Teaching Tough Topics

An Interview with Ruth Wills

Ruth Wills doesn’t believe in shying away from tough topics with children. A few years ago, she developed a method for helping children reflect spiritually on the Holocaust and its legacy of hate and bias. Now she’s adapting that approach to address contemporary expressions of racism in a global society. Her work with schoolchildren in the UK is setting a standard for educators worldwide.


Interview with Dr. Ruth Wills

Karen-Marie Yust (00:03):

Hi, I’m Karen-Marie Yust and I’m here with Erin Reibel from Real Kids, Real Faith, and today we’re discussing how to talk with children about controversial or difficult social issues. Our guest is Dr. Ruth Wills, who’s a primary school teacher and also the editor of the Bloomsbury Handbook of Culture and Identity from Early Childhood to Early Adulthood, and she’s a lecturer at Liverpool Hope University in the United Kingdom. We’re very excited that she’s able to be with us today. Welcome, Dr. Wills.

Ruth Wills (00:37):

Thank you.

Erin Reibel (00:39):

Dr. Wills, a few years ago, you developed an approach for helping children reflect spiritually on the Holocaust and its legacy of hate and bias. Why do you think it’s important for children to have space to reflect on such events?

Ruth Wills (00:53):

Yeah, so my work is as a primary school teacher. A few years ago I led a series of sessions with children, ages 10 and 11, looking at the Holocaust and Auschwitz in particular. The reason why I did these sessions is because the children knew that I was going to be visiting Auschwitz and they wanted me to talk to them about it afterwards.

Ruth Wills (01:20):

They were really interested learning about the history of the Second World War and particularly about the Holocaust. Of course, in a primary school in England, we need to fulfill the national curriculum, and so this helped fulfill the history curriculum. We had three sessions where we looked at the Holocaust and Auschwitz in particular.

Ruth Wills (01:44):

But as a philosopher and somebody interested in children’s spirituality and spiritual education, I also saw it as an opportunity to look at it from an existential point of view. Even though the subject matter that we were looking at was difficult, it gave the children the opportunity to reflect on wider issues of exclusion and hatred and violence in the world today.

Ruth Wills (02:16):

I provided space in each lesson for the children to reflect on what they’d learnt, but also if it meant anything to them in particular, and if they could make links to other difficult things that were happening at the time. I provided the space in the form of three questions. If I can just share my screen, I’m just going to quickly show you the three questions. Which are here.

Ruth Wills (02:56):

So WALT is, We Are Learning Too, and we call it the learning objective. This was just purely factual, we’re understanding significant aspects of history, but I gave the children the opportunity to respond and they responded by writing or drawing something in the boxes. They responded to the learning, saying that children should or should not learn about the Holocaust and why. Then to write down the things that they learned that they think they should never forget.

Ruth Wills (03:31):

After we did this activity… I’ll stop sharing now. We then went into the hall, from the classroom we went into the hall and I asked the children to share what they’d written on the piece of paper. We sat in a circle and one by one, the children went round the circle and there was a real atmosphere of calm and peace and reflection.

Ruth Wills (03:57):

It was a tangible sense, a spiritual experience where the children were sharing their responses. Some of the things that they talked about was how these exclusions and the abuse and the atrocities are actually still happening today. For example, in the treatment of refugees coming into our country in terms of racism and what they understood from the news about what was happening across our country and across the world. Also, one child was able to make connections with what was happening on the playground and how some children were being excluded, and what she said, actually, which reminded me of what Hannah Arendt said really, about the banality of evil.

Ruth Wills (04:43):

She said that we’ve all got it in us to do these awful things, and these things are happening in our playground, so we’ve got to stop. That was so powerful and so profound. To answer the question, why is it important? I think it’s really important because it’s an existential issue where children can not only learn about history, but also to think about how they can transform their immediate experience and maybe even go further and transform society and the community around them.

Erin Reibel (05:21):

Thank you so much.

