As I scrolled through my Twitter feed a couple of weeks ago, I was horrified to read about the events of the day before. Headlines read that there had been seven coordinated terror attacks in Paris carried out by militants, killing at least 129 people. I put my coffee cup down, stunned, and began to wonder if this will be one of those moments in history that you never forget where you were when you first heard the news.
My two sons would wake soon and it dawned on me that this would be their first experience with a news event like this. Although both my sons have heard of the attacks of September 11, 2001, neither of them were born. My sons never knew a pre-9/11 world. I began to think about my first memory of a news event that shook me to my core and made me begin to question why such things happen. It was the Columbine shootings in April 1999. It was my first year of teaching. It changed everything.
I asked my husband how we wanted to address it with the boys. That got me thinking: how will I address this with my students? My students range in ages from 11-14. This is a hard topic to address with adults, let alone children. How do we, as teachers and a school community, address this topic with children? An 11-year-old may process this news in a very different way than one may assume and I knew that, as a school, we would want to be sensitive to the differing levels of developmental readiness.
As a Humanities teacher, it is important for me to cover current events and have them be a part of the conversation in my classroom. When planning on addressing the attacks in Paris, rather than focusing on the violence, I decided to focus on how the world responded. My students read an article that spoke of major cities shining the three colours of France’s flag on monuments, how thousands were lining up to donate blood, and how strangers were offering up their homes to displaced people seeking refuge.
During our Middle School chapel on Tuesday morning, Rev. Fletcher also addressed the events in Paris, along with the bombings in Baghdad and Beirut. But again, it was with a focus on how the world responded.
He began by acknowledging that many students may have a lot of questions about the events and gave students the opportunity to ask them. Students raised their hands and bravely asked questions such as, “How can people do this to people who haven’t hurt them?”, “What in human nature causes [people] to do that?”, “What can we do to stop it?” and, “When will it end?” The questions were never answered, but students were given the chance to simply ask; to give voice to the thoughts they’ve been wrestling with since they first heard the news.
Rev. Fletcher then showed images of how the people of Paris were responding to the attacks. He told students of Parisiennes entering public spaces to offer up free hugs to anyone who needed them. He shared photos of lineups covering several blocks by those waiting to donate blood. He also shared stories of how many in the area of the attacks had been tweeting with the hashtag #PorteOuverte (Open Door) to reach out and offer a place to stay for those affected by the attacks.
Students were then asked what values were being demonstrated by these outpourings of support: the hugs, donating blood, a safe place to stay. Again, students raised their hands and shouted out values such as courage, service and generosity. Rev. Fletcher suggested that an event such as the attack on Paris is like a wake-up call for many, and it forces us to evaluate our values and how we are with one another.
The conversations will continue in the classrooms as these events continue to unfold. In time, students will dig deeper into the whys and hows of this event and others like it. But at this age, focusing on the world’s response is a way to start the conversation. Hopefully, in years from now, when these students are reflecting on where they were when they heard the news, rather than remembering the violence, they remember the values demonstrated by those who offered their hugs, homes, and hearts.
Tanya Lee teaches Humanities 6, and Communication Skills 7 and 8 at the SMUS Middle School. She is one of four SMUS teachers who dedicates a portion of their time shepherding St. Michaels University School’s plan to implement an integrated and excellent approach to personalization. The personalization team explores current best practices of personalized learning and looks at how SMUS can integrate these methodologies into our programming in a way that provides outstanding preparation for higher learning and for life.
You can also read more about personalized learning at SMUS on The Head’s Blog, written by Head of School Bob Snowden.