educators’ voices: some responses to sandy hook

In “Our Stories Matter Because We Matter: Thoughts on the Power of Our Voices” Brene Brown writes, “The truth is that in the midst of tragedy nothing matters more than our stories. Our complex, nuanced stories are the path to healing and change. They are the truth and there’s no better foundation for change than the truth.” It’s in this spirit of sharing stories, of sharing our reflections and responses, that I offer a quick round-up of educators’ thoughts and voices on last Friday’s events at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

I offer them in chronological order, mostly because I’m in awe that these educators and colleagues could not only articulate their thoughts and feelings so quickly, but also that they chose to do so in a public and vulnerable way. I’ll share some tentative thoughts too.

What happened on Friday, December 14, 2012

    The Wall Street Journal shares the stories of each of the 26 people who died last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary.

    Here is part of Kaitlin Roig’s story. Beyond her acts of bravery in a crisis, I’m moved by the moment when she told her students that she loved them. I think we teachers need to say this more often, though I know we show our love in ways both big and small.

    Saturday, December 15 response

    Before the Sandy Hook news broke in her school, Jessica Lahey was in her office grading papers, and she overheard a group of fifth graders talking about tape. Lahey writes:

    I poked my head out of my office, door, unable to resist.

    “Why do you guys want all that tape?”

    They looked up at me blankly, uncertain why anyone – particularly a teacher – would need an explanation as to why a kid would need tape.

    The youngest boy looked up at me, and stated the obvious: “To hold stuff together.”

    In her eloquent way, Lahey writes about the allure of tape: it binds; it organizes and makes the discordant more orderly; it holds “stuff together.”

    On the day after the shooting, Lahey writes that she is “forced to admit that I may not always be able to keep my students safe and complete. I can, however, re-stock my tape drawer, and teach them how to hold their world together as we move forward as a community.”

    Sunday, December 16 responses

    John Spencer looks back and wonders, “Did I handle the news well with my students on Friday?” His students asked to watch “it” live during class. He refused; instead, he provided a space for them to share, to ask questions, to listen, to wonder together.

    Spencer writes:

    I don’t know if I handled it right.

    At lunchtime, I notice on Facebook how people kept posting advice to parents on how to talk to their kids about the tragedy. Everything from psychologists to pop psychologists to Mr. Rogers. It’s fine, I suppose. But the thing is, there’s no instruction manual. Every child is different. Every relationship is different.

    So, I’m a little nervous about anything that seems to suggest that there is one particular way to approach a topic like Sandy Hook. There’s a ton of pithy, sanctimonious lists out there. But I’m not sure any of that would have made a difference. None of them know my classroom or my students as well as I do.

    Jim Burke writes about his students’ recent reading of Frankenstein and how the class focused on the concept of “inflection points” and the idea of the “abject.” He ties together those notions and how they appear in the events and people from Friday. Burke also pivots to how he might proceed with his students on Monday, and he wonders if he might do anything different. “No,” Burke writes, and then he explains:

    I will do as I have always done: Get to know them all, what they are interested in, what they want their lives to look like in the future, what they care about, what they think. When they are in our classrooms, our students are our community, they are our country, our future. And so we see in them only what we hope they will become at their best, then devote ourselves to helping them make that story come true for them, their parents, for all of us.

    Bob Peterson writes that on Monday teachers all across the country will mourn and grieve and honor. Then, he writes, we must organize.

    Given the events of Sandy Hook, parents and educators have a particular role to play, including the NEA and AFT leadership. Likewise, community leaders must demand a community-wide response, and religious and business leaders must call upon their colleagues. Together, we all must demand that our elected leaders address the epidemic of gun violence and the crisis in mental health care.

    In the coming days, we will mourn the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy.

    But we must also organize to prevent future such tragedies. We have no choice.

    Sunday night, President Obama at the Prayer Vigil in Newtown

    On Sunday night the President spoke at the prayer vigil in Newtown. Early in the speech he mentioned the educators at Sandy Hook.

    As these difficult days have unfolded, you’ve also inspired us with stories of strength and resolve and sacrifice. We know that when danger arrived in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school’s staff did not flinch. They did not hesitate.

    Dawn Hocksprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Russeau, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy, they responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances, with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care.

    We know that there were other teachers who barricaded themselves inside classrooms and kept steady through it all and reassured their students by saying, “Wait for the good guys, they are coming. Show me your smile.”

    (full transcript here)

    Monday, December 17 response

    Mitch Nobis wrote with his students Monday morning, and he shares what he wrote during that time. Nobis wonders why gun advertisements are interspersed with the comics section of his Sunday paper. He wonders about our larger culture and its acceptance and even hunger for violence.

    He writes:

    Friday’s shooting was a tragedy, and the bigger tragedy is that it is only another school shooting. The fact that I have to type another is all we need to know. I, too, cried a lot over the weekend. I played my ass off with my two-year-old son and then bawled like, well, like him because others cannot play with their kids today.

    Tuesday, December 18, my thoughts

    One reason why I share the links to the stories above is that I simply have not been able to process or articulate all that I’m feeling, because truthfully the events at Sandy Hook last Friday have shaken me. I keep thinking about all the moments when I’ve had to comfort a student or a group of students because a parent, a sibling, a peer, or a friend died – sometimes violently, sometimes by suicide. I keep thinking about the tears students left on my shirts when I have hugged them at wakes and funerals. I keep thinking about all the young people who felt violence was their only way out or for whom violence is simply a part of their day-to-day lives.

    I keep thinking about the dance between being fragile and being resilient, and how that dance is played out time and again in our classrooms, especially during those moments when loss is so sudden, so personal, and so very senseless.

    When I heard the news on Friday, I was in a meeting with educators from across Idaho. Our task was to review and recommend new standards that will guide teacher preparation programs in our state. If you’ve ever been in one of those meetings, you know that it’s close reading and long conversations over what words like “understand” or “evidence” mean. It’s a conversation that can feel futile or tedious, because it is an attempt to try to capture what teachers know and do. Throughout our meeting we kept checking the news and searching for updates.

    I kept wondering, how do we help new teachers prepare for a day like Friday in Newtown? How do we help new teachers prepare for a day like Monday in every classroom around the country?

    I’m not sure there’s a way to prepare anyone for heightened moments of pain and loss and confusion. The best I think we can do is to not shy away from the hard conversations and to provide stability for our students.

    We teach young people how to “hold stuff together.”

    We see each young person as a distinct individual with her or his own hopes and fears and goals.

    We help young people to be their best and most honest selves.

    We organize and advocate for young people and for the kind of school communities that allow young people to share their own stories and to move toward the kind of stories that they want to tell about themselves.

    We show our love through our focus on our students as people who will grow, rather than only focusing on them as a series of “achievements.”

    We guide. We question. We even disagree.

    We share our stories, because we are nuanced, because it’s how we change, because it’s how we heal.

    Peace to you and yours.