Karen-Marie Yust (05:24):

Yes. I know that another part of your reflection process includes inviting children to memorialize or ritualize their engagement with a difficult topic like the Holocaust. How do memorials and rituals enhance children’s spiritual development when they occur in this kind of conversation?

Ruth Wills (05:44):

Yeah. At the end of the three sessions that I led with the children, the third question that was on the sheet there was, “What do you never want to forget?” Or, “What do you want to remember?” We did a ritual whereby each child got a stone and came to the front of the classroom in turn and put the stone on the table, but one by one the stones built up so that they formed a little cairn.

Ruth Wills (06:14):

Cairns are kind of symbols of remembrance. If we go to the top of a mountain and we see a cairn that somebody’s put there, it’s a memorial of what’s happened, so the cairn in the classroom was a symbol of remembrance, a memorial, and that we should never forget what happened in the Holocaust. I think even more significant than that, the physical aspect of placing the stone and saying the thing that we should never forget, made it personal to each individual child.

Ruth Wills (06:50):

I think that the physical act of moving to the front of the classroom, intentionally placing the stone, embedded it in the consciousness of that child, so that became for them their personal way forward. So what should we never forget? We should never forget that awful things have happened. That people have been abused and murdered and treated in this way, but we’ve also got to remember that we can do something to change the course of history.

Ruth Wills (07:23):

So I think that physical act of the tangible nature of the stone, and the act and the speech, I think all of that ritualized the remembering, but also the physical symbol of the cairn I think was really important as well. Of course, we took photographs, which we do in school a lot, but those photographs, they’re for evidence for the Ofsted [Office for Standards in Education] inspectors, but the photographs are still there and we can revisit those photographs any time. Those children, they’re now 15 years old, they’ve left Primary, but those photographs are still there, so we’ve always got that memorial point to come back to.

Erin Reibel (08:12):

Now, I know this fall you’re developing some new curriculum related to black history. What are some of the hard topics that you want children to explore spiritually when they think about racism and racial discrimination?

Ruth Wills (08:25):

Yeah. So in the UK, October is Black History Month. The purpose of Black History Month is to celebrate the contribution of the black community to our society, but I’ve also used it as the opportunity to wrestle again with some difficult issues. I’ll just explain a little bit of what I’ve done in class and what I’m expecting to do in class.

Ruth Wills (08:50):

The first lesson was last week and we listened to the song Blackbird by the Beatles. It had in the song, the line, “You were only waiting for the moment to be free.” It’s a song about civil rights and it’s based on the civil rights movement, and so we looked at what we think freedom is. Because these children are age 10 or 11, they’re able to look at issues like this from a more philosophical point of view than maybe younger children.

Ruth Wills (09:22):

We looked at freedom and we said, “Well actually, does freedom mean you can do whatever you want, or do we have morals or do we have ethics or do we have values that allow us to be free, but almost stop us from being free? What is it that stops us from doing whatever we want? Because if we did, then we’d cause chaos.” So we used that song to talk about freedom and what freedom means, but we also looked at the civil rights movement and what that meant in history.

Ruth Wills (09:56):

We looked at issues of segregation, exclusion, white supremacy, male supremacy, and what tends to happen in class is that we start looking at a topic, so the civil rights movement, but then the children throw in their own questions and their own contributions, and so I don’t have an agenda, it’s like, well, let’s just listen to this song. Let’s learn what the civil rights movement is, and then open it up to the children.

Ruth Wills (10:22):

So words like segregation, they were using. White supremacy, they were using. They’ve obviously heard that on the TV, but they do understand what it means. We’ve also been able to talk about racism and of course, Black Lives Matter, that’s a global phenomenon and of course children do know about George Floyd and everything that’s happened coming out of America.

