Teaching Emotional Topics

We will start our days at TLC Middle School by reading the day’s news.  Today, the main story is obvious — what happened at the Boston Marathon?

This was an awful raw event, and my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston, my home town. Thankfully, all of my family and friends are accounted for and safe — but it’s been a gut-wrenching 24 hours.

As of mid-day on Tuesday, April 16, we don’t know a lot beyond these basics, from the Boston Globe: two bombs went off near the finish line of the Marathon; three people have been killed; more than 170 have been injured, and 17 are in critical condition.

A lesson I learned as a young teacher 15 years ago is that it’s crucial, before starting a discussion with student about an emotional topic such as this one, to see if any students in the room have personal connections to the event in question. Back in 1998, I was troubled by the attack on Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming who was targeted and killed because he was gay.

I mentioned the Matthew Shepard case to my students — 11th graders at The Walnut Hill School in Natick, MA — and when I did so, one student started crying and ran out of the room. The rest of us were stunned and wondered what was going on. One of her friends asked if she could go comfort her friend, and I said of course. It turned out that the student who first ran out had gone to school in Saudi Arabia for a few years with Matthew Shepard.

So the first thing we’d do at TLC is ask about personal connections to Boston, and proceed accordingly, depending on how everyone is doing. We’d also find out what students know already. Some students may have read articles or discussed the events in Boston with parents or friends or older siblings; others may have no idea beyond “I heard something bad happened in Boston.”

Assuming that it seemed safe to talk in more depth about the events in Boston, we would start with student questions. What does each student want to find out about this awful event? We’d list the questions and plan to have a conversation in more depth later in the week, when we know more.

Because we want to empathize with the people who went through this awful event, we would need to read a few difficult accounts of people who were killed and/or injured. There were about 27,000 runners at the event, and more than half a million fans lined the race’s 26-mile course, so there are lots of stories. Together, we could each read a few articles from a variety of sources — The Boston Globe would be a good starting point — and share what we learned.

One of the more poignant accounts I have seen thus far (I’m sure more will come out in the next few days as things get sorted) came from Kevin Cullen, a columnist for The Boston Globe.  On Monday night, in a piece called A perfect day, then the unimaginable, Cullen wrote this:

This is how bad this is. I went out Monday night and bumped into some firefighters I know. They said one of the dead was an 8-year-old boy from Dorchester [a section of Boston] who had gone out to hug his dad after he crossed the finish line. The dad walked on; the boy went back to the sidewalk to join his mom and his little sister. And then the bomb went off. The boy was killed. His sister’s leg was blown off. His mother was badly injured. That’s just one ­family, one story.

This sort of act of violence is hard to comprehend. It takes time to process or to even begin to imagine what that family is going through right now.

[note: that piece of reporting was not accurate — the father did not run the race; but the family is clearly grieving, as this story details]

If students have not already studied 9/11 in some depth, this would be a good time to learn the basics about what happened back in 2001. Since that’s before most middle schoolers were born, it’s likely that most students don’t know much about 9/11. We’d find out what students know and work to provide basic context about that event.

I don’t have answers to the “why” questions — but I am a good listener. That’s one of my strengths as a teacher, and is one of the characteristics we will look for as we hire teachers at TLC — how well can you listen? It’s a valuable skill.

I’m also prepared to lead a basic discussion because I have been following the events in Boston. I know some of the basic facts and can clear up any misunderstandings about what we know (thus far) about what happened. This map from the New York Times, for example, is a good starting point to give students some geographic context.

I also have a personal connection — I grew up for the first 18 years of my life in Newton, a suburb of Boston, so I’m quite familiar with the Marathon, and have attended several Boston Marathons. I can share with students what the Boston Marathon is supposed to feel like.

Depending on what questions came up in our initial discussion today (we’d definitely set aside ample time to talk about this event today), we would break into teams and have each team take ownership for a few of the compelling questions that came. Each team would assign itself “homework” to research the questions we want to know more about and share what we learn on a shared Google Doc. We would then come back later in the week ready to have an informed and thoughtful discussion — we might aim for Friday. On Tuesday, the day after the bombing with the FBI investigation just getting started, we don’t yet know enough to have much of a conversation.

