Teaching after Terror

Last January, I wrote about the massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists and police officers in Paris in a forum article published in the Sacramento Bee.  I suggested that students might benefit from extended conversation about the topic, as well as additional information to help them put the attack in historical context, and in particular, the importance of free expression.  I had not thought about that essay for a number of months, and then Paris was attacked again.

Teachers face a tremendously difficult challenge today.  When trying to both comfort and somehow explain the inexplicable to our students, it seems really important to remember that not everything is in our control.  That, as in many other periods of history, life can be both brutal and way too short, and that all any of us can do is to do our best and focus on what we can control – our own everyday interactions with our students, colleagues, friends, and family.  Helping students understand how to respond to – and not be paralyzed by – the inevitable tragedy each of us will learn about and likely face in our lives may prove to be the most important lesson of the school year.

I’m writing this on Sunday evening; the news is now reporting 132 dead and 352 injured from the Paris attacks, now attributed to the Islamic State.  Earlier last week, more than 40 died in a double suicide attack in Beirut.  On Halloween, a Russian passenger jet was blown out the sky over Egypt, killing all 224 on board.  In July, more than 30 Turkish civilians were killed by a suicide bomber at a cultural center. The victims in each of these attacks were innocents.  What can we do as teachers to help students understand these events?  How can we reassure them that despite what they see on the news or social media, the likelihood of themselves being victims in a similar attack are relatively low?  And how can we help them put these events in context, grieve for the loss, but then move forward with their lives committed to doing what they can to make the world a better place?

The first thing we can do is let kids talk and answer any questions that they may have.  This will look different in different classrooms – less detail with the youngest children, more if you’re dealing with middle or high school students. (Check out TIME’s suggestions from the Child Mind Institute for guidance on hitting the right level for your students or Karen Murphy’s post from Facing History and Ourselves for suggestions for teaching about Paris.)

Second, I think it’s important to provide some context, especially for older students, to help them understand that while the current event is horrific, it is not the first (nor the last) time that terrorism has stunned the world.  And that violence and hate can be overcome, often at a substantial cost, through the efforts of good men and women working together to make the world a better place.  Context also helps students understand that the current tragedy likely has connections to events in both the recent and distant history.  Making connections to understand the motivations of terrorists is one of the most challenging and important tasks of our time.  If we are to ever truly confront this threat, we must understand their world view.  (If you haven’t already, take a look at our Current Context pieces on the Islamic State or our latest issue on the Syrian refugee crisis).

The third thing I think we can do is to provide students with the opportunity to do something positive and productive so that they 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 SocietiesUnicefSave 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 the families who lost loved ones in Paris, 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.

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.

-- Nancy McTygue