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Teaching Tough Topics – An Exploration into Suicide Prevention

For the past two weeks my students have visibly struggled in class.  They have questioned.  They have reflected.  They have stopped and spoken to each other as they have made their way through a topic that I wasn’t sure we were ready to do.  A topic I felt uncomfortable even discussing, but I knew we should.  For the past two weeks my students have to come class ready to learn, eager to get started, and worked until the very last moment, asking if we were continuing the next day.  They have been fully invested, fully aware, but also just a little bit timid.

One month ago I saw an article get released by NPR, it spoke of how the suicide rate among middle schoolers is at the highest peak ever.  It stopped me in my tracks, after all, this is my age group, these are my kids.  And while I am lucky to have never taught a child who has committed suicide, I know I have taught kids who have tried, kids who have contemplated, kids who still carry the weight of suicidal thoughts and are not sure what to think of themselves.  The article sat in my inbox staring me in my face, daring me to do something.  And yet…would my students be able to handle a topic like this?

On Monday the 5th, I cleared my voice and told my students that for the next few weeks we were going to pursue knowledge, that we were going to discuss, explore, and question.  That we were going to go as personal as we wanted to.  That the topic was dark but necessary. Were they ready?  Yes, they told me.  And so we began; focusing a unit on the question, “How do we prevent suicide in middle schoolers?”  And I am so glad we did.

For the past two weeks we have been surrounded by hard conversations.  Surrounded by outrage, by questions, and even by sadness.  They have asked things out loud that they might not have had the courage to ask out loud before.  They have shared their truths and also shared (some) of their fears.  They have cried with me when we heard a glimpse of a parent’s 911 call pleading for help for their own child.  They have been outraged at the intense bullying some children have suffered from.  They have discussed responsibility and guilt.  They have struggled with the central question and reflected upon their own actions and how they affect other people, even when they don’t mean to.

I have sat in awe as they have taken this topic and explored it in a way I could not have planned for.  As one child told me, “Mrs. Ripp, I know this sounds strange but I find this to be fascinating and yet also so sad.”

I wasn’t sure my students were ready.

I wasn’t sure their parents would understand.

I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be.  If it would matter.  If it would be worth our time.

I wasn’t even sure that I could handle this topic in a meaningful way.

But we did, and it was, and the kids now know what the warning signs are.  Now know to ask each other if they are worried.  Now know that suicide tends to not be impulsive, that there are hints dropped.  Now know that even “normal” looking kids can have suicidal thoughts.  Now know what the real effects of bullying can be. Now know to have conversations with someone they trust if they feel like this is a solution for them.

Too often we shy away from the hard topics because we are not sure it is the right time.  That we are the right person to teach it.  That our kids can handle it.  That our community will support us.  Yet time after time, these kids amaze me.  Time after time, they prove that they are more ready than we could imagine.  That they don’t want to invest their time in “boring” topics but want to deal with the real side of the world.  They want to know what really happens, how people are really affected, and they want to know what they can do to make it better.  Our job is to support them.  To help them understand. To help them navigate this world that they live in so they can have better lives.  Our job is to educate and not be afraid, to plant seeds that may in some way help them as they grow.

For the past two weeks I have had more hard conversations behind closed doors with more kids than I ever could have imagined.  I have cried with my students.  I have thanked more kids for their bravery.  Told them that no matter how they feel they matter to me, to us.  For the past two weeks I have marveled as the facade of some my kids have crumbled and they have risen from their pasts like a phoenix from the fire.  All because an article haunted me.  All because I thought it might just matter to them, to me, to us.  And it did.  And so we did.  And we grew from it; closer, stronger, better.  Isn’t that what teaching is about?

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

4 thoughts on “Teaching Tough Topics – An Exploration into Suicide Prevention”

  1. Once again, I praise you. You have very lucky students. Our kids need to know and need to know there is help. In middle school they are still babies is so many ways, but growing and trying to fit and figure it all out. It is so important for them to truly understand how their behavior can hurt and help others. Did you use any particular books? A school counselor once told me that in gr. 7 the girls are “vicious” to one another, clique-y, mean and the boys are really hard on each other in gr. 8. Told me the boys “knew the pecking order” and picked on kids below them by pushing, kicking, shoving into lockers. She had seen this kind of thing for years. It reminds me of the research on human growth and development and the need for childhood play time. Look back at Laura Ingalls Wilder and how even then some of the kids were mean to each other. The adults in the kids’ lives have to step up and do what is meaningful and right. Though, I have to say no one ever tried to help me and my classmates with any of this. Different times, I suppose…..but the tragic death of a classmate in gr. 11 was a deep sadness. No one ever spoke of it in school. Sad. We grieved in private. How much better it would have been to talk and honor and support each other.

  2. Hi Pernille – would you be willing to share what you used for this? I just had a phenomenal class discussion centering around this tough topic. And I’d like to continue with it!

    1. It was a loose lesson plan based on which direction the kids’ questions took us in. We started with doing annotation on the NPR article and from there we watched some newsclips and videos. I also gave the students a day to simply learn on their own using Chromebooks and then had them discuss their findings. The big thing for me was that it felt authentic and meaningful for the kids.

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