Ruth Wills (10:48):

What’s really pertinent to us, and this is what we’re going to be looking at in the next few weeks, is that we just had the European Football Championships and England were playing in the final. Nil nil score, it went to penalties and the three players who missed the penalties, meaning that we didn’t win the cup, were all of black heritage. They’ve suffered online abuse, physical abuse. There’s one guy called Marcus Rashford who’s local to us, he’s from Manchester, and there’s a mural on a wall in Manchester of him that was defaced, people writing profane things.

Ruth Wills (11:31):

So, George Floyd is a long way away. Marcus Rashford is 10 miles down the road, and so they’re able to talk about racism in relation to this local boy who they feel that they know because he’s 19 and lives down the road. We’ve been talking about racism and thinking particularly again about exclusion and how people are being treated differently and why. This is something that they’re really wrestling with.

Ruth Wills (12:05):

Why are people treated differently because of the color of their skin? Why are people treated differently because they’ve come from another country? Why because in the Holocaust they were Jews? They really want to get to the bottom of the answer to this question: Why? Of course, we don’t have any answers but I think again, using that word, “space,” from the first question, in the primary classroom, we can provide the space for them to ask the questions and to wrestle with that. I think again, this has been a really important piece of teaching that I’ve been able to do, because I can’t provide the answers, but we can try and work through it together.

Karen-Marie Yust (12:48):

Yeah, I noticed when you were talking about that last question, that there were a couple of different ways that you were bringing the issue into, kind of, your situation. One was the Beatles, who of course were big Liverpool folk and you’re in Liverpool, in that area.

Ruth Wills (13:04):


Karen-Marie Yust (13:05):

Also this footballer, Marcus, who’s from the area and what’s happened to him. What other kinds of advice would you give to parents and teachers who are uncomfortable talking about hard topics with children, but want to try to bring that up nonetheless, and make those spaces that you’re talking about?

Ruth Wills (13:24):

Yeah. I think that it is challenging to talk about difficult issues with children. Sometimes I think we either want to protect them from difficult issues, or we feel that we might be opening them up to things that they can’t handle. From my experience, and I’ve been doing this for eight or nine years now, doing this kind of thing in the primary classroom, from my experience, I think they can actually handle it in a much more robust and resilient way than possibly we think that they will.

Ruth Wills (13:56):

Also I know, and it may be because I work in a Catholic school and so we have certain morals and values that we try to instill in the children, but I know that they actively want to be involved in these kinds of conversations, so it’s not just about racism, not just about the Holocaust. They want to be involved in conversations about climate change and homelessness and poverty, and by opening it up in the classroom, or even in the home, children can feel really empowered.

Ruth Wills (14:26):

I think what they find difficult is when we come at issues with a fait accompli, the adult answer. I think they feel when we open up the space and we give them the opportunity to talk and to contribute their own ideas, that actually they feel that they are taking part in making a difference and they really do feel empowered. Even if we think it’s challenging and we think that it might be really, really hard, I think we can do it.

Ruth Wills (14:51):

If I can just quickly use a visual example. When I was doing the Holocaust, I really struggled with whether I should show these photographs to the children. This is of the gas chamber, and then we’ve got, this is the execution wall, and this is the crematorium, or the remains of the crematorium and there’s just human ash all around the crematorium. Then here we’ve got the outside of the gas chamber. Then of course I couldn’t not teach the Holocaust without showing this iconic picture of the Arbeit Macht Frei [German for ‘work sets you free’] gate.

Ruth Wills (15:34):

I did struggle. I asked the teacher, because I’m not the class teacher. I asked the teacher, should I show these pictures to the children? And he said, “Yes, absolutely, because we don’t want to sanitize this story. We want them to learn it pretty much as it is.” So we did, and I think that was really powerful to do that. I would just say if you know your children, you know what they’re capable of and I think that yeah, we should be tackling difficult issues with children.

Erin Reibel (16:12):

Dr. WIlls, thank you so much for sharing these insights. Thank you for talking us through how this has looked for you in the classroom and how parents can engage with this with their own children. We really appreciate you joining us today.

Ruth Wills (16:25):

Thank you.



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