This post is written by contributor Trevor Aleo. All student samples are shared with permission.

My students didn’t come in to class today talking about the shows they binged, gifts they received, or books they read over break—they were too busy discussing #WW3. Some were worried. Others laughed it off and shared their favorite memes—but everyone was thinking about it. Regardless of their opinions on President Trump’s decision, there was an air of unease that settled on the class when the bell rang. 

I wanted to honor their concern and curiosity, but also wanted to do some retrieval practice to refresh their memory of some of the concepts we’d been discussing prior to break for our “How Stories Shape Us” unit for my seniors and my “Savagery, Society, & the Self” unit for my sophomores. Luckily, teaching for conceptual understanding and learning transfer allowed me to do both. 

So, I did the following: 

  1. Asked students to retrieve the concepts we’ve been talking about to scaffold our understanding of Beowulf and Black Panther.
  2. Asked students to write them down on post-it notes. One concept per note. 
  3. Asked students to use their knowledge of these concepts to make sense of what’s happening with Iran, how people are reacting domestically, and how technology influences the way Generation Z reacts to situations like this. 
  4. Students used the post-its and their white board to create a “concept map” (using the term loosely here) to capture and articulate their understanding. 
  5. Students had 20 minutes to lead their own Socratic seminar. I stood at the board and placed hash marks next to concepts when they were able to effectively tie them in to the discussion.

Here are some of their samples. Whiteboarding and visual thinking have been powerful heuristics to support students discussions of complex ideas. I love that, what started as a scaffold, has become a robust sensemaking skillset for them. 

The engagement was so high I quickly jotted down notes from the students’ discussion. Here are a few points that are worth sharing: 

  • Memes, TikToks, and political posts are a tool that they use to feel they have some semblance of a voice and can participate in a world that constantly seeks to ignore or infantilize them. They talked about how they can’t vote, they can’t affect real change, or at least that’s how they feel, so memes are how they participate. Students were split on this. Some felt they were desensitized to violence due to the fact they see it incessantly in the news, others felt that they minimize things that scare them by leveraging dark humor, and others felt like it just provides a distraction from their endless anxiety about a world that has felt like it’s on the brink in the last few years. 
  • One student expressed the idea that humans have a desire to simplify complex situations. It makes them feel like they can have control. That sense of control, no matter how tenuous or absurd, is preferable to facing how impossibly complex the world is and how powerless we all really are. 
  • Many students shared the feeling that war affects people of color and lower income families infinitely more than the people making the decision to start it.
  • Direct links to our concepts had students discussing the belief that we’re heroes and Iran is the villain is culturally constructed and bias. However, Sulemani clearly wasn’t a “good guy.” Why do we always need to create good guy/bad guy binaries? Isn’t it possible that bad actors can do something bad to other bad actors? Maybe no one is good or right here?
  • Another interesting point: The stories we tell ourselves shape our perspective, but ultimately leave out a lot of detail and nuance. This is seriously problematic, but how do we fix it? At the very least, it’s important to always have empathy for others.
  • One more reflection from students: We used our imperial might and power to cause chaos in Iran. President Trump is attempting to weaponize fear by both cowing the Iranians and distracting from domestic issues. 

Ultimately, these were just a handful of the conversations my students had. What was so powerful was the fact that they actually articulated the power of sitting in a circle and having an opportunity to make sense of these complex issues and discuss them with each other. It’s something they said they deeply appreciate and never have a chance to do in school or outside it. 

I wanted to share this because it’s the perfect example of how systematically building student schema provides your class with a shared lexicon and grammar for meaning making. Helping them build conceptual understanding means I wasn’t just teaching my students “Beowulf,” I was teaching them that stories are a tool cultures use to pass on their social norms and perspectives. I wasn’t just teaching “Lord of the Flies,” I was teaching them that fear leads to a loss of empathy and reason.

This flexibility means that my students understanding isn’t tied up in a single text. It allows them to transcend superficial connections between texts, and notice the deeper patterns and themes that shape the human experience. When you teach for conceptual understanding and learning transfer, you don’t just provide opportunities to learn—you build opportunities for cultivating wisdom.

Curious about how I built up my students conceptual knowledge prior to this activity? Click here to check out the slide deck for my “How Stories Shape Us” Unit!