With today being the first day of school since the Sandy Hook shooting, I thought I’d share how I handled it in my classroom and invite others to share in the comments what happened in yours…
At the suggestion of my colleague Katie Hull, in most of our ninth-grade classes we took a few minutes at the start to discuss what had happened in Connecticut, and to point out something the President Obama said last night — one thing that we can all do in response is treat each other with kindness. As we all know, sometimes students can be a bit unruly. But not during this brief discussion — there was rapt attention. One student in one class who tried to “be funny” was immediately told to be quiet by just about the entire class. I told students that all the teachers and administrators were committed to making sure our school was a safe place for them and, though one never knows how one will react in those situations, I believed with all my heart if the unthinkable occurred, that I would act like the teachers in Connecticut had acted.
In most of my classes we then proceeded to a regular classroom lesson, but that brief discussion seemed to be what students needed to approach the “Elephant in the room.”
My IB Theory of Knowledge class for juniors, though, was different. Their home on the “ethics” chapter we are starting was due today, and they typically make small group presentations on each chapter. Today, after having the brief discussion I had done with other classes, I also asked them to incorporate in their presentations a verbal “ABC” (Answer the question; Back it up with evidence — in this case, evidence from the chapter; and make a Comment) on a question of their choice related to the shooting. They could come up with their own ethics related question, or could choose one of these:
* Was it okay for the mother of the shooter to have guns in her house, knowing her son was mentally ill?
* Would it have been okay for teachers in the school to not act to save the children and to, instead, focus on saving themselves?
* Is having the right to gun ownership more important than the possible increased safety gun control might or might not create?
After we went over these questions, much to my surprise, a few students pushed me on the issue of how I might act in the situation. They seemed to think that my saying that I believed with my all heart that I would act to save them, but that I don’t think anyone really knows how they will act until it happens, was sort of a “cop-out.” It was interesting — most seemed to understand, but a few seemed to really just want to hear me say, “Yes, I would give my life to save you.” And this was in a class that is really focused on teaching and learning about the role of ambiguity in the world!
I didn’t change what I had said earlier, but I guess even older kids sometimes just need to feel loved….
Students will be presenting on the questions tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to it.
Let me know if you have any ideas on how I could have responded to student questions better, and please share what you’ve done (and are doing) in your classes….
Hi Larry –
I teach 11th grade US History, and I spent about 10 minutes at the start of class to discuss the issue, but more pressing to me this weekend was how much I was thinking about how much I do love my students and want the best for them. So, I told them that. I also shared that the way individuals respond to tragic events in their lives, whether it be this event, or a future tragedy, would say a lot about their inner character and inner being. I proposed constructing a “random acts of kindness” chain in my room (I did not watch any of the television coverage of anything this weekend – I just couldn’t – but I assumed something like this would be part of the president’s message), and asked them to think about someone they usually do not talk to, or that they make fun of in their minds or out loud, and think about how they could do something nice for that person instead. When they carry out their act, I have construction strips in my room for them to write them down on. I think visually seeing the chain will help reinforce the idea of kindness. They agreed it was a good idea, so I’m hoping my classroom might be a catalyst for kindness in our school building. One of my students emailed me later and thanked me for talking about the event with them because I was the only teacher that did. I was reminded of this when I read your observation above – even older kids want to be feel they are loved.
We are reading Tuesdays with Morrie as a class. In the first Tuesday, Morrie points out that our culture doesn’t always make us feel good about ourselves so we have to develop our own culture. I related that point to the film, Bowling for Columbine where Michael Moore makes a link between a culture and a media which teaches people to be afraid and the gun violence that results as a sense of community breaks down. I made the point that our culture needs to change so that we move away from fear and feelings of helplessness towards love and hope. As Morrie points out, “Love is the only rational act”. In other words when faced with a crisis, love and constructive action are the only alternatives.
I referred to news articles about how two nations faced a similar tipping point and took action which had positive results. One article focussed on the U.K. and its response to the Dunblane shooting in 1996 where 16 children ages 5 and 6 were killed.
The other article showed how sweeping gun control measures passed 12 days after a shooting in 1996 at Port Arthur where 35 people were killed and 23 were wounded resulted in homicides by firearm in Australia plunging 59% between 1995 and 2006.
We discussed how fear and helplessness are not the only alternatives. Action can be taken which will bring about positive change. These tragedies are not inevitable.