Teaching about the Orlando Massacre

I’ve written about teaching about horrific current events before, and I don’t have much to add in general. The details of the Orlando shooting require some forethought and sensitivity that are a little different from many other such horrors.

The simple, straightforward story is that hundreds of American citizens (plus, undoubtedly, a few guests) were enjoying a night out in Pulse nightclub in Orlando, when Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American, brought a gun into the club and began shooting. 49 patrons of the club were killed, 53 were wounded and the gunman was killed after a hostage-taking incident.

This is simple enough. True enough. And minimally acceptable in the classroom. Perhaps for a class of young students it is enough. But there is so much more of relevance to any student mature enough to understand.

First, Pulse caters to gay clientele. Most, if not all, victims were from the LGBTQ community. The crime targeted a vulnerable minority population. It’s easy to find a preacher here and a politician there who wants to make this a cautionary tale of the just desserts of sinners. But that’s such transparent nonsense, it is not worth even mentioning in class. Such people are certainly entitled to their views; but that doesn’t mean that teachers should give them underserved airtime. The victims were all innocently enjoying the freedoms that our society allows and that’s the educational point. That they were targeted because of who they are and how they live is an important educational point for older students.

Second, the gunman Omar Mateen made a bizarre series of social media posts and a 911 call, allegedly claiming allegiance with ISIS. No subsequent evidence ties him to ISIS, so it’s hard to know what to make of this. But the public had no trouble branding him a terrorist. Yes, his name, ethnicity and family religion went into the branding. But the bizarre social media posts help to make the case against him. This may be worth exploring for a number of reasons. First, there is no agreed-upon definition of terrorist. None. So who is a terrorist and who isn’t and why? And what does this say about social media? And publicly held beliefs about “others”? These are all worthy topics—for the right class at the right time.

Third, there are numerous allegations that Mateen was an “insider” to the Orlando LGBT scene. It’s not at all clear what to make of this. Is it worth discussing? This is a difficult local decision for the teacher. It seems to me that it may be an interesting aside to the story, but from an educational/current events/civics point of view, it’s hard to say what sense to make of it.

In the end, the story is mainly about human tragedy, and should be presented that way. The other issues are interesting and important, but they may or may not be relevant to classroom discussion. But please don’t use tragedy for a personal soap-box. Students need to know the story. They need to think about the tragedy of the shooting. The politics and media analysis are important, yes. But they aren’t as urgent as the humanity.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching about the Orlando Massacre

    • Absolutely. The human tragedy must be the focus of the story. The sideshows won’t go away, and teacher judgment becomes crucial. But at the heart of everything is the unmistakable human tragedy.

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