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!).

Rationale

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.

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Teaching about Charlie Hebdo and Terrorism

I’d like to take a few class periods next week to talk about the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the many questions it brings up about satire, religious extremism, tolerance and bigotry in Europe, and more. My student teacher has been teaching the past few weeks, so we could not hit it immediately, but I have a break in the curriculum coming up and would like to investigate the topic while it’s still fresh. If one of the goals of this course is to prepare students to understand world events and the impact that religion has on them, it seems pretty important to tackle this act of terrorism and the circumstances surrounding them.

Why not also address the attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria? I’ve thought about this a bit, as I think that the pointed questions regarding the difference in outrage regarding each set of attacks are worthy. We should be paying just as much attention to the violence and the deaths occurring in Africa.

However, for the purposes of my class, these events are examples of different things. Later in the curriculum we do a study of religious extremism and how violent groups use, or misuse, religion. The actions of Boko Haram fit there. The attack on Charlie Hebdo, however, has initiated discussions about not just the pattern of terrorist attacks by Islamic militants, but also the role of the press and challenges of the government in a religiously diverse society. In addition, the history of religious minorities in Western Europe is worth taking into consideration. These questions go back to discussions my classes held at the beginning of the year, when we weighed First Amendment protections, religious freedoms, minority vs. majority values, and safety and security.

All that being said, I have not fully concluded how I will frame these discussions in my classroom. Here is what I have pulled together so far:

PBS Newshour does have a Lesson Guide that reviews the basics of the events. I plan to ask my students to review this site and come up with a list of questions they would like to discuss and/or research in class.

This Telegraph article claims that Mohammed would have approved of the Charlie Hebdo cover released after the attacks, while this New York Times article describes the anger that it has created. New York Times Learning Network also has a set of questions related to this.

The New York Times Learning Network also has a broad overview of activities, that just appeared! As I began writing this yesterday I was frustrated that they hadn’t pulled anything together yet. Thanks, NYT, for pulling through! I especially appreciate the first activity that frames the discussion about the new Hebdo cover, mentioned in the paragraph above.

This France24 article describes how French teachers have dealt with this tragedy–kind of stunning. It of course brings to mind experiences talking about September 11th and the Newtown shootings here in the United States.

Nicolas Kristof addresses, in a characteristically balanced way, the question of Islam’s relationship or responsibility for such attacks.

And then there are the questions of satire and Hebdo’s provocations. Ross Douthat’s take and David Brook’s discussion have helped me think about these ideas. There are also the brilliant and diverse cartoons that have emerged: Patrick Chappate’s, Joe Sacco’s, and this collection of responses from the Arab world. I am envisioning a gallery wall with room for students to comment on these.

I am not quite sure how I will pull this one together yet, or what I will ask my students to produce: it is important to me to hear their thoughts and questions before I plan too far ahead. Are you incorporating this into your classes? How will you do that?

Update 1/31/15: If you would like to see the full lesson I developed, please read the next post, here.