Published Online: December 19, 2012

Addressing Newtown in My Classroom

There’s a special kind of restlessness that we feel when a national tragedy occurs. It’s a stinging in the eyes, a jitteriness. It is the chemical reaction between desperately needing to do something, and feeling that nothing we do can ever be enough.

This feeling is overwhelming today as I face my 7th grade English/language arts classes. Here in upstate New York, we’re only a few hours away from Newtown, Conn., where the tragic school shooting took place. Friends of mine live near there. I may be closer to what happened than some—but I feel certain that all public educators are feeling this restlessness today. How can we help our kids heal? How can we help them feel—and be—safe?

Our district has been playing it low-key, an approach I respect. We are to refrain from any individual home communications about the event, instead directing students and families to the central message sent by our superintendent. This morning, our principal sends a message over the public announcement system of universal caring and support, letting students know that adults are in the building ready to take care of them if needed, without mentioning specifics.

I take a few minutes at the beginning of class to have students fill in index cards, optionally and anonymously, with their questions and thoughts about the event. Blank cards, I emphasize, are totally fine. I’m aware I’m walking a fine line here—I must first honor families who may choose to handle this news in different ways, and I tell the children that immediately—so I don’t belabor the activity. I ask students who do not wish their thoughts to be shared to put a star on their index cards.

See Also
Helpful Links
Talking to Children About Violence—Tips from the National Association of School Psychologists
"How to Help Those Affected by the Newton School Shooting"—Ways to support the needs of Newton families and community members.

I scan the cards and address the major themes of my students’ questions. Here’s what I am seeing—and, if you teach older students, what you also might consider if you choose to address Sandy Hook in your classrooms.

'Why?'

Overwhelmingly, the most prevalent question is "why?" For my 7th graders, just emerging from concrete operational thinking, this is not exactly an existential question but more a practical one. "What was wrong with this young man?" I can tell which students have been following the news: They tend to voice theories based on Lanza’s brother talking about how Adam Lanza may have had Asperger’s Syndrome.

I tell them, first, that we are only at the beginning of what is sure to be a lengthy and complicated investigation. We have no answers yet, and it is not confirmed that the shooter was ever diagnosed with Asperger's. What we can say for sure is that Adam Lanza was very, very ill. Seventh graders understand the concept of mental illness, and it is a useful means of explaining what happened, at least in general and in small part.

But I also point out that Asperger's is a medical diagnosis that many young people carry, and that it is not a mental illness nor is it associated with violent behavior. None of this gives us any reason to be wary of kids with varying degrees of autism.

'What would we do if it happened here?'

This is where I have been tapping the red folder. Every teacher in the building has one, and the kids see them all the time during fire drills. I remind students that we have a procedure for most kinds of emergency situations. I reassure them that teachers have all been trained in these procedures, and remind them that it’s the quick thinking of teachers that saved most of the kids at Sandy Hook.

I also emphasize, strongly, that such emergency events are horrible, but rare. I acknowledge the terror of the situation, while still reassuring students about their own safety.

'I heard that … I heard that … I heard that … '

I do not hit these questions point by point except to lay out the bare bones of what happened, and briefly correct obvious misinformation. I recognize that a detailed discussion of the flow of events at Sandy Hook could veer away from the line of respect I am trying to walk. At the same time, I’m keenly aware that this generation is soaked in media, particularly social media. It’s likely that soon they will be exposed to the details of the situation, some of them false.

So I tell them this: “You will hear many, many things about this event today and in the days to come. Some of them may not be true. Put your thinking caps on. Don’t immediately assume that what you’re hearing or seeing is correct. Ask for sources. Ask questions. Ask, kindly, for evidence. Remember all the discussions we’ve been having about evidence this year?”

I say, 'Above all, if you hear something that bothers you, ask a trusted adult to help you out.'

"What’s the number one thing you need to walk out of here knowing?" I ask them.

"We’re safe," they answer.

"Yes. You’re safe, and we’re here for you. Now take a quick break, and we’ll get back to annotations."

And I turn back to the board. I turn back to the job of making sure that what I have just spoken is true.

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