TV Brought the Trauma to Classroom Millions

By Lynn Olson — February 05, 1986 8 min read
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At the Blue Lakes Elementary School in Miami, students were planting seven trees in memory of the space travelers. And at Flagami Elementary School, also in Miami, about 400 students released balloons into the sky on Friday at noon and recited a message of sorrow in unison in memory of Ms. McAuliffe.

Across the country, students and teachers who had gathered to share the excitement of the launch instead experienced the immediacy of death, brought home with horrifying impact by television.

Some 2.5-million students nationwide were viewing Challenger’s takeoff via satellite dishes hooked up to their schools. Others were watching the live broadcast on cable. And by afternoon, countless millions more schoolchildren were sitting in classrooms listening to radios or watching continuous replays of the event on public and commercial stations.

In McCall, Idaho, some 1,000 students in grades K-12 were watching the liftoff and keeping an eye out for their hometown teacher, Barbara R. Morgan, who was scheduled to replace Sharon Christa McAuliffe on the flight should the need arise.

After the explosion, teachers kept the students gathered in a few large viewing rooms for an hour or two to discuss what had happened and to follow the news coverage. Superintendent of Schools Everett D. Howard said staff members were “really just trying to get through today” before making other plans.

At Hall High School in Spring Valley, Ill., 150 students were viewing the NASA broadcast of the launch in the cafeteria. The school is home to “Classroom Earth,” the nonprofit group that was coordinating the satellite relay of Ms. McAuliffe’s lessons from space.

When the accident occurred, there was just “stunned silence,” said a Hall science teacher, Steve Fannin, who had applied for the teacher-in-space program along with 11,000 other candidates. “Initially, we didn’t know what to think. But as the moments continued, it was just a shock, utter disbelief.”

“Some of us did the final countdown,” recalled Charlotte A. Gregory, superintendent of the Bath Central School District in Bath, N.Y. “Everybody was happy. I guess we did not believe what we saw. We were still hunting for the shuttle at the time we saw the explosion.”

In school after school across the country, teachers, students, and administrators described long minutes of silence followed by crying, despair, anger, and questions for which there were no satisfactory answers.

‘What Happened?’

“We’ve been hearing about kids who want to go over and over ‘How was the shuttle built? What was the ice doing on it yesterday?’ A variety of questions about ‘How do these things work?’ ” said Sandra S. Fox, director of the Good Grief Program in Boston, which is designed to help teachers support students in schools where a child or colleague has died. Since the explosion, Ms. Fox said, her staff has been answering calls from schools throughout the New England area. “There are some kids who are angry,” said Ms. Fox. “I just talked to a young man in high school who told me that the kids in his school were all angry with the space agency because they’d been pushing too much, and they shouldn’t have tried yesterday.”

Elementary-school children have also expressed a feeling that Ms. Fox said older students probably share: “This lady was a mother. She had no business going up in this thing.”

“The other thing I’ve been hearing a lot,” she added, “is the trouble teachers are having with their own feelings. I have heard probably half a dozen times today about teachers who were watching the launch with kids, saw what had happened, burst into tears, and left the room.”

Shared Event

Although technology brought the day’s tragedy into the homes of citizens nationwide, it was particularly painful for the education community, which had been preparing for and building up to Ms. McAuliffe’s historic flight for more than a year.

“The interest was phenomenal,” said John D. Cecil, director of elementary and secondary programming for the Public Broadcasting Service. The social-studies teacher’s in-flight lessons were scheduled to be aired on P.B.S. on day four of the mission. According to Mr. Cecil, nearly all public-television stations in the country were planning to carry them.

“As a wild guess, I’d say probably in the neighborhood of 20-million kids would have been watching those lessons,” he said. “This is really devastating for everyone.”

The National Science Teachers Association had distributed information about the lessons along with teaching guides to its 40,000 members, and had helped NASA develop the materials.

Walter J. Westrum, executive director of Classroom Earth, said that some 2,000 elementary schools and high schools across the country had sent in letters confirming that they would be viewing the launch and the lessons by satellite. In the three weeks before the takeoff, he said, student volunteers answered hundreds of calls a day.

Local Efforts

States, districts, and individual schools had tried equally hard to promote the teacher in space and make her “real” for students.

