Guns in the Classroom

How—and why—I talk to my young students about complex, distressing current events
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

Presented by

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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