.

One thing that gets my blood boiling is when a student says, "My teacher says [insert garden variety opinion stated as a fact]." One of my students was unable to explain why she believed that stem cell research was the same thing as abortion, but that it must be true because her homeroom teacher said so.

Now, perhaps her teacher didn't mean this, but this incident made me paranoid about being misquoted or misleading. I treat my word choices carefully. I reiterate ad nauseam that opinions by definition cannot be correct or incorrect. That I intend to inform, not persuade. That I do not pretend to be without bias.

The Sandy Hook aftermath spurred countless news stories in defense of gun control, such as a proposed law that would prevent civilians from owning assault rifles with high-capacity magazines. These stories suggested that such a law could have allowed victims to escape during the shooter's reloading time.

The concept itself was fascinating to students. It's times like these when I become hyperaware that simply highlighting something reinforces a particular point of view.

My formula reminds me to interject a devil's advocate idea, such as the argument that laws wouldn't stop killers who get their guns illegally, anyway. Perhaps I'd introduce the concept of focusing on mental health, rather than guns. And when we need more vocabulary to continue the conversation, we return to the formula.

I'm far from perfect, and no debate is split into one hardened side versus another. I often worry that I inadvertently spin students' perceptions by explaining ideas I agree with more eloquently than others. Fortunately, I get a kick out of playing a devil's advocate. It contributes not only to my students', but my own ability to empathize with conflicting points of view.

Still, I am more careful about what I say in this class over my non-current events classes because the subjects are often so new to them. Sometimes, I feel overly responsible for how this class is shaping their worldview. Because maybe it is.

Current events education should be a requirement for all students, all ages, everywhere. Sure, kindergarteners are generally more apt to discuss something like a natural disaster than guns, but this kind of early immersion puts worldliness at the forefront of what it means to educate a child.

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Lisa Rau Cannon is a teacher and freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She has worked on education documentaries for the National Science Foundation and GOOD magazine. She is editor and co-founder of College 101, a college-mentoring website.

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