Understanding the Responses to Charlie Hebdo, part 1

My World Religions class is an elective course, which gives us a chance to stray when the world provides us with “teachable moments.” As a result, this blog gets a chance to stray once in a while as well. Below is a summary of the lesson I developed about the Charlie Hebdo attacks–it’s long, so feel free to skip around (or bypass altogether!).


In the responses to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the controversy a bit closer to home at Duke University just a week later, I saw an opportunity to connect my students with the news around them and also to get them thinking about how they could contribute to the conversations about these events. The terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the controversy at Duke over using the university bell-tower for a Muslim call to prayer were only loosely related by religion, but both events prompted a bewildering array of media commentary. In regards to Charlie Hebdo, I was somewhat fascinated as various hashtags, used to show solidarity, spread quickly across social media. When I read about the situation at Duke, I was appalled by some of the comments I saw posted. As I thought about how to implement discussions about these events in my own classroom, I realized that my goals were to build understanding of the variety of responses to said events and to help students develop their own opinions while navigating the sea of information and editorializing that is out there.

In the course of developing these lessons I also came across this blogpost by Emma Pierson on women’s comments on online media sites. To sum up briefly: women are far less likely to comment in online forums. Reading the post continued to make me think about the question of whether online forums are truly a meaningful place for debate and/or how we could make them into more thoughtful centers for discussion. So much of my students’ worlds are online now—how can we get them to think critically not only about big media, produced and delivered by such giants Fox News and the New York Times, but little media too: the comments and tweets that they write, read, and repost oh-so-regularly? Pierson rightfully links the reluctance to contribute online to a reluctance to speak in classrooms during childhood and adolescence, and suggests advocating for “speaking up as an act of leadership:  a way to advance a cause worth caring about.” Pierson’s follow-up recommendations include not only encouraging women to speak up more, but for men to “talk less.” While I did not overtly discuss the gender dynamics of this in my classroom (we’ll save that for another lesson!), I think the concept of thinking more carefully before engaging in discussions, both online and in real life, would benefit many of my students, while others could certainly be encouraged to let go of fears about the imperfections of their contributions. Reading Pierson’s piece shifted my lesson to include direct and explicit conversations about the tone and format of our debates about complex issues.


Essential questions:

  • Why were there so many different responses to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in early January? What factors influence individuals’ responses?
  • How can we have constructive public conversations around complex issues?

Before we began:

Students began by sharing a common reading for background on the Charlie Hebdo attacks from the PBS NewsHour website as well as a New York Times article on the Duke controversy. As they read, I asked them to keep a list of the thoughts and responses that came to mind and as they read and any questions that came up for them.

Example of the background assignment.

Example of the background assignment.

Day 1:

The next day, in class, we reviewed some of the basics of the Hebdo attacks and then talked about some different ways that people had responded. Around the room, I had created posters with some of the popular hashtags from the time (#JeSuisAhmed and #JeSuisCharlie) as well as some others I had created to reflect these different ideas. I gave the students some time to visit each poster, writing down their own thoughts and reflecting on others. The five points of view that I had made posters for were:

  • #JeSuisCharlie This is an attack on free speech and a call to further protect those freedoms for writers, artists, and performers!
  • #JeSuisAhmed This is a moment to call for tolerance and outreach to French Muslims, like the police officer who was also killed by terrorists that day.
  • #JeSuisCriticalofCharlie Although the killings are certainly not justified, the magazine was offensive and in some ways, at fault.
  • #JeSuisScared I am afraid of further terrorist attacks—we need to watch out for immigrants and Muslims in Europe.
  • #JeSuisWondering Why aren’t we also talking about the violence of Boko Haram? There is more to the world than Europe!
  • #OtherVoices What are we missing? What other points of view are out there?
Some of our wall posters.

Some of our wall posters.

So many questions!

So many questions!

I then delivered a short lecture about Islam and Muslims in France to give some context for the attacks. We have not yet covered Islam as a religion in the course, so I gave a one-slide overview so that students would understand the perceived insults of the Prophet Muhammad by the magazine. Then I gave a short overview of the statistics regarding Muslims in France and pointed out that a majority of France’s Muslims came from North African nations that are former colonies of France. It was important to me here to make it clear that beyond the most obvious religious conflict—that of Muslim extremists against a satirical magazine that insulted Islam—there are many other sources of tension between the Muslim population of France, the French government, and other French citizens, and these tensions are covering some of the reactions. I also made connections here to the situation of Europe at large and the increasing challenges of immigration to these nations.

This about ended our day and so after the lecture I asked students to add or change any of their responses on the posters as they packed up to leave. For homework, I asked students to read the Nicholas Kristof editorial, Is Islam to Blame for the Shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris?, to annotate it, and to think about where it might go on our posters around the room.

Day 2:

My goals for this day were to look at some more in-depth responses to the attacks (to move beyond the hashtags, so to speak), and to have students start thinking about how conversations can become more or less productive. To start the day, I gave students a post-it on the way in that had some familiar symbols on them: retweet, reply, favorite, and a question mark. I asked them to review the posters from the day before (from both classes, so there would be a lot of new comments to them) and leave the symbol-notes in the appropriate places.

