First Person

When Tragic Events Enter the Classroom: A Teacher's Dilemma

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Editor's note: This essay was originally published in 2013. Education Week is re-running the essay in light of the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas that left upwards of 50 people dead.

How does a teacher deal with tragic events that are devastatingly close to home? Frankly I’d rather not talk about, think about, nor acknowledge the Boston Marathon bombings. It is too heartbreaking. I was born in Boston, joyfully reside and teach here, and have written extensively about how Boston is the best place on earth to live. So to see any of our city’s residents suffer and be rendered victims makes me sick to my stomach.

And yet, as I open up my email inbox during this school vacation week, I see 12 nearly identical messages from students. They all say something to the effect of:

"Hello Ms. Marshall. My partner and I are wondering if we can change our current events research topic to the Boston Marathon bombings."

Yes, we are in the middle of a current events unit in my 7th grade humanities class. So what is a heartbroken teacher to do? Clearly these 12 students are acutely interested in learning, talking, and writing about this tragedy. They are motivated by a horrid fascination with the idea of history—shocking history—occurring in our community.

But this teacher would rather they weren’t. Along with my personal feelings of nausea and denial, professional worries beat through my head. Can 7th graders deal respectfully and responsibly with a topic that is both awful and awfully close to home? Will they inadvertently traumatize or trigger other kids in the class into breakdown? Are the skills of nonfiction reading and news analysis better practiced with a topic that is less emotional? At what point do pounding hearts and our tearing eyes jeopardize mental function and learning? And finally, are my skills as a discussion facilitator and trauma counselor strong enough to fling open this door?

Boston Public Schools has been helpful during this terrible time. The district immediately emailed BPS staff and families six suggestions from the National Association of School Psychologists about discussing tragic situations with students:

1) Remain calm and reassuring.
2) Acknowledge and normalize their feelings.
3) Take care of your own needs.
4) Turn off or monitor the television.
5) Discuss events in age-appropriate terms.
6) Stick to the facts.

But readers, I truly feel stuck. On one hand, we teachers are trained to follow student enthusiasm. In my school, we do a great deal of project-based learning that is driven by student interests. Further, NASP guideline numbers 2 and 6 would support allowing students to research this tragedy for their project. However, suggestions 3, 4, and possibly 5 would demand a definitive answer of "No" to the students awaiting my reply about their research request.

What would you do and why?

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