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February 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 5
Classroom Conversations

Thinking Harder About “Trigger Warnings”

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By letting students “opt out” of discussions on sensitive topics, we may unintentionally be doing them a disservice.

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Instructional Strategies
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Credit: nadia bormotova _ istock
On the average springtime Friday afternoon, at the citywide slam poetry league that my wife and I run, the typical performer would approach the microphone to the thumping bass of hip-hop and a roaring crowd of their high school peers and competitors. They would smile nervously as they looked out into the lights, and maybe scanned the crowd for their mentor. Once things went silent, they breathed, cleared their throat, and “spit” their poem. This is how it has always gone, with little variation—until around a decade ago. That’s when different energy entered the space. Some of the poets started whispering, “Trigger warning” into the mic before starting. Then, within a few weeks, students started adding descriptors like “Trigger warning—self harm.” Or “Trigger warning—abuse.” For the first time, students in the audience started to stand up and exit the auditorium, wait in the hall for the poet to finish, then return.  
New cultural norms were developing, and they made sense to me. After all, many students from the upper-elementary grades through high school find writing about traumas to be cathartic. Some also find it liberating to share this writing before a crowd. Individual audience members might appreciate a warning that these topics were about to be addressed, so they could either prepare themselves to hear a difficult story or decide to leave.  
But it didn’t take long for the norms to shift again. Instead of kids just offering trigger warnings before sharing poems about intensely personal issues, they started giving warnings before any poem that might be uncomfortable for anyone in the audience. I heard, “Trigger warning—religion.” Or “Trigger warning—police brutality.” Or even, “Trigger warning—racism.” This was followed by a similar exodus of students—but a good look at the kids clogging the aisles showed that leaving itself had become a show within the show. Students were looking around, whispering to each other, “I’m out. We should leave, right?” Staying, it seemed, opened one up to criticism. Leaving meant that you had the requisite sensitivity. This bothered me. Especially as I saw our youngest audience members, both from our middle school teams and the younger siblings of my high school students, watching the spectacle. What had started as a simple and fair warning to fellow students had morphed into something much less authentic.  

How much about a potentially uncomfortable text or conversation should a teacher tell students about before they engage with it as a class?

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A decade later, during another era of heated politics, some of the conversation about “safe” and “brave” spaces in schools has brought these vivid scenes from the slam league back to mind. Specifically, I think about how we teachers should lead conversations about uncomfortable topics. How much about a potentially uncomfortable text or conversation should a teacher tell students about before they engage with it as a class? When should this big reveal (or “trigger warning”) happen? When should students be given the option to opt out of a conversation? How should that “opting out” be structured? And most important, what (if anything) are the practical, actionable differences between a ­student’s “safety” and their “comfort?” 
I do not have one-size-fits-all answers to these complex questions. And no teacher should trust anybody who claims to. All our students and classroom situations are different. For instance, I tend to open my conversations about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief by discussing famous historical personifications of Death (as a personified Death narrates The Book Thief). We talk about the history of famous examples like the Grim Reaper and try to unpack the symbolism that makes up these personifications (black robe, scythe). Students then physically draw and color “updated” personifications with modern symbolic significance—for example instead of a scythe, Death might hold a gun, and his robe might now be green to represent the love of money. Most of my high school ­students tend to enjoy this activity.  
Occasionally, by the time we get to this point in the year, I have become aware that certain students have recently suffered a loss in their family. Once I know this, I try to pull the student aside the day of this discussion and let them know what the class will be covering. They get the option to separate themselves. Some choose to participate, some don’t. Of those that don’t, a few choose to stay in the room with earbuds in. A few choose to wait discreetly in my little office and watch YouTube for a half hour. My thinking may not be perfect, but it is deliberate: I figure if I tell them a whole day before, I might cause a night’s worth of anxiety. And if I give them only one way to opt out of the conversation, they might feel stifled. But crucially—in all but the most extreme cases—the text stays in the curriculum, and they are expected to read it with everyone else.

We Don’t Owe Students “Comfort” 

For me, this illustrates the difference between a student’s “safety” and their “comfort.” As I see it, students are owed the former. They should know that their teacher is not reckless or cavalier about their text selection, their facilitation of conversations, or any other aspect of the class. They should feel like their teacher makes a legitimate effort to know them and is willing to make reasonable adjustments based on this knowledge. Students should know that all lines of communication remain open, even if the teacher has to—as an adult—come 80 percent of the way to a kid’s 20 percent. In the Book Thief example, a developmentally ­appropriate text is chosen thoughtfully and situated in a part of the school year (spring) when I am likely to know my students best and can make adjustments. For six weeks or so, every part of the book that mentions death is discussed respectfully. I neither mine nor exploit students’ trauma for cheap drama in conversations about the text. 

The goals of school are the same—to stretch students’ minds with rigorous texts, thoughtful activities, and meaningful conversations.

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But I do not believe that students are owed ceaseless “comfort.” I felt the same way about poets attending the poetry slams a decade ago. In a poetry slam, people share ideas, some of them are heavy, some of them are irreverent. It’s an environment meant to stretch the audience’s minds, to ­challenge them to see the world from other perspectives. Yes, the analogy is not perfect—an academic class is not a poetry slam. Students did not opt in to being in class; they are compelled to be there. Still, the goals of school are the same—to stretch students’ minds with rigorous texts, thoughtful activities, and meaningful conversations. These conversations might include uncomfortable topics like death, racism, and war. A student might very well feel a sense of discomfort as their mind either confronts new perspectives or reflects deeply on their own experiences. This is, when handled well by a caring and professional teacher, called learning. As we all refine the mechanics of “opting out” in our own classrooms, we must not forget this.

Matthew R. Kay teaches students English at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and is the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom (Stenhouse, 2018).


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