Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Sandy Hook and Hands of Hope: Safer Schools Within Our Reach

December 12, 2013
Photo credit: davebarger via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

As we near the one-year anniversary of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, my first thoughts are of that awful day -- how I felt sick to my stomach learning about the tragedy and, as a teacher, how I worried. These could be my students; this could be me. What would I have done? What would I have told my students to do? Would they have been prepared? My second thoughts are of today -- what have we done to make schools safer? What I have I done as a teacher to make my school and my students safer?

Earlier this fall, I began working with former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Sandy Hook parent Nicole Hockey, whose first grade son Dylan lost his life in the shooting. Our mission was to develop a lesson that could be used in classrooms by teachers to start the conversation about school safety and to create a community around safer schools. The lesson, called "Hands of Hope," is available through, an online lesson plan resource, and is designed to link students together through a simple but powerful activity.

There are two parts to the lesson. The first part is for linking classes across the county to create a community of students who are hoping for a safer United States. Teachers can use the resources provided in the UClass lesson to start the conversation about Sandy Hook and school violence. Then students are asked to create a hand-shaped art piece with a message of hope, which can be uploaded to UClass.

The second part of the lesson is an extension activity. In this activity, geared toward upper grades, students will research violence in the United States, create an anti-violence campaign for their community, and connect with others through UClass. The goal is for 5,000 students to create hands of hope by December 14.

Why is it Important?

School violence is reality today. Students practice code red drills regardless of their age and community. I have worked at three schools -- two in high-violence areas and one in an upper middle class area -- and all three had code red policies. In my 14 years of teaching, my students, regardless of which school and which grade level, worried about being safe at school. This is a problem. Students need to feel safe at school so that they are able to concentrate and focus on learning.

In writing the lesson, I had two objectives:

  1. To show the families and children of Newtown, Connecticut that we empathize with them and that the tragedy has not been forgotten.
  2. To continue the conversation about school violence and how students can help prevent it. When tragedy strikes, it is important for students feel a sense of agency, that what they do can make a difference. Too often, children feel a loss of control in these situations, and so it is important to address their concerns head on, showing them how they can be part of the solution.

Starting the Discussion

As my eighth grade students wrote out their hopes, I asked them what they could do to make that hope a reality.

  • You hope that we can all come together to stop school violence, so how does that happen? What can we do to start the discussion?
  • You hope that the government creates better background checks on people buying guns. Who is in charge of those laws and policies? How can you work toward making that a reality?

It's not someone else's problem -- it is our problem, and student voices need to be part of the discussion.

As my students completed their hands inscribed with messages of hope, they said that they felt proud to be part of a community of students working to make the United States a safer place. After posting their hands, I gave them time to read the other hands on UClass and to post comments on the hands. Reading through other students' hopes sparked even more discussion in my classroom. They started asking themselves the questions that I had asked them:

  • How would this work?
  • What would someone need to do change a law?
  • How can we make a person feel responsible for his or her actions?
  • What would we need to change for schools to be safer?

Next Steps

We owe it to our students and to the students and families of Newtown, as well other families who have been affected by school violence, to continue the discussion and to take action. It is our responsibility to make sure that school is a safe environment for all students. Though it is challenging, we need to insist that the conversation doesn’t stop and that words become actions.

Safety at school must become part of character education programs and must be addressed head on. We have to think about it more frequently than whenever there is another tragedy in the news or that once-a-year presentation about code red. Students must be engaged in ongoing discussions about how to be safe, how to get help when you need it, and how to reach out to others that need help.

It is important to have this discussion at a local level because each community has different needs, and for this reason, schools -- and students -- should be a part of the discussion. How do we build a local community where students are safe at school? They need to look out for each other and not be afraid to speak up.

The hopes and solutions my students generated may not address the problems in your community. Still, they have started the discussion. They have pledged to work toward a safer community and a safer United States. They are part of the solution.

How are you addressing the Sandy Hook one-year anniversary? How are your students addressing school safety? My wish is that the Hands of Hope lesson can be used as a starting point to begin the conversation.


Watch Bullis Charter Schools's "Hands of Hope" video.

Teachers interested in getting their classrooms involved in the "Hands of Hope for Sandy Hook" lesson can visit

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