Healthy Classroom Conversations don't happen by accident.
Cultivate the tools and skills you need to make your classroom
a safe place for emotionally-charged conversations.
a safe place for emotionally-charged conversations.
April 20 marks the twentieth anniversary of Columbine. It says a lot that the name of a secondary school has become synonymous with mass shooting. After all, schools should be places of learning, not trauma. So far in 2019, there have been 32 instances of gunfire on school campuses. And, there have been tens of thousands of drills conducted to prepare for a mass shooting, a scenario that should be unthinkable in our countries schools.
While drills are part of our school routine and discussions about school safety are commonplace, the idea of preparing for a mass shooting is disturbing for students and educators alike. Several years ago, NBC published an article about strategies for discussing school violence with children. These strategies are good for parents, but are even more relevant to educators since we are the ones helping conduct drills and disseminating safety reminders to our students. It is good to keep in mind that while students might seem OK, these discussions could be an upsetting source of anxiety.
Check out this article & keep in mind, you don't need to wait for students to bring up these concerns before you address them. It is also worth mentioning that this article came out in 2015, and is still applicable today. Stories that are relevant regardless of season or year are called "Everygreen." It says a lot that an article about school shootings has become "Everygreen." Today reran it today with an editor's note about the anniversary of Columbine.
Here it is:
How to talk about school shootings: An age-by-age guide
Today, many students in schools across the country are planning a walkout in response to the Parkland shooting. Some schools are supportive of the walkout; some are not. Some administrators and teachers are worried that kids will use the opportunity to skip class, while others are concerned about losing class time. Meanwhile, it is likely that many students will just know that people might walk out of the building for a while at 10 am.
While as teachers it is not our place to tell students what to believe, there is information we can share with kids so that the walkout is a learning experience, and not just a disruption to the school day. One of the primary goals of public education was to create an informed electorate. National Walkout Day provides an opportunity to work towards that goal.
Here is some information you can share to make this experience meaningful for students who participate, and students who choose not to.
1. What is National Walkout Day?
Students will likely be aware of the Parkland tragedy, but some might not know about National Walkout Day. Students should know that most events will include 17 minutes of silence to commemorate the 17 lives lost in the shooting. They might also be interested to know that other entities are also participating. Some TV networks, including MTV, will stop their regular programming for 17 minutes. This isn't just a commemoration, however. The walkout was organized to pressure Congress to change gun legislation.
The New York Times had a good article this morning with general information about the movement and also some background information that could be helpful to share.
2. What rights do students have?
Students should know that they have the right to protest. They also need to understand that they can receive any penalty that would normally be imposed for skipping class. If your school has indicated that kids will not be punished, you can share that information with them.
The TED-Ed blog has a very helpful FAQ about student rights in the context of protest.
3. What is the point of protest?
Protest and dissent are healthy aspects of our democracy. Instead of focusing on today's protest, you can show the powerful role protests play in strengthening democracies. Zachariah Mampilly has an excellent TED talk on protests in African countries. Even if you have some students who are against this specific protest, they can benefit from this event by acquiring a better understanding of protests.
4. What are your students passionate about?
If students say they are not passionate about anything, think about a time you heard them complain. Do they think the dress code is stupid? Do they think there are too many standardized tests? Help them formulate an opinion around these complaints and think about constructive avenues for change.
5. What ideas do your students have about school safety?
If you have a strong rapport with your class and have successfully facilitated discussions about controversial topics, ask your students the ideas they have about school safety. Focusing on what they think will work instead of what they think will NOT work is a good way to keep conversations productive.
Too often teachers shy away from controversy at the expense of our students. One of our goals as educators should be to help students think critically and become active participants in our democracy. The National Walkout Day is controversial, but talking about protest and dissent does not need to be.
The February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida was the eighteenth school shooting of 2018. Many schools have active-shooter drills, but news of a real-life tragedy can make the possibility of a school shooting seem even more real and disturbing for students.
Some students might be very emotional, while others seem like they don't care. Just because students seem fine, does not mean they actually feel fine. Some students might cope by laughing, joking around, or exhibiting other inappropriate responses. In all cases, students look to their teachers for information, reassurance, and support.
