OPINION: It’s Time to Break Down the Walls Between Classrooms and Global Events

School administrators try to shelter students from current events to prevent conflict. In reality, they should be creating spaces for us to engage with these events in a healthy way.

14 mins read

This story is syndicated from The Rookery, the newspaper of School Without Walls in Washington, D.C. The original version of the story ran here.

Israel and Hamas are fighting a war. Tens of thousands have died, with thousands more wounded, displaced, or held hostage. These are facts that we see reposted across social media and displayed against the side of bus stops. They’re also facts the Walls community refuses to acknowledge.

Since the October 7th attack and the conflict that followed, I have observed only one discussion led by a teacher at Walls about the Israel-Hamas war. That discussion was on October 10th, and since then, I’ve not seen any such discussions facilitated by teachers. Even The Rookery has been reluctant to discuss the war with all of its tensions and nuances, in contrast with the Jackson-Reed newspaper, The Beacon, which has consistently addressed the impact of this international conflict on the school community. 

When considering how Walls has addressed these issues, many students have noticed a pattern of non-communication that parallels our newspaper’s silence.

Art credit: Dominique Greene

“[No one] in school talks about it,” said Naomi Nassar (’25). “I feel informed just because my family talks about all this stuff. But I wouldn’t go to school and know about it because of that.”

For Anna Mayer (’25), the avoidance of current events feels broader than a class-by-class decision. “I don’t think any [teacher] in particular avoids current events,” she said. “I think there’s just this general culture of neglecting to discuss what is actually impacting students.”

Walls insulates students from sensitive issues, regardless of their impact on our student body. Teachers should do the opposite.

But, of course, incorporating sensitive current events isn’t that simple. “[Teachers] don’t want it to be in their class that a student gets into a fight or a student breaks down in tears, because of what they’re talking about,” explained Mayer. “I think their instinct is to avoid the conversations entirely.”

For Niamh O’Donovan (’25), this education has also been lacking. “A lot of teachers I’ve talked to about [the Israel-Hamas war] tend to shut down emotionally-charged issues,” they explained. And the implications of neglecting such crucial topics are tangible.

“I think it is hard for teachers to discuss it because it is such an emotionally-charged crisis and many people have personal connections to the outcome,” explained Walls performing arts teacher Lea Zaslavsky.

Educators nationwide have come under fire for establishing stances on the war, including just north of D.C. in Montgomery County where several outspoken teachers were put on leave, sparking a lawsuit. High-profile support under national scrutiny also led to a series of Ivy League resignations. In response, Harvard has since issued a new policy that its administrative offices will no longer comment on any matters beyond the school’s “core function” of education. 

“I think teachers’ avoidance of these discussions is understandable, because they don’t want to get in trouble,” O’Donovan hypothesized. “But it’s not an excuse to not educate us about what’s happening.”

While this concern is legitimate, we need to investigate where it comes from at Walls.

The silence on these issues is problematic, as Walls mistakenly takes for granted that its students are well-informed enough to withstand everyday avoidance. Sadly, this is far from the reality. Walls students are exceptionally motivated, but that does not mean they always have sufficient understanding of current events.

“Being informed feels like a big task for me a lot of the time,” O’Donovan said. “I get a lot of my information from friends and from social media.”

“There are a lot of informed people here,” Mayer said. “I also think there are a lot of misinformed people.”

“We have so much work,” said Ethan Crawford (26’), “which prevents us from spending our own time researching or looking at articles.” 

It’s because of this very rigor that Walls has an obligation to educate students in the classroom.

There’s a way to do it right. After Hamas’ October 7th attack on Israel, only one of my teachers addressed the emerging conflict, instead leading us through a host of other curricula. Social studies teacher Ms. Rachel Blessing spent the entirety of our AP World History period teaching us about the fraught history of Palestine and Israel. The discussion was hugely important because it informed many students of the context for one of the world’s most enduring conflicts.

Still, the discussion involved large oversimplifications both because of the hard-to-grasp nuances of the subject and many students’ complete lack of prior knowledge — a condition which is completely understandable given that students who do not actively seek out headlines are not receiving current events education at school. That ninety-minute discussion only scratched the surface of the history between Israel and Palestine. Clearly, to understand such a complex topic, teachers need to devote more class time to these discussions.

