How We Coped with School Tragedy

In a way it was good to have the weekend to think about what to say on Monday.  I mean, it was probably not good for my own mental health to dwell on it, so I did intersperse holiday shopping and baking in order to keep myself from despair.  But I didn't shut off the news completely either.  That is probably the best thing if you have children under 7 who you teach or parent.  But fourth grade is in a different developmental place.

They're still young enough that the "youngest" of them have trouble distinguishing real from fantasy.  But the more mature 4th graders watch the news with their parents, and love to show off their knowledge of current events.  Even when you really wish they would keep it to themselves.  They also don't have a "filter" in terms of what they should share with younger children in the lunchroom.  So I needed to read the news AND teach them how to filter.

Another teacher found a very useful article here on how to talk to kids about tragedy.  The main points I reviewed in my head before Morning Meeting:

1.  Don't bring it up unless they do.
2.  Be honest, but "not too honest."  Let them know that children were hurt in school.  Don't divulge any other specifics.
3.  Assure them that they are safe.  I was REALLY struggling with this one prior to reading the article, because, well, I DON'T feel safe.  We have a plan in place for emergencies, but there are flaws in any plan, and those flaws are scary when you're on the inside.  But then it hit me.  I could tell them in full honesty, "We know you are safe here, because we have plans in place to keep you safe.  But also, you know that you are safe in school because if there was any doubt, they'd have cancelled school.  I mean, if they cancel for snow, they would have cancelled for this, let's face it."

I knew I could do it, and I also found a project to do if we needed a way to transition out of the conversation.  I was as ready as I could be.

I arrived at school, and there were policemen at the entrance.

I walked in, and the superintendent was there.

I said good morning to each of my colleagues who I passed by, and they all looked wide eyed.

Upstairs was so quiet. 

I put on my classical music along with my other routines that I always do to prepare for the kids.  I wrote the most basic Morning Message on the board that we've had since September, simply, "please take out your homework and start your morning work."  As they came in, I said good morning to a few.  I asked for them to take out their homework, joked with the kids who came in first who beat my usual first-one-in, and pretended like nothing was wrong.

But it was still so, so quiet.

The tension was palpable.  I was pretty sure that they knew.  And I was pretty sure that they knew that I knew and they were waiting for me to say something.

We collected lunch money.  I checked homework.  They met in their small groups to go over their "extra homework."  We pledged the flag.  We did our exercises.  We sat in a circle in Morning Meeting and shared books we read over the weekend and nominations for Student of the Month.  But they were uncomfortably quiet and still.  They weren't acting like the kids I had last week, when I was thinking how badly behaved they were.  Now I wished they would exhibit just a little bit of those annoying but normal kid behaviors.

The last nomination was read.  "Okay," I said.  "So...share time is over.  It's time for our game..."

Finally, as if on cue, a girl next to me meekly asked, "Are we going to talk about...the thing?  That Connecticut?"


"We can if you want to."

So I told them, just like the article said above.  There were questions.  There were lots of "I heard..."  Nearly all of them were correct.  Only one student started to talk about the guns, which I quickly shut down, and the others students did too.  They knew that it was in bad taste, and I explained why:  "Those details aren't what matters; it's the families that matter."  Which led perfectly into our project with the broken hearts being mended.

I was prepared for tears.  It wouldn't be the first time I've handled a class of weeping children.  It turns out there was only one boy who was so taken off guard that he broke down.  The others were very appropriate in their response.  They looked truly saddened, they looked horrified when one of their peers told them that the children were kindergarteners, but they were also very strong.  They channeled their feelings into writing beautiful messages to the families on their hearts.  They took pride in the final project.  And they got their snack and started in on math cooperatively and calmly.  They weren't stiff and silent, but they weren't as callous as they were last week, either.  And that boy who was crying at 9:15, well, by noon he was dancing Gangnam Style down to the lunchroom. 

My fourth graders are informed, compassionate, and resilient.  I'll draw strength from them this week.  If you walked by my classroom, you might think I they drew it from me, but I was faking it for them.  I got in my car at the end of the day and cried. 

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