Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Making Space: Teaching After Trauma

Teachers sometimes feel a need to change their lesson plans when traumatic events occur, but that may not be the best strategy.

January 19, 2021
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo
Pro-Trump protesters storm the U.S. Capitol to contest the certification of the 2020 presidential election results by Congress on January 6, 2021.

When traumatic events such as the attack on the U.S. Capitol earlier this month occur, many educators feel compelled to somehow address them in class right away. But sometimes it’s better to take a beat to process what has happened and how best to guide your students through it.

On January 6, our country witnessed a mob of violent rioters intent on disrupting Congress as they counted Electoral College votes certifying Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as winners of the 2020 presidential election. While an angry mob of thousands stormed the doors of the U.S. Capitol intent on destruction and insurrection, many of the events were visible through a constant barrage of media to everyone, including our nation’s children.

As these events played out, thousands of teachers across the country immediately swooped into problem-solving mode. I witnessed hundreds of posts on various social media channels suggesting that teachers should abandon their plans and teach about the events that occurred in the Capitol. Resources were immediately shared for teachers to teach students after yet another national crisis.

I became instantly uncomfortable with the endless barrage of “teach this tomorrow” messages that I witnessed in real time, mainly because in my 20 years of teaching experience, I’ve found that teachers sometimes lack the experience and/or knowledge to facilitate these sensitive, complex conversations in their classrooms in a way that mitigates harm. And on January 7, I received more than 2,000 likes for tweeting this: “My students did not want to discuss yesterday’s events in class. Please remember that making space sometimes means allowing time to process. It’s perfectly OK if that doesn’t happen right away.”

The Danger of Rushing In

I recall teaching the day after 9/11 when some of the younger teachers in my building enthusiastically played CNN Student News for middle school students and dove into conversations about terrorism and violence the very next day. They did not anticipate the discomfort of some of our Muslim students who faced personal threats outside the classroom and were terrified to engage in group discussions where they had to defend themselves, their identity, and their beliefs. The teachers had not considered this aspect, as it was not part of the hastily constructed lesson plan.

I saw similar results in the wake of a student death by gun violence when novice teachers immediately switched gears and insisted on teaching a unit on gun violence, as though our students were not already living in this reality on a daily basis. Not only were students disengaged, but also they were visibly resistant to having to engage in assignments around lived experiences, assignments that were not meaningful and contributed very little to their emotional needs and their fears around physical and emotional safety.

In the absence of space or norms having been created around discourse, or knowledge about how to engage in complex conversation on issues such as power, privilege, and domestic terrorism, knee-jerk reactions are not teachable moments. They can be harmful, particularly when teachers have not familiarized themselves with issues at hand or even processed the issues on their own, prior to unpacking them with students.

Educator Alex Shevrin Venet cautions against this in her blog. “Sometimes we jump to intellectualize current events without slowing down to consider their emotional impact,” she writes. I believe that we should make space for students to express their emotions, ask questions, and critically analyze these events. Making space often means that teachers allow time for students—as well as themselves—to process events as they consider the best ways to approach them in class.

Contemplating these considerations is particularly critical this year, as many of us remain physically distant from students. We must think deeply about how we approach traumatic events with our students. How can we help students process right now? What does this look like in our virtual and hybrid classroom spaces?

Making Space Through Journaling

Facing History’s guide about responding to the situation at the U.S. Capitol stresses the importance of student reflection. It reminds us that “[t]he integration of head, heart, and ethics is always important to learning, and it’s particularly crucial when students are considering contentious and troubling news.” Journaling can be an effective way to encourage students to process their emotions while balancing the facts as they unfold.

I plan to introduce optional, ongoing journal prompts slowly over the next few weeks inviting students to explore media coverage, their emotional reactions, and their belief systems around the events of Jan. 6. These reflections will be private unless students choose to share their thoughts with others during our time together. I’ll also use a variety of media such as student-friendly articles, photographs, and media clips to encourage them to engage in rigorous thought, reflection, and dialogue.

Making Space Through Student Choice

Students should also have choices in how they express learning and understanding. This is even more crucial when helping students to process traumatic events. Student choice creates a sense of autonomy when grappling to understand complex events. Educator Jane Martin wrote a guide, “Responding to Traumatic Events in Remote Settings,” that helps create the space for engaging while honoring the fact that students will be in different emotional places as they seek to process their own feelings, questions, and experiences. It calls on teachers to acknowledge the traumatic event and then allow students to send a private message indicating if they would like to discuss the situation with fellow students or have independent work as a distraction, need time off-line, or would just like to proceed with class as usual. Then breakout rooms can be assigned depending on the students’ needs.

Our nation’s students are watching our responses to critical events as they unfold, particularly events that are both violent and polarizing, such as the rioting in the nation’s capital on January 6. Although the urge to immediately fix, teach, or somehow solve problems for our students may be strong, we must hold space for reflection, honest dialogue, and questions as they arise. Instead of simply reacting by teaching a hastily put-together lesson, we must take the time to listen, learn, and reflect with our students. These are the truly valuable lessons we should strive to teach, even when we don’t have all the answers.

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