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Teaching through Tragic Times
It is a warm September day and the Physics teacher runs over and tells me to turn on the TV. Someone has attacked the twin towers in New York. Iowa is far from New York yet we knew about the twin towers and we knew this would be an event that would define this generation. We watched in horror.
Throughout the day we debated leaving the TV on or getting the kids away from the flood of news. I settled on a bit of update viewing at the end of class. We did discuss the events a bit. I did find that my kids became overwhelmed with the focus on the tragedy even the first day. Many students cope by focusing on the routine, the familiar, and the comfortable. We did that and then we did share information we had viewed or heard. We sorted through the possible and the far-fetched to see what was truth and what was fiction. This was our version of social networking 10 years ago.
Today there would be Twitter and a host of social media that all would monitor on their smart phones. Back then it was good to have the comfort of a steady teacher and a class who trusted her or him to guide them through these times. Only a few of the students really knew how big an impact this event would have on the culture of their generation.
We went through something similar with the Challenger Disaster. That was a larger impact on teachers as one of our own perished in the accident. We were more connected than ever before to a launch. This tragedy was personal to the teachers and a tragic current event to the kids. The towers were different. Perhaps this is because my generation (which included most of the staff at our high school) was more conscious of the grave nature of the situation that would follow. Many remembered the dark days of October and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
We did not know exactly what to do. There is no single protocol for helping kids cope with disaster. Yet, our instincts and the guidance of our students led us down the correct path. It is a dance between reality and familiar, comforts and lessons.
It was too early to launch into an engineering lesson about skyscrapers. It was not too early to research what was happening and the response to the events. Learning all you can is like a reporter digging for facts. There is some academic comfort in facts. It may be a better time to review our own disaster preparedness.
In the discussions that day I showed the kids how we took cover under our desks during the Missile Crisis. We talked about the crazy bus evacuation drills and how to do it better. We argued over what would be the best way to prepare for a tornado emergency here in our school. Are drills effective, do we have kids moving in the most efficient way towards shelter? Those are proactive steps that seem to give the kids a bit of control in a time when the world seems out of control.
In the days that followed 9/11 groups of kids got together and tried to figure out how to help those who were impacted. They wrote letters to the families, firefighters, the mayor and others. They sent a few care packages to schools in New York and surprisingly they reached out to the local Muslim community. I was most proud of those efforts.
We did construct a unit on STEM science as the engineering reports came out. The students were interested in how they might engineer buildings to be safer. The unit was important for a while then interest waned. It is not that the students forgot the event. It was just that the current crop of kids was just too young to understand it as deeply as the older students.
The science does not stop on those days but it is wise to let the plans for the days morph into something more powerful. Let the kids talk if they feel the need. Give them lessons to break up the focus on the tragedy. The key is to listen to the subtle messages the kids give you on how to move through the day. They will be looking at us for clues to how adults should handle a tragedy. I hope we taught them well with our actions on that day.
On this 10th anniversary the students who are in my class now were in 1st grade or kindergarten during the event. They have sketchy memories of the disaster but do remember that as being a crazy day at school. They will face their own disaster someday. I pray that it is not the same magnitude. However, there will be tornados, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes that impact the lives of folks. Those days require the same measured and attentive response, a little reality and some familiar comforts.