One of the benefits to TLC’s small size is that by mid-April of next year, we will all know each other quite well — and teachers will have a sense by then of what students know about similar such events, such as 9/11.

If there’s still not enough information from FBI investigations by Friday, we have the flexibility at TLC to table the discussion until early next week. But we will discuss it in some depth, as soon as we know enough to have a thoughtful conversation.

This is a big deal event. It’s front-page news around the world. We should take time to talk about it and work to put it into context.

I fear that most schools will continue with business as usual, which is unfortunate, because middle and high school students — like other people who are old enough to think about these sorts of things — should have some time to process what it means to live in a world where a marathon can go from a wonderful event to a tragedy.

Are there places in the world where such bombings have sadly become commonplace?  Of course — Baghdad is a prime example. A month ago, a dozen bombs went off in Baghdad, killing at least 56 people on the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Students should know about that. Students should also learn about the 7.7 magnitude earthquake that hit Iran on Tuesday afternoon (Iran time), and that has killed at least 46 people, according to this account in the Huffington Post.

Part of being a global citizen means knowing about what’s going on in the world. That includes the great accomplishments and horrible events. Lately we’ve had a spate of horrible events — the Boston Marathon was supposed to be in the “great accomplishments” category. That’s part of what makes this sort of attack so sinister.

But we should also recognize that this sort of attack is new for the United States — the only comparable attack at a sporting event in the US in recent memory would be the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where 2 people died and 111 were injured.

Before that, and before 9/11, the most destructive act of terror on US soil was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that killed 168 people and injured nearly 700 people. That’s the job of the teacher at TLC — to provide context for students. And to listen and be a respectful and caring adult.

We’re still sorting through what sort of difference the bombing yesterday at the Boston Marathon will make in our lives. But we owe it to students to take their thoughts and feelings seriously, hear what questions they have, and help them begin to make some sense of what’s happening.

We of course want to assure students that they are safe. And we can do that. After all, this sort of attack is quite rare in the US, and has never happened in the Triangle. But we’d be lying to students — at least I would — if I didn’t admit that this sort of attack makes me want to hug my family closer (even though our son, who’s not quite 6, doesn’t know what’s going on — unless it’s come up in kindergarten today).

This attack does not mean that I won’t attend large public events — that’s giving in to terror, as Joel Achenbach notes in his column in the Washington Post, titled After Boston: Why the terrorists can’t win.

But the bombing in Boston probably means a bit more vigilance at such events, which represents a loss. People should be able to attend the Boston Marathon and similarly uplifting events — be they sports or entertainment or other celebrations — without feeling unsafe or worrying about bombings. Sadly, it’s a little harder to do that after yesterday’s events in Boston.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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2 Responses to Teaching Emotional Topics

  1. bllbrwn423 says:

    Reblogged this on maroonballoon and commented:
    This piece, among other benefits, reinforces the valuable role of students’ prior knowledge, especially with emotional subjects like yesterday’s bombing in Boston.

  2. sarahsmilesalot says:

    Your approach to a discussion of the Boston Marathon bombings is an excellent model for all adults to use when discussing any sensitive issue with young people. (How much better would our answers to “Where do babies come from?” be if we learned what our children were really asking before launching into answers we assume they want/need to know!) I do wonder why you would bring 9.11 into the Boston bombing discussion. Being sensitive to our students’ emotional developments should include not overwhelming the students with information that may or may not be germane to the subject at hand. I would include a discussion of what people did to help those injured by the Boston bombings; whether by running towards the injured OR by running away. Given this is your school, I can’t imagine a discussion of any topic not including the geographic location. In this situation, I would like students to grasp the route of the marathon as well as The site of the bombings within The city of Boston. Again,thanks for posting your ideas, Steve.

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