Sunday, January 20, 2013

Creating Space for Difficult Conversations: Responding to Sandy Hook (part 1)

It was the Monday after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We, (the teachers at my school), had been told to not talk about the tragedy unless a student brought up the topic. I knew that if I created the space and opportunity, the discussion would happen.
We began the day with our class meeting, and talked about the range of feelings many of us experience during a typical day. We also talked about how conflicting emotions can occur during times like the holiday season.  Many of us miss loved ones who are not here, yet feel excited about Christmas.
As we have done several times before, we chose emotion cards
This is only a small sample of all of this wonderful set of cards! 

to identify how we were feeling this morning. Replies like, "I'm feeling happy about Christmas with my family," were punctuated with contrasting feelings: " I don't know.. just a little tired and out of it." After each student shared, I thanked them for their honest reflection as I always do. Of course, any student could pass if they did not feel like expressing or identifying their feelings.
About a third of the way around the circle, a student shared feelings of happiness about Christmas, yet sadness about what happened in Connecticut on Friday. The student did not elaborate further and paused.  A couple of students were puzzled. "Wait, what happened on Friday?"
I decided that we would hear all of our other friends' feelings before moving back to the topic, realizing that a couple of students were unaware of the tragedy. I wanted to be sure that the discussion focused on the many measures we take to ensure students' safety and security at our school.
After allowing the rest of the students to choose their cards and share their feelings, I returned to the topic of Friday's tragedy.
We discussed the incident as a shooting at a school, and encouraged students to focus on any feelings they might want to share. I asked them to not go into graphic detail, (though 4th graders often want to talk about weapons), out of respect for others. I also emphasized the importance of not discussing this topic around younger students and that many parents have different feelings about what they want their children to know.
I am so proud of all the children in my class who so sweetly shared their kind thoughts and words about others and their suffering. I reminded them that I am here for them, all day, anytime, by email or in person to listen if they have a concern.
We also talked about the best way that we can "do something" if we want to help in some way. We can, first and foremost, be kind to ourselves and each other, and reach out to our parents and trusted adults if we feel scared or worried. I told the class that I would be on the lookout for any way we could help, but that it's best to find out what people really want or need before just sending cards or letters. 
It was one of my most difficult conversations, but definitely one worth having. I knew that I would need to find some "action," some way of helping others so that my students could feel a sense of empowerment and share their desire to contribute.  
How have you handled the discussion about Sandy Hook and other tragic events?

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