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Talking Sandy Hook in the Classroom

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I have been in the classroom for almost a decade, and I have to admit, I was not sure how to talk about the Sandy Hook shooting with my students. As an educator, I have always been a proponent of current events in the classroom. Whether it is natural disasters, war-torn areas, or controversial issues, my view has always been, bring these issues into the classroom and engage our students in meaningful and safe discussions.

Edward F. DeRoche, dean of the School of Education at the University of San Diego, argues in his book, The Newspaper: A Reference for Teachers and Librarians, that in order for students to become lifelong learners, they must: "learn how to use non-fiction materials to expand their knowledge base, solve problems, and make decisions"

Examine any school mission statement and you will find the concepts such as "citizens of the world, well balanced, and critical thinkers." If we want our children to be socially responsible or citizens of the world, then we need to find ways to explain the reality of the world that they live in. This means discussing all issues, no matter how difficult they are to comprehend.

When the discussion came up at gogonews.com as to whether we write about the Sandy Hook shootings, there was no debate. Both the editor and I recognized that we have a moral obligation not only to report on this issue, but also to provide a platform for parents and educators to engage in meaningful discussions across the country. And yes, this issue should be discussed in the classroom.

The level and depth of conversations will depend on the emotional maturity level of each individual involved in these discussions. There are different ways educators can go about discussing and learning about the Sandy Hook shooting, below are some suggestions of topic discussions and strategies that teachers can use in the classroom.

Remember kids are resilient
Both educators and parents are often surprised that young children are aware of stories in the news. It is human nature to want to protect children and In this case it would be natural to want to shield our students from a story about a shooter killing innocent kids. However, it is actually far healthier to provide a platform for guided dialogue and for questions to be in answered to eliminate any misconceptions and reduce anxiety towards the topic.

Talk safety
Remind the students of the safety policies at school. Let them know that they are safe at their school and that teachers and principals have very clear guidelines to follow in emergency situations. Remind them of times that they have evacuated the schools during practice fire drills and lockdowns. By taking the time to review emergency rules students will realize their schools have secure policies and that they are protected.

Teach forgiveness
As horrible of a tragedy the Sandy Hook shooting is, educators should take this opportunity to teach and highlight how victims' families of Sandy Hook speak of forgiveness. Grace McDonnell's parents spoke on CNN and said that they will only move on with love, because their daughter, Grace, was love. No matter how much anger they feel, they cannot move forward with hatred. They went on to explain that Grace and her classmates' loving spirit will guide them. Educators can provide historical examples where victims of violence move forward through forgiveness to bring about change and hope. Leaders such as Nelson Mandela, who after 27 years of wrongful imprisonment, forgave and led his country; victims of 9/11 who refuse to speak of hate; parents who have lost children as a result war, who now speak of peace. Educators must teach and model the power of forgiveness. If we want the world to be safer, our students cannot move from a place of hate or anger.

Take the time to answer questions during classroom discussions
Ask the students what they know about this shooting? What have they heard? Let their knowledge and questions help guide your teaching. Listen carefully to them. Are they scared? Speak about school safety. Highlight the fact that the school had a safety policy and that teachers followed proper protocol. Are they intrigued to know more about the individuals who were killed? List their names and share some information that has been published by their families. Do they want to know about the killer? Explain that at this point very little is known about the killer and therefore little can be discussed. Refocus the conversation on the facts. Educators should take the necessary time to have these discussions in a safe, calm quiet environment.

Work with school psychologists and parents
Educational psychologists can run workshops in class that help students deal with traumatic events or understand difficult issues. They can work with students to help them understand their emotions and are also trained in dealing with students who may feel anxious or scared. Educators should watch for signs of students being apprehensive or fearful of being at school. Do not hesitate to inform the ed. psychologist or the parent to ensure that the child has a proper support system. If parents asks or is concerned about the effect the Sandy Hook shooting may have on their child, take the time to inform them of class discussions and ask them to inform you if their child seems overtly troubled.

The shooting that took place in Newtown is a tragedy that is very difficult to comprehend. As educators we must work together with other faculty members to help our students understand this situation and learn powerful lessons.