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#9 Blog 2023

Tips to Create Safe Spaces for Student Engagement with Difficult Topics

February 28, 2023

Tips to Create Safe Spaces for Student Engagement with Difficult Topics


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By Jen Fischer

As I write, my morning news feed has, once again, been filled with news of a mass shooting at an educational institution. This time, it is a university campus. Not long ago, it was a dance hall. Months before that, an elementary school.

Creating safe spaces for student engagement with difficult topics and nurturing environments for students to process their emotions and feelings when tragedy strikes are essential for student health and well-being. In turn, student health and well-being are essential for learning. 

Our classrooms can be safe spaces for students, offering them a reprieve from the challenges of the world even as important learning takes place, including learning about challenging topics.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes some of the highest incidences and rates of violence against teenage girls and of teen depression in years. This information is a clear reminder of how important dialogue, discussion and support for our students are. Our classrooms can be safe spaces for students, offering them a reprieve from the challenges of the world even as important learning takes place, including learning about challenging topics. 

facilitation guidelines for group discussion promo image

Journeys in Film recently created a set of facilitation guidelines when we were designing our free educational materials (a discussion guide and a learning guide) for Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down. Recognizing the power and importance of a set of guidelines created to foster productive conversations that broaden perspectives and encourage empathy, we decided to make these guidelines available as a stand-alone free download on both the Journeys website and through Share My Lesson.

These guidelines are anchored in the importance of bodily autonomy for students. Some key tips in the guidelines include: 

  • Minimizing distractions; 
  • Practicing whole-body listening (listening to words, tone, body language and the feeling in the atmosphere) 
  • Acknowledging voices that may be absent; and 
  • Adopting an attitude of positive intent. 

Guidelines also encourage building trust and offering opportunities for breaks and space. They advise that if a conversation gets heated, the discussion leader should acknowledge the tension and then have the group pause and take a collective breath together. Sometimes, this may involve revisiting the discussion at a later date or time. At other times, the break may be enough.

Other tips and guidance are featured in the free guidelines, which were created within the context of powerful materials for discussing gun violence, an issue touching the lives of many students across the U.S. in very personal ways.

This topic can feel fraught and nearly impossible to address in school settings. However, the materials Journeys in Film created for the powerful film Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down are unique in that Giffords herself is a gun owner and a gun violence survivor. Her story encompasses and honors many viewpoints and experiences, and the learning guide created for it reflects that with a section on gun violence, but also sections dedicated to: 

  • Media responsibility (perfect for media literacy and current events lessons); 
  • Mental health; 
  • Civic engagement (excellent for social studies, civics and/or service learning classes); and 
  • Career pathways (a valuable resource for counseling sessions, advisories, and other courses for high school seniors). 

Giffords’ story is an entry point into many important topics and learning experiences. 

Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down promo image

The facilitation guidelines, which are applicable to many settings, such as staff meetings, literature circles, establishing a classroom code of conduct, setting the stage of political and/or current events discussions, book clubs, community group meeting, etc.

That set of guidelines and the resources created for the Giffords film were thoughtfully created to support educators as they seek to create safe spaces for student engagement. Our students need support, and we can work together to provide it. 

Additional Sources:

Jen Fischer

About the Author

Jen Fischer is a writer, film producer and teaching artist whose work focuses on highlighting shared human experiences to cultivate empathy and understanding. Her films have screened across the United States and abroad and have been featured by NBCLatino, ABC, Univision, Fusion, NBCBLK, Vice News, etc. with her film “THE wHOLE” premiering at Amnesty International’s 50th Anniversary Human Rights Conference. Her educational and/or film writing has been featured by Edutopia, Video Librarian, Ms. Magazine, Parents Magazine and others. She is the Director of Programs and Outreach for Journeys In Film. She has developed curriculum for LA’s BEST, the Metta Center for Nonviolence and in conjunction with the Outreach Center for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, where she received her M.A. She holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and enjoys playing the piano and creating unique educational experiences for her two children.

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Free Webinar: Student Engagement Through the Power of Film

Looking for more guidance on creating safe spaces for student engagement with difficult topics ? Register now for Journeys in Film's 2023 Virtual Conference free webinar, Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down: Student Engagement Through the Power of Film.


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The mission of Journeys in Filmis to use the storytelling power of film to help educate our next generation with a richer understanding of the diverse and complex world in which we... See More

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