Monday, December 17, 2012

Talking About Sandy Hook

I know that this past Friday's events has touched every American and millions around the world. It hits home for every parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, brother or sister. As elementary school teachers, we have a unique position for empathy. We are entrusted with our students safety everyday. These children are the center of their parents' universe and 7 hours a day we become their protectors. With all of the lesson planning, IEPs, meetings, and behavior plans, it is easy to forget that we fulfill that fundamental responsibility. It is engrained in us. We make sure that our students have their shoelaces tied, that they avoid leaning back in their chairs, and that they take a jacket to recess when it's cold. Very rarely are we asked to protect our students from anything more dangerous than a bump or scrape. Yet earthquakes, fires, and school violence happen. Sandy Hook was a reminder of that. However rare something like that is, we as teachers bare the responsibility of our students' lives. The teachers at Sandy Hook were perfect examples of this. I can't help putting myself in their places, my students in that situation. How would I react? Would I panic? Would I remember the lockdown procedures? While I believe that my instincts and training would kick in, it is only natural, I feel, to doubt how I would react in the face of danger I have never experienced.

With all the fear and uncertainty I feel, I can only imagine what my students are feeling. Walking in today I knew I would see a range of emotions. Some students were visibly upset. Others were more distractible than usual. A few didn't know anything about it. One student was joking about it all. It was his way to cope. I thought a long time about how I wanted to go about talking with my students.

I set a few ground rules for the discussion:
1. No putdowns
2. Avoid silliness
3. Take turns
4. Avoid details.

The last rule was the most important. I did not want to go into a CNN-style play by play that would make students feel worse instead of better. That meant I cut some students off (usually the same ones who play first-person shooter games and were the least effected by the news).

I started by asking students what they knew and what they had heard.  I was worried about this because I knew that some parents would want to shield their kids from knowing anything about this. But I also realized that my students would be hearing about it one way or another. It would be better if I could be there to help guide what they're hearing rather than the unchecked rumor-mill of the playground. If a student said something that was incorrect, I let them know.

Next, I told the students about how we keep the students safe. I talked to them about lockdown, the police presence, and the ban of all weapons at school. After I explained all that we do to keep them safe, I opened up the floor for questions. Most wanted to know how we could keep them safe. Some wanted to talk about gun safety since many of their parents keep guns in the home. Some students were devastated. Others seemed fine. But I was glad that we talked about it all.

After all of this, I sent a letter home to all of my parents, letting them know what had been discussed today. I wanted them to be informed of what their children had talked about and what I had told them so they could follow up at home (and to assure them that I was not giving unnecessary details). I told parents they could contact me or my principal with any questions or concerns.

We will see how our students react as the weeks and months pass. Only time will tell how much it will affect them. For now I will be concentrating on having a fantastic, festive week before Christmas.

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