13 Reasons to Discuss Uncomfortable Topics

A MiddleWeb Blog

Last week, my teenage daughter asked me if she could watch a program on Netflix called Thirteen Reasons Why. I’d never heard of it.

“What’s it about?” I’d asked her. This was followed by an uncomfortable pause.

“I’m not totally sure,” she’d replied. “It’s about suicide.” This, too was followed by an uncomfortable pause…my own.

Nobody handed me a user manual when I came home from the hospital with my first child. Back then, I arrived home with a general knowledge about the basics. Feed them. Change them. Gaze in awe at their tiny little nostrils as they sleep in your arms.

At home with “13 Reasons….”

There really is no rule book when it comes to parenting. We muddle through our ups and downs and, hopefully, learn from experience as we go along. Discussing topics like teen suicide was definitely not something I was expecting when I brought either of my two little bundles of joy home from the hospital.

Even today, they could not possibly be old enough to discuss such troubling and disturbing topics, yet here we were in the living room, doing just that.

We brought her brother into the conversation. “Have you heard of this show yet?”

“Yep. It’s dark. I watched it last week,” was his initial commentary.

After recovering from the new-found knowledge that my son’s recent viewing choices had matured quite dramatically (and the realization that he hadn’t checked in with me first), I questioned him a bit further. Here’s what I learned.

The story of a suicide

Thirteen Reasons Why” is a Netflix original based on a novel by Jay Asher. It is a story of high school. It is a story of the painful drama of youth, with all of its pressures and insecurities. It’s the story of how one young girl, Hannah Baker, chose not to live past her teenage years. It’s the story, from Hannah’s perspective, of what led her to this decision, as well as how her choice affected the people around her.

The plot unfolds through a series of cassette tapes that Hannah, our narrator, has recorded before she ends her life. These tapes are a detailed account of her day-to-day life at school. She packages the cassettes and leaves them behind, to let other people know the impact their choices and behaviors had on her as she walked the halls of high school.

This is some really heavy stuff.

My daughter and I decided to watch it together. I can’t really explain the gamut of emotions I was feeling as we watched…and I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What can we do to stop this madness? How do we help kids see that we each have our own backstory, a story that nobody may know about?”

Fourth graders and empathy

We don’t discuss topics this disturbing in Room 4T. My students are only ten years old, and I don’t have a degree in child psychology. I did survive high school, though. That’s the only experience I can bring to the table.

Thirteen Reasons Why made me remember some of the horrific things that kids do to each other. And in Asher’s story, the choices of parents and educators involved in Hannah’s life are not left unquestioned either.

Unsettling… Disturbing…. Frightening…. None of these words quite fit. But the feelings of fear and powerlessness are palpable.

In a few short years, my current students will be in high school, navigating the halls and some of these same struggles. Each will have their own challenges to face, as they muddle through without an official “rule book” to use, during what I remember as a really uncomfortable time in my own growth and development.

So what can an upper elementary school teacher do to help future high schoolers navigate this path?

I don’t have a definitive answer for that. This feels uncomfortable too.

I do know I am not powerful enough to prevent a child from making such a lonely and desperate choice. I have life experience to prove this.

Perhaps that’s why Hannah’s story hit so close to home. Perhaps all I can do is be brave enough to introduce and discuss uncomfortable topics with my students. But, like the characters in Hannah’s life, I can’t ever truly know how their individual stories will unfold…or how much my own teaching choices may have impacted them.

The power of fiction and poetry

Maybe the best way to help is to keep selecting inspiring books to share with them. Reading other people’s stories opens up our room for discussion. Reading together gives us a chance to laugh with the characters we meet, to celebrate their victories, to sympathize with their losses, to cry with their pain, and to share our own lives with each other.

My hope is that reading with them today may impact the choices they make tomorrow.

This year gave us the opportunity to express our shared experiences, through discussion and through the use of poetry. Poets show their vulnerabilities. Poets open the doors to discussion. Hannah Baker was a poet. We are all poets.

So, after meeting inspiring characters like Ivan, Melody, Peter, Pax, Charlotte, Vern, Auggie, Jack Will, and Vola in our class read-alouds, we introduced ourselves to some other poets.

One poem we focused on this year was a poem I had never read before. The poem, written by Langston Hughes, is called “I, Too, Sing America.” It is beautiful, and sad, and hopeful.

We used Hughes’ prose to create our own poetic responses. We used our new-found friendships with the characters we’d met in our read-alouds to explore walking in another’s shoes.

Hughes’ poem had quite an impact on all of us. Here are two of my students’ responses.

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Zoe and Liam chose to channel their inner Langston feelings following our read-alouds of Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper during our Realistic Fiction Unit and The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate during our Historical Fiction Unit (spoilier alert…Ivan is a real gorilla…the kids loved that surprise!)

Maybe high school will always be high school. Maybe not. Maybe truly focusing on the beauty of individuality and learning to walk in another’s shoes will lead us to taking better care of each other. I don’t know. What I do know is that watching Thirteen Reasons Why troubled me deeply.

This is a good thing. It reminds me about the importance of non-academic areas that we, as parents and teachers, need to recognize openly and honestly.

Sharing wisdoms with families

Last week was our Open House at school. Families and friends came to catch a glimpse of life at school. Our guests were invited into our classrooms and into our reading lives.

The kids in 4T shared their reading responses notebooks, our large and varied collection of class read-alouds, and their individual poetry folders, now bursting with personal writings. As the classroom bustled with activity, small bursts of conversations floated throughout the room. It was very clear that the characters we’d met so far this year, and some of the choices those characters made, had impacted our own lives.

A-aron’s poem made its way out of a read-aloud to connect to his own elementary-school life experience. Simple ideas can say so much.

(This Key and Peele clip, set in high school, catches the importance of getting kids’ names right. It is slightly offensive, but it had me rolling!!!!!…three curse words, though….)

 

Ironically, the theme chosen for this year’s Open House was “Readers Today Make Leaders Tomorrow.” I concur…I, too, am a learner.

Mary Tarashuk

Mary Tarashuk teaches 4th grade at Wilson Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. Mary has been an educator for over 20 years. She has served as content writer and creative consultant for the national, award-winning initiative The Walking Classroom since its inception in 2005. Mary’s work has been published in Education Digest and was honored with the SmartBrief Education 2016 Editors’ Choice Content Award. Trying to balance her old-school teaching style with New Age methods that integrate ever-changing technology keeps her on her toes. She believes that fresh air and exercise enhance learning and engage students of all ages. Follow her on Twitter @maryrightangle and check out her Kids on the Cusp page at Facebook.

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