elon fischerEvery year at about this time, my students–seniors at BHS–start work on their senior papers, a long-standing tradition and a requirement for graduation. Over the years I’ve taught European Literature, British Literature, and now Public Speaking and Public Writing, so the topics for students’ papers have varied, but the assignment has always called for students to demonstrate the same sets of skills: independent reading and research; analytical and argumentative writing; and personal responsibility for academic success.

Every year at about this time, I start my own senior paper, too. This started as a curiosity when I was hired by BHS in 1995. I needed to understand this most major of assignments, so I decided to write a senior paper (on the writing of the Swiss author, Max Frisch) along with my students. For a variety of reasons, I’ve continued this practice ever since–though I’ve still not been allowed to walk across the stage at a BHS graduation.

This year, for Public Speaking, I’m writing my senior paper about guns. More specifically, I’m focusing on a challenge I see in the Brookline community and the high school relating to guns: how do we get people to talk about guns in a productive, meaningful way. After the Newtown tragedy, I was struck by how limited the voluminous public discussions of guns, gun violence, and gun safety was in the halls of government and in the forums of the media. Predictably, this discourse consistently defaulted to binary poles that have defined our nation’s discussions of guns for the past 30 years: gun control v. gun rights. “We need fewer guns!” one side screams; “We need to arm security guards and teachers!” yells the other. Our elected officials offer sound bites about proposals that will have minimal impact on the realities of the situation on the ground, and–more importantly, from my professional vantage point–students get more and more turned off by the stalemate that ensues. The adults seem to be shouting past one another, repeating long-rehearsed and highly rhetorical talking points. Why bother listening?

So, my senior paper question is this: Can we have a different sort of discussion? Can we find a way to share information and ideas and opinions that doesn’t fall into the same traps that have derailed much of the public conversation about guns?

I’ve chosen to write my senior paper about this topic for a simple reason: I don’t know the answer to this question. And I’m turning to you (dear readers) to help me find the answer. So…please help me with my senior paper.
Given 21st century realities and the nature of my students’ lives, I’m turning to social media as the vehicle for this conversation. For starters, I’ll be posting on-line surveys to help me better understand the Brookline community’s thinking about gun-related issues and then using a website to publish this information. I’ve also set up a Twitter account to share out all that I find and to encourage others to participate and share. Finally, I’ve set up a social network so that there’s a place for more sustained discussions. In the next few weeks I’ll be interviewing Dr. Matthew Miller from Harvard School of Public Health, who will discuss his current work on gun legislation and suicide prevention, and Sargent Chris Malinn of the Brookline Police Department, who is in charge of gun licensing and registration for the Town. I’ll be making the video from these interviews available via Twitter and on the social network.

Here’s how you can join the conversation:

Of course, I’m a teacher, not a student, so my senior paper is a more public affair. I’m sharing my project with my students as they’re helping me think about how to make this conversation work. We’re eager to see if it CAN work–that is, if this MIGHT be a way to hold a meaningful conversation about a crucial public issue, a conversation that will engage the thoughtful students (and adults) of the Brookline community. I hope you’ll join in and give this a try.

Elon Fischer
English Department
Brookline High School