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A Sadly Repetitive Blog Post

created Oct 31, 2018 11:23 AM

by Nancy McTygue, Executive Director

I don’t want to write another blog post on what to tell your students after a violent attack.  I’ve done it before and I’m still not sure if it helped any teacher or student.  I wrote my first one after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, another after the Paris attack, a third on Charlottesville, and my fourth on Las Vegas.  I also started, but didn’t finish, posts after the mass killings in Orlando, Charleston, and Parkland.*

But while I have the luxury of not having to talk about this with students because I’m not teaching anymore, you don’t.  Your students have heard about it and probably have questions.  Chances are, many of them have been affected, either in response to their own traumatic experiences, or because they are empathetic human beings unaccustomed to the savagery we learned of in Pittsburgh over the weekend.  They’re probably wondering if the attack on a Jewish synagogue is connected in some way to the mail bombs sent to Democratic political leaders, or the murder of two African-Americans at a Kentucky supermarket last Wednesday.  They’re also probably asking about the hateful name-calling that seems to now define our political discourse.

So I’m going to give it another try, because like many of you, I feel the need to do something. And as a member of the extended CHSSP family, I want to share in writing what many of my colleagues have been saying – that we unequivocally denounce violence and hate, that we value and respect all of our students, and that, as we wrote in the History-Social Science Framework, we encourage students to “…develop respect for all persons as equals regardless of ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, and beliefs.”  Moreover, we hope that all students will, “… recognize their responsibility as members of the global community to participate ethically and with humanity….”

And so, despite my fear that this gesture may not make much difference, and sadly, will likely be relevant again in the very near future, I want to share the following suggestions.  If you’ve read my prior posts, some of this will sound familiar, but it represents what I’ve learned to be the most commonly offered advice from people who have studied the impact on trauma on children’s ability to learn.  I’ve also added a couple more ideas you might want to consider, at the advice of my colleagues.  I don’t know how helpful this will be to any of you, but I hope that it might inspire one or more of you to do something as well – something that helps someone else and makes our world just a little better.

  1. Let students talk.  The first thing we can do is let kids talk, ask questions, and feel safe to express their emotions in a school setting.  We should also try to answer their questions in an honest and age-appropriate way.  Giving students time to talk may mean that you have to adjust your previously scheduled lesson plans.  And this will likely look different in different classrooms – less detail with the youngest children, more if you’re dealing with middle or high school students.  
  2. Provide context.  It’s important to provide some context, especially for older students, to help them understand that while the murders in Pittsburgh claimed more lives than any other anti-Semitic act in U.S. history, they are not the first time that violence motivated by religious, ethnic, or racial hate and bigotry have led to loss of American life.  Students should learn that anti-Semitism has a deep and long history.  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has resources, including this powerful video that can serve as entry points for your students to learn about the roots and current intensification of anti-Semitism at home and globally.  Context also helps students understand that the current tragedy likely has connections to events in both the recent and distant history. Another set of murders last week perpetrated against African Americans in a grocery store in Kentucky were allegedly carried out because of similarly hate-fueled racism.  These horrific events are also linked by the massacres’ two troubled perpetrators – both American-born men with deep hatred of perceived minorities. Beginning to understand this disturbing context is essential if violence and hate are to be confronted and overcome through the efforts of good people – adults and children  working together to make the world a better place. 
  3. Do something positive. One thing that often helps is the opportunity to do something positive and productive so that students can feel like they can make a difference, as individual citizens.  Even very young students can raise money to support non-profits that are dedicated to helping those affected by tragedy, such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Unicef, Save the Children, or Doctors without Borders. Students can also volunteer their time helping people in need in their communities through service learning projects that directly benefit those that are less fortunate, including migrants, organizing food and clothing drives, or collecting school supplies for children.  Helping someone less fortunate in California may not directly benefit people in Pittsburgh, but it will demonstrate the power and importance of public service, and push back against those who seek to divide and destroy us though hate and violence.
  4. Show them you care.  Probably the most important thing we can do for children during times of crisis is to show our students that we care about them.  This might even be the easiest thing for us to do, as it was likely the reason we went into the profession in the first place.  Children can be resilient, but they need adults who show kindness, generosity, and respect for them.  The most important thing we can do for our students now – and in the future when the next crisis strikes – is to reassure them that we care about them, not just now when we’re all feeling vulnerable and they’re relatively well-behaved, but every day.  And part of our care for them is teaching them all how to care for each other – our absolute best weapon against hate.
  5. More resources that can help.  While the following list is in no way comprehensive, it might include an idea for your classroom.   After the US Holocaust Memorial Museum site, I’d start by visiting the websites of our friends and colleagues at Teaching Tolerance  (an initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center) and Facing History and Ourselves for a variety of lesson plans, articles, and instructional resources that specifically address this topic.  (While you're there, make sure you check out Facing History's special Responding to Pittsburgh page). Southern Poverty Law Center has a number of resources as well, including film and teaching kits and a magazine devoted to the topic on its main website.  The Harvard School of Education has a couple of podcasts on the topic.  The Museum of Tolerance offers free professional development for educators. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has some suggestions / policy statements that might be of use.  Finally, don’t forget our own Framework; the Introduction has quite a few passages that could be of help, especially as you’re working with your colleagues to develop goals for student learning and growth.

*We did publish a Current Context on civic engagement that referenced student response to the Parkland shooting.  Click here for a copy.

 

 
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