What can teachers do in these circumstances?
1) Provide direct, accurate information. Students rely on teachers for information. Students have probably heard about the incident from the news, social media, classmates, or other adults. Be prepared to provide developmentally-appropriate facts about the incident. Younger students should receive simple, concise information while older students benefit from having the full picture. In both cases, it is beneficial to point out the positive ways people responded and provided help during the event.
2) Provide reassurance. All students deserve to feel safe in school. News of a school shooting can compromise their sense of safety. Remind students of your school's safety procedures, including drills for lockdowns, fires, and other sources of danger. Let your students know that the adults at school are doing their best to keep them safe while acknowledging that bad things can happen in our world.
3) Help children process their emotions. You can model sharing emotions by naming your own feelings (e.g. "I felt sad and scared when I heard this news.") When children share, you can help make sense of their experience by validating their feelings. (e.g. "I can tell you are very worried about this!) Attempting to change students' emotions by cheering them up can actually frustrate children. Practice active listening techniques with your students. Simply repeating what you hear them say and naming the emotions they are trying to express can help students of all ages make sense of their feelings.
4) Keep the conversation constructive. Especially among older students, conversations can devolve into angry political debates. If your goal is to help students process their feelings, feel reassured, and move forward in their day, a political debate is probably counterproductive. Political action and dialogue can be helpful for older students, but wait until the students' emotional needs are met and you can plan properly.
5) Identify helpful resources in the building. Remind students about adults who can provide support and assistance if they are distressed or distracted. And, let students know how to seek this help. Be specific! If students have not visited the school counseling office before, let them know where it is and your school's procedure for visiting. Do they need a pass? Does another adult need to escort them? Are you supposed to call ahead? If you have identified students who might need extra support, pass that information to an administrator or school counselor.
6) Collaborate with colleagues and other stakeholders. Other teachers, school counselors, school administrators, and staff members all play a key role in supporting students alongside parents and guardians. Parents in particular should know about how you have approached this dialog so that they have all of the information they need to continue to support their children at home.
7) Maintain your normal routine. After students have had a chance to process the news, proceed with your usual routine. It will help students return to a sense of normalcy and feel more comfortable.
8) Be prepared for more discussions. Processing an upsetting situation is not a linear event. Students might seem fine and then get upset again later. Listen to your students' verbal and nonverbal messages so that you can support them as needed.
Here are other resources on talking to children about upsetting events. Some of these are geared towards parents, but can also apply to teachers.
Helping Kids During Crisis, American School Counselor Association.
Mass Shooting in Las Vegas: How to Talk to Students, October 2017, NEA Today.
Tips for Talking to Children about the Shooting, December 2012, New York Times.
Teachers often assume that politics must be left at the schoolhouse door. Political topics often end up in your room anyway. If your school has a newspaper subscription that students access, politics could already be in your room. If students watch CNN 10 or another morning news program, politics are already in your room. If students are upset or worried about current events, politics are already in your room. If your students have come from another class where a political topic has come up, guess what? Politics are in your room. Politics are in your classroom if your own curriculum includes politically-oriented topics.
Even if you are still convinced your classroom is apolitical, ask yourself: Do you view schools as a place that helps develop an informed citizenry? It is hard to achieve that goal without teaching students to analyze and respond to political ideas.
Teachers who fear political discussions generally conflate politics with partisanship. Your classroom should not be partisan, nor should you promote a specific political candidate, platform, ideology or perspective. Many school districts have explicit policies prohibit teachers using their position in this way. Even the ACLU, a staunch defender of free speech, cautions against teachers promoting specific political views. It is unethical to go into a political discussion with the goal of convincing them of your viewpoint.
It is still possible-- and indeed important-- to be able to facilitate political conversations in your classroom whether they arise intentionally or through unanticipated student contributions. Political conversations do not need to be partisan. In fact, conversations about politics can equip students with valuable skills that will help them be stronger participants in their democracy. Diane Hess and Paula McAvoy authors of Politics in the Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education frame political discussions as a change to help students answer the question "How should we live together?"