Three Reasons You Need to Discuss the Paris Attacks with Your Students

We sometimes wonder if we should bring up difficult topics with students. In the wake of a new form of terrorism, coordinated soft-target attacks, we may be tempted not to worry our students. But they are already aware and worried. Here are three reasons you should discuss difficult topics with your students,

Every day is normal until it isn’t. When I look back on my life, every shocking and horrifying event (both in the world and in my personal life, though both are linked) has occurred on a sunny morning or evening as I was going about business as usual.

Today, work was exhausting. I had three stressors outside of the usual suspects–first, it was Friday the 13th, second, my students gleefully skipped off to the computer lab to complete a survey over my performance, and third, the Thanksgiving holiday is right around the corner.

I went home, sat down on the couch, and promptly fell asleep. My husband woke me around 6 P.M. to tell me that Paris was in the middle of a horrific attack.

I did what most people do in 2015–I turned on the news, and I opened my Twitter feed. I watched the situation unfold with horror. I feel terrible for all of the people touched by this. I feel terrible for the people in Lebanon and Syria. But I have to admit–I am concerned about a similar situation occurring here in the U.S. I’m sure my students are, too.

Terror targets in the past have been largely aimed at institutions such as the World Trade Center. This is a new form of terror–a highly coordinated simultaneous attack on multiple soft targets. A restaurant, a football stadium, a concert hall….

Parisians out enjoying a beautiful Friday night that was barely becoming Saturday morning, and now 149 of them (so far) have been counted dead.

My students will want (need, even) to discuss this. Here are the issues I’m considering surrounding a classroom discussion on Monday:

1. Why it is necessary to discuss it in the first place
2. How to approach it compassionately (as opposed to sensationally)
3. Questioning our responsibility as global citizens in incidents like this

Why it is Necessary to Discuss it in the First Place

Our students will be aware of it. They may be afraid that it will happen here. Perhaps they have no one at home to discuss it with. I don’t think we need to lie to them and tell them that it’s not possible for it to happen here, but they do need to understand that security measures are in place.
They also need to understand the dangers of buying into extremist ideology. Soft target attacks (against public places such as malls, restaurants, and theaters) will probably come from citizens with easy access to these places who have been indoctrinated by extremists. Being aware that it is possible to be indoctrinated in the first place may make them more vigilant.

How to Approach it Compassionately

The people who endured this atrocity deserve our attention. They just do. These people were going about their business on a normal Friday evening, and their lives were changed irrevocably in an instant. Death, PTSD, loved ones gone forever….And all for what? So that indoctrinated, misguided terrorists could prove a point?
Another issue that I can foresee with my students is stereotyping. The majority of my students identify as Christian, but we have students and citizens in our community who identify as Muslim. Our Christian and Muslim citizens are largely good people who contribute much to our community.
I know my students. I know that several will blame the attacks on Muslims–they will generalize and stereotype. I will begin our discussion by simply telling them not to do that.
I’ll open the discussion with an analogy that has been effective with my students in the past. I’ll simply say this, “If you ask somebody who’s in the Ku Klux Klan what their religion is, they’ll say Christianity. All people in the KKK identify as Christian, but not all Christians are in the KKK. If you ask somebody in ISIS what their religion is, they’ll say Islam. All people in ISIS identify as Muslim, but not all Muslims are in ISIS.”
A final issue to discuss in the way of compassion is this–bombing, nuking, or boots on the ground in Syria and elsewhere means the death of innocent people, too. People like us. People like those in Paris who were slaughtered tonight.

Questioning Our Responsibility as Global Citizens

The mere fact that attacks probably connected to ISIS (though not definitely) occurred in Paris and were targeted at civilians on a Friday night is indicative that we are global. What happens in Paris concerns us. What happens in Lebanon concerns us. What happens in Burma, China, the Sudan, and Canada concerns us. We are all culpable for how we respond to it.
Remember the Nuremberg Trials. Remember the Armenians. Remember Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. Consider the implication of the Paris attacks to all of the Syrian refugees. We have a responsibility as global citizens to speak out against wrong wherever it occurs in the world and to consider its human implications.
Our students, then, need to be aware of what is happening in the world–not just knowing what is happening, but understanding what is happening and in that understanding, being mindful of the consequences of our response. And of being participants in it.


My friend Andrea from Musings of a History Gal has compiled some excellent resources to help you provide context while addressing this difficult topic with your classes.

Click Here for the Resources

How will you address events in Paris with your students? Let me know in the comments.

I wrote this post on Friday night, horrified, while watching the events in Paris unfold. I had forgotten that the Secondary Smorgasbord link-up for this month was all about creating a global classroom. I had intended to participate, but my topic was radically different.


Here are some great posts from other teacher-bloggers discussing creating a global classroom–more relevant now than ever. Thanks to Pamela and Darlene Anne for organizing. 



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