August 6, 2019

How to talk to students after a mass shooting

It's hard enough as adults to process news of a tragedy. How can we talk to our kids? The nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves has prepared a helpful guide for teachers.

Mourners embrace at a vigil honoring Horizon High School sophomore Javier Amir Rodriguez, who lost his life in a mass shooting in El Paso on Aug. 5. As teachers prepare to go back to class, there are ways they can prepare to talk with their students about the violence and hatred that affect America's communities. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

On Monday night, friends, family, teachers, and members of the El Paso community came together to honor the youngest victim of this weekend’s mass shootings. Javier Amir Rodriguez, 15, would have been starting his sophomore year at Horizon High School. Instead, in an act of violence and hatred, he was gunned down inside of a Walmart in his hometown, one of at least 22 people who were killed at the Aug. 3 shooting. The very next morning, a gunman opened fire in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine.

Even as adults struggle to comprehend the seemingly endless reports of mass killings and gun violence, how do we talk to our kids? As teachers prepare to return to the classroom, they must be prepared to address students’ fears and concerns, especially when schools themselves have been targets of shootings.

The nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves helps teachers engage their students in examining the roots of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism “in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry.” They have developed a guide for teachers to navigate difficult conversations after mass shootings or terrorism attacks.

Such conversations are difficult. Yet when we don’t address such violence in the classroom, we risk normalizing it, the nonprofit believes.

Teaching in the Wake of Violence has five parts, starting with talking to other teachers and the school’s wellness staff. Below is an excerpt from the guide, part of Facing History’s Educator Resources. You can also read the full text here.

1. Coordinate with Colleagues

Before you discuss a violent event with your class, it may be helpful to reach out to your colleagues in order to coordinate your response as a school.

2. Initial Classroom Response

After a traumatic event, it can be beneficial to focus first on emotional processing, addressing the “heart” before the “head.” Give yourself and your students space to reflect on your emotional responses to the event.

Facing History offers several classroom activities including giving students time to reflect and write down some of their feelings, or doing an activity focused on acknowledgment and commemoration. See the full list of activities here.

3. Consider the Factors That Contribute to Hate Crimes

When perpetrators of violence are motivated by bias, their actions are often classified as hate crimes. Many countries around the world have laws that impose heavier penalties for hate crimes than for similar offenses not motivated by bias. It may be helpful to explore the nature of hate crimes with your class, and the impact they can have on communities.

4. Explore Community Responses

Hate crimes are designed to leave certain groups of people feeling vulnerable. Consider who may be affected by this violence and the positive ways in which individuals and communities can respond, for example, by denouncing hate, offering support to those who have been targeted, and asserting inclusive norms and values.

5. Strategies for Following the News

After you have given students time to reflect and process their initial responses to the event, you may decide to guide your students through strategies for engaging with news coverage of the event in a responsible way.

Find more resources for educators on Facing History and Ourselves.

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