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A Response to Mass Shootings from NCSS

As people gathered for a festival in Gilroy, California, for shopping in El Paso, Texas, and for entertainment in Dayton, Ohio, they were gunned down by young men in seemingly isolated incidents. Two of these shootings occurred within thirteen hours of each other, forcing the nation to direct its grief towards multiple communities concurrently. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. Communities across the United States—from Newton to Orlando to Parkland and so many more—still mourn their losses from recent mass shootings. The media and nation often ignore the pleas of communities of color to confront the systemic issues associated with gun violence. The mass shootings constitute new incarnations of systemic issues that plague the United States. The severity and prevalence of the crisis in the United States is beyond compare. Yet, policy solutions—including those with overwhelming support from the public—have been thwarted by a narrow group of lobbyists and politicians. As of now, there is little hope that mass shootings will subside. This is America today.

We offer our profound condolences as a social studies community, but we also commit to action in our classrooms and communities. Social studies students, educators, and scholars face the challenge of facilitating deliberations on the complex and highly politicized topic of gun control and related policy solutions. Yet, we must also confront the ideologies with which the mass shooters identify, including White supremacy and xenophobia in El Paso, homophobia in Orlando, and an underlying hypermasculinity evident in the fact that these crimes are almost exclusively carried out by men. Social media platforms have contributed to the radicalization and amplification of extremist views. We acknowledge that the social studies classroom is often challenged by these social problems and, via our organizations and curriculum, we must confront them and teach our students to achieve effective and humane solutions to these problems. While we must gather and evaluate sources, communicate and critique conclusions, and take informed action in our classrooms, it is of little use if we do not stand for justice. We issue this statement with heavy hearts and determined resolve.

How Might Social Studies Educators Respond to Mass Shootings?

Social studies educators are often the teachers whose curriculum objectives and content expertise allow, and even compel, them to connect current events to classroom discussions and assignments. Yet in such divisive political times, discussions of gun violence, White nationalism, hate crimes, and domestic terrorism are challenging. As perhaps a sad sign of the times, teachers, scholars, and educators in the non-profit community continue to produce new resources and creative ideas to rise to this educational challenge. We have collected innovative new resources for social studies educators to consider as they develop curriculum and pedagogy related to mass shootings, gun violence, and bigotry. These new resources are grounded in recent research in the field, and offer fresh insights for (1) teaching civic life by exploring political emotion; (2) teaching civic life as the art of practicing peaceful disagreement and conflict; and (3) teaching civic life as creative innovation.

1. Teaching civic life by exploring political emotion

One of the great lessons of the Parkland, Florida, shootings of February 2018 is that, out of tragedy, there can arise student leadership, activism, and political change. Scholars explore this case study of #NeverAgainMSD and the student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in “The Case of #NeverAgainMSD: When Proceduralist Civics Becomes Public Work by Way of Political Emotion,” published in the spring 2019 volume of Theory & Research in Social Education. Authors Kathleen Knight Abowitz and Dan Mamlok argue that citizenship education in public schools too often ignores the importance and civic value of political emotion. #NeverAgainMSD leaders utilized political emotions as a valuable tool for communicating and creating leadership for change efforts in the wake of their school shooting. The authors of the article discuss their findings and implications for social educators in a new installment of the Visions of Education podcast produced by Dan Krutka and Michael Milton. Stef Bernal-Martinez of Teaching Tolerance also offers advice for educators in “Supporting Survivors of White Supremacist Violence” (August 8, 2019) after the mass shooting in El Paso.

2. Civic life as the art of practicing disagreement and conflict

Media and public discussions of the Dayton and El Paso mass shootings have been contextualized within the U.S. context of political divisiveness and disagreement around topics including White nationalism, immigration policies, and racism. Resources such as the Los Angeles Times newsletter article, “The Madness of Mass Shootings” (August 5, 2019), provide useful links to the political, cultural, and global trends behind these latest events. Jamil Smith’s Rolling Stone article, “Violent White Nationalism Is All-American”(August 5, 2019), confronts interrelated historical and contemporary contexts. Social studies educators might also utilize “A Pathway to Racial Literacy: Using the LETS ACT Framework to Teach Controversial Issues” as published in Social Education in 2018 by LaGarrett King, Amanda Vickery, and Genevieve Caffrey and featured on the Visions of Education podcast. Citizenship, now more than ever, involves the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to listen and talk across disagreement and conflict. Social studies educators can utilize the article, “Nine Ways to Help Students Discuss Guns and Violence,” written by Laura Tavares of the non-profit Facing History and Ourselves, on March 7, 2018, for useful tips on developing classrooms that foster deliberation and lively discussion across contested topics. A set of resources for an international perspective on these topics is “How Teachers Can Discuss New Zealand, Violent Extremism, and Islamophobia,” posted on March 17, 2019 by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

3. Teaching civic life as creative innovation

Social studies educators often teach about important democratic rituals and traditions such as voting or participating in public forums. Although these are invaluable, the practice of citizenship as creative civic innovation can sometimes be shortchanged as a result. Teachers know how challenging it is to help students transform from passive to active civic agents. Knight Abowitz and Mamlok emphasize the important lessons from the Parkland, Florida, shooting and innovative student responses in “The Case of #NeverAgainMSD: When Proceduralist Civics Becomes Public Work by Way of Political Emotion,” discussed above. How might educators and students create interdisciplinary units and co-curricular projects that focus on the development of innovative community responses to gun violence, White nationalism, and public safety? Teachers have several new media resources for this work, such as the McArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics, which offers a clear framework for inquiry and action. Teachers also can access new research suggesting ways that arts educators can link to civic aims in “Is It ‘All about Having an Opinion’? Challenging the Dominance of Rationality and Cognition in Democratic Education via Research in a Gallery Setting,” an article by Jane McDonnell in the International Journal of Art and Design Education emphasizing the importance of affect and arts education as springboards to civic learning and engagement. These corridos pay tribute and offer an anthem from El Paso community members through powerful expressions of culture, community, and agency via music and storytelling as responses to these tragedies.

Additional Resources

NCSS invites its members and the general public to share resources and sustain conversations about civic competence. Here are some additional resources to prepare to teach about mass shootings and similar situations should they arise in the future.

NCSS Response to the Tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia (approved August 17, 2017)

Social EducationArticles

Other Sources

Note: All resources provided in this response were recommended by NCSS members for informational purposes only. Inclusion here does not imply endorsement or approval by NCSS.

This current event response was prepared by social studies scholars affiliated with the NCSS College and University Faculty Assembly (CUFA): Kathleen Knight Abowitz and Dan Mamlok alongside Dan Krutka and the CUFA Board.

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