After the students were done posting them, I led a discussion about the attacks, asking students to tell me about comments that they had “favorited” or had questions about. We also talked about the Kristof article, and I asked students where they would place him amongst the responses that we had laid out. It is here where I also acknowledged my own mistake. On day one, a student had posed the following question on the #OtherVoices poster: “Where is the Muslim response?” Whether he or she meant to call me out for failing to clearly identify it among the posters, or whether that student meant more generally, I can’t be sure. But it certainly prompted me to do some more research as I was pulling together documents for the next part of the lesson, and to introduce the class to another hashtag that had been trending in recent days among Muslims who did not want their faith to be tied to the violence of these attacks: #notinmyname. Finally, after some healthy discussion of the different viewpoints, I asked students to start sharing thoughts about their own positions on the major questions of free speech, religious tolerance in France, and the global response to terrorism.

After the talking time, I wanted students to dig a bit deeper into some texts. I had pulled together a variety of articles and cartoons regarding the attacks and gave one of each to a small group of students.

Documents to Review











I asked the students to read the document silently first, and then come together as a group to do the following:

  • Identify what this document is. Who wrote it and in what context?
    • Which point-of-view is expressed? (It could be more than one!)
    • What are your personal thoughts on this document?

After about twenty minutes to reflect on the documents as a class, each group shared what they had found. This was an opportunity to learn more about the various points of view and to practice careful reading of an author’s tone and perspective.

From there, it was time to shift gears and discuss the Duke case. I knew there would be a number of opinions within the class, but I also wanted to use this issue to explore the idea of productive discussions (as it would seem, on some level, that Duke failed to have the necessary discussion about this issue before announcing their decision). I shared with the students a video from WRAL, a local news affiliate, about the story and the ceremony performed on the chapel steps after the decision had been reversed. I then also shared some comments that I had captured via screenshots from the WRAL stories about the case.

I was curious how my students would respond to the case, but also how they would respond to the comments. After we talked for a little while about whether or not they believed it was okay to use the bell-tower for a Muslim call-to-prayer, I also asked them to consider how the names, tone, and content of the comments I showed all made a difference in how they judged the worth or value of each point. We also reflected on the comments that got the most “favorites” on our posters around the room, noting those that seemed to acknowledge both sides, use relevant examples or facts, and adopt a polite tone seemed to be taken more seriously. More broadly, we talked about online discussions and how they compared to discussions in real life: in classrooms, with their peers, and with people they had just met. What are the advantages to this Internet stage? What are its failures?

Some results of our discussion--they were awesome.

Some results of our discussion–they were awesome.

To wrap up these lessons, I introduced a project that we would then dedicate the next day’s class time to, where students had a choice of ways to respond to the issues we had discussed, hopefully incorporating some of the discussion skills we had highlighted through the lessons. That assignment is below–I’ll let you know what they come up with!


Productive Discussion on Controversial Issues: What Can You Add?

How can we have constructive public conversations around complex issues, such as Charlie Hebdo or the decisions around performing the Muslim call to prayer from Duke’s bell-tower?

Options: Choose one of the following assignments to complete as your assessment for this topic. You work will be due next Friday, February 6th.

  1. A) Call and Response: Find a comment posted in response to any of the New York Times articles that we read or to articles from our local papers: the News-and-Observer or Herald-Sun. Search for one that grabs your attention and that you disagree with. Compose a written response to that comment that reflects knowledge gained during our class discussions and your research. What you hand in should include: 1) A copy of the original comment, 2) Your 500-750 word response, and 3) (Honors-only) A paragraph describing how the written tone of your response and the original comment. Why does that writing style matter for discussions like these? It is your decision whether you would like to post your response or not.
  2. B) Digging Deeper: Go back to your list of initial questions regarding these events, and choose one (or two, if they are related) that are still nagging at you. Complete some research in order to try to answer your question. What you hand in should include: 1) A copy of your original question, 2) Your 500-750 word summary of your findings, 3) a list of at least 2 sources that you used to find your answers, and 4) (Honors-only) A paragraph summary of how what you learned may have affected your ideas regarding this issue.
  3. C) Art Inspires, Enlightens, and Inflames: Create a political cartoon or piece of artwork that reflects your response to either current event. What you hand in should include: 1) An original piece of art that reflects time and energy well-spent. Quality and thought process will count highly, 2) A paragraph explaining the artist’s intent and point of view, and 3) (Honors-only) a paragraph explaining your opinion on the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag.
  4. D) Summing Up the Discussion: Choose one of the points-of-view (hashtags) that we discussed in class (you may want to take pictures or copy down what was written on the posters) and write an essay that explores that point of view as well as your classmates’ responses to it. Why do some people feel that way? How does that viewpoint conflict with or overlap with other viewpoints? What is your personal response to that viewpoint? You will turn in either a 1000-word essay answering these questions and incorporating some of the articles and cartoons that were used in that viewpoint (Honors-only) or a shorter version that does not address the additional articles and cartoons (Standard).

All written work should be typed when handed in. This will count as a project grade. Good luck! I am so looking forward to seeing what you come up with!


2 thoughts on “Understanding the Responses to Charlie Hebdo, part 1

  1. Pingback: Teaching about Charlie Hebdo and Terrorism | Desks & Deities

  2. Pingback: Good advice on Digital Literacy from EdSurge News | Desks & Deities

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