The Learn Alaska Network, an educational satellite system sponsored by the Alaska Department of Education and the University of Alaska, had planned to broadcast the launch and the ensuing lessons to schools and homes in more than 250 communities. In October, Ms. McAuliffe and Ms. Morgan had participated in a live broadcast for the network that enabled students from across the state to ask questions over a special audio system and talk to the teachernauts.

“We’ve done all that we can to whip up community interest in science and NASA,” said Michael D. Abbiatti, dean of the Southfield Middle School in Shreveport, La. “We were trying to immerse this area in the space program.”

For the last month, the school system had been carrying out “Extra-terrestrial Education,” a full-month program involving students and community members that was designed to culminate with the flight.

Pupils and teachers had been following the shuttle’s itinerary over computer and via satellite. And last Friday, 500 students were scheduled to take a field trip to the local public-television station for a special program to coincide with the space lessons.

“We plan to grieve and we plan to collect all the information we possibly can and then forge ahead,” said Mr. Abbiatti. “People will ask, ‘What happened? Why?’ If people are questioning and they really want to know, that’s when we can react as educators.”

Hometown Loss

But in the astronauts’ hometowns, the strongest reaction was one of profound loss, even though residents continued to express enthusiasm for the shuttle program.

At Auburn High School in Auburn, Wash.--the alma mater of the shuttle’s commander, Francis R. Scobee--students were home the day of the explosion while teachers came to school to assign semester grades.

Two of the state’s finalists for the teacher-in-space program, who teach at the school, first heard the news over the public-address system. One of them, Kathy Willson, was still reading over Ms. McAuliffe’s lesson plans the day after the disaster, hoping to revise them to use with her students.

The day following the explosion “was even harder,” she said, because the truth had “just sunk in.” Students at the school observed a minute of silence last week, while two of their classmates played taps over the public-address system.

Quick Response

At schools where students were present and watching the event, teachers and administrators responded quickly to their concerns.

In Alaska, the Learn Alaska Network put together a special program that it broadcast at 12:30 P.M. the day of the explosion. The show included an address by Gov. Bill Sheffield, and a high-school science teacher and a psychologist were available to answer students’ questions.

“Some of the students just put their heads down on the desk and watched in disbelief,” said Marjorie M. Benning, utilization manager for the network. She added that the network is encouraging teachers to go ahead with the lesson plans as best they can, and is asking students to write letters of condolence to their peers in Concord, N.H., and to Barbar Morgan, as well as putting their own feelings on paper.

“Lots of our students live in small communities and are very familiar with the traumas of being close to the land and the environment,” said Ms. Benning. “They see these kinds of things happen. It’s not totally without context.”

That feeling was shared by Corbett Lawler, principal of Killeen High School in Killeen, Tex., which is located just outside Fort Hood, the largest military installation in the free world. “Our youngsters generally have military attitudes,” said Mr. Lawler. “Many of them are not at all a stranger to death and to violence.”

Like many other schools nationwide, Killeen was responding quietly to the tragedy and its students decided to send letters of condolence to the families of the astronauts. Thousands of schools also flew their flags at half mast.

“I would say that we will definitely be watching our students very closely, at least in the next few days,” said Principal Richard W. Lundgren of Eagle Bend High School in Eagle Bend, Minn. “As we get over the shock of it, we’re trying to get the students’ feelings out about what has happened and work with them as we can.”

Positive Steps

In addition to sending letters to the communities and families of the seven astronauts, a number of schools have taken steps to honor their memory.

In Bath, N.Y., an ecumenical service was held at a local church. Bath High School has also begun a collection to which students and teachers can contribute, called “Pennies for Space,” funds from which will be donated to NASA to contribute to the shuttle program.

At the Blue Lakes Elementary School in Miami, students were planting seven trees in memory of the space travelers. And at Flagami Elementary School, also in Miami, about 400 students released balloons into the sky on Friday at noon and recited a message of sorrow in unison in memory of Ms. McAuliffe.

On Jan. 29, New Hampshire public television produced a half-hour program called “Challenger Tragedy: Helping Our Young People Cope,” which included interviews with child psychologists and educators from the University of New Hampshire to help teachers devise strategies for getting young people to deal with the disaster. The station is making the videotaped program available to other public television stations.

The Massachusetts and Rhode Island public-television stations also showed the program last week, and the Massachusetts station was planning to make it available to schools.

Staff Writers Robert Rothman and William Snider also contributed to this report.


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