“It’s rather hypocritical of teachers to say you’re supposed to become global citizens,” Mayer said. “Give [us] a space to discuss what’s happening in the world.”

Schools like Walls are capable of addressing conflicts around the world without taking an incautious stance, but they are choosing not to, thereby failing their students.

“Israel and Palestine affected a lot of people in the school, and a lot of people were really emotionally torn-up about that,” said Mayer. “The school did nothing to support any of them.”

This failure of Walls to truly educate students on current events is destructive, particularly when considering students’ use of social media as a news source. Social media is peppered with misinformation, but even when the information students encounter is true, it often presents only one side of an issue. As a result, many students fall prey to these echo chambers, as they don’t receive further education in school and may not seek it out independently. 

“Social media can portray an issue in a very biased or specific way,” Hugo Rosen (‘24) said.

Students are too often eager to accept exaggerated versions of reality and echo them aggressively. It’s now normal to hear expletives and racist commentary in the halls and in the commons. 

But even when students have access to all the right information, it’s ultimately school  that teaches us how to analyze that information. Teachers can help students build their critical thinking capabilities by discussing and analyzing current events.

“What people post, I think a lot of it has to do with polarization and thinking how controversial and nuanced issues are black and white,” Mayer explained. “I wish that we had a forum to discuss those [opinions] and actually understand what we are discussing, because I think a lot can get lost in translation, which creates emotional upset that doesn’t necessarily have to be there.”

One of the skillsets students build in high school and apply–constantly–to life post-graduation is critical thinking, a cornerstone of the Walls ethos which allows us to holistically evaluate current events to form thoughtful opinions or conclusions.

Walls fails to help us build these skills, instead insulating students. Despite maintaining critical thinking as a tenet of our curriculum, Walls shies away from discussions on current events, and in turn, from the most relevant and immediate critical thinking we need. While we can develop this capacity for critical thinking elsewhere, students may not necessarily have the tools to do so effectively.

Mayer and O’Donovan were behind a student-led effort to make a space for this discourse at Walls this past school year, in the form of a global discussions club at lunch. “And it went well, in the beginning until it became incredibly emotionally-charged,” Mayer said. “It’s fantastic for students to speak up. But I think that students often fend for themselves when it comes to making the world a better place and making our community a better place. I think that if teachers were more or more open to providing a forum for that, it would be a lot easier.”

O’Donovan confirmed this sentiment. “We are not, you know, equipped to handle those discussions,” they said. “And so I think the teachers and staff just need to do a better job of giving us that space and leading discussions for us.”

Students are capable when asked to rise the occasion. We can maintain open mindsets, check ourselves and our peers for bias in what’s said, and create an environment which fosters collaborative learning and critical thinking.

“Do I think it should be discussed? Yes, if for any reason but for students to learn how to handle conversations and discussion with people who may have differing opinions than yours,” confirmed Ms. Zaslavsky.

So what does that look like? On a class-by-class basis, incorporating current events into the curriculum could mean setting aside class periods to unpack what is unfolding in Gaza, or it could mean saving just a few minutes for brief discussion. “Mr. Jones starts every class with, ‘tell me what’s going on in the world,’” said Mayer of Walls social students teacher William Jones. “Even though that only takes five or ten minutes at the beginning of class, it opens up these conversations that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Beyond that, the Walls administration must take steps to assuage teachers’ concerns that facilitating discussions could lead to professional repercussions. In their caution, Walls teachers and administration successfully avoided creating space for vitriol, but what we see instead is hardly less catastrophic. The precedent at Walls can no longer be avoidance, which only serves as a breeding ground for ignorance and pent-up hostility.

“But we aren’t having the space to process what [the Israel-Hamas war] means for us and for our community,” said Mayer. 

The administration has an incredible opportunity to change that sentiment and make student voices heard. I urge teachers and administration alike to take that step.

“In addition to book smarts and street smarts,” said Rosen, “I think there are world smarts–knowing what’s happening in the world.”

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