Teaching Tough Topics
This Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of September 11.
It’s hard to imagine that most of your students were not even alive on that day when I can still vividly remember every moment of it. I remember sitting in my 5th-grade classroom and hearing my principal announce what had happened. I remember standing on a street corner with my mom while we watched the smoke rise up from Lower Manhattan. I remember watching the news and seeing the Towers falling again and again.
Fifteen years later, all these memories came flooding back as I worked on the research for our narrative nonfiction feature “From Terror to Hope.” It’s the story of Helaina Hovitz, a girl who was in school just a few blocks from the World Trade Center when the planes hit. After reading Helaina’s story, students will read RJ Khalaf’s, an 18-year-old from Las Vegas, Nevada, who bravely shares what it was like growing up Muslim in post-9/11 America.
To help you approach these texts and the sensitive but important discussions that they will likely elicit, I enlisted the help of two clinical psychologists: Dr. Robin F. Goodman and Dr. Christina Laitner.
Dr. Goodman and Dr. Laitner made it very clear that though it might seem daunting to tackle the topic of terrorism in the classroom, it can be very beneficial for students to talk about it at school.
“Talking about these things in a structured, safe environment can actually decrease children's anxiety,” Dr. Laitner told me. “Students are coming in with a lot of ideas about this, so giving them an opportunity to talk about them can be tremendously helpful.”
After speaking with both Dr. Goodman and Dr. Laitner, I compiled a list of tips to guide you as you read and discuss the article with your class.
1. Prepare students for the type of information and images they will encounter in the article.
Although many students may have heard of September 11 and may be familiar with the topic of terrorism, be sure to let students know that some of the ideas in the story may be upsetting or scary. Alerting students to some of the feelings they may have while reading can help reduce or prevent anxiety later on.
2. Be prepared for the questions: “Could this happen to me?” and “Could this happen again?”
These two questions are likely to be on your students’ minds when reading about September 11 or any act of terrorism. The truth is, you can’t promise that something like this will never happen again, but you can promise that there are many, many people working all the time to make sure that it does not. To help ease students’ fears, both Dr. Goodman and Dr. Laitner recommend sharing with students what their school, community, and country does every day to keep them safe. For example, remind students of the policemen that patrol their community every night and the many government officials whose job it is to prevent acts of terrorism.
It might also be helpful to explain to students that though we can’t predict or control acts of violence, we can learn how to protect ourselves from them in the future. “You can't change things that happen, but you can change your reaction,” says Dr. Goodman. “You can’t control when it rains, but you can bring an umbrella next time.” An example to point out that relates to September 11 might be all the changes we’ve made to air travel since then.
3. Point out the positives.
Although Helaina’s experience on September 11 may seem like a nightmare, there are many aspects of her story that signal safety and care: for example, the fact that the teachers at Helaina’s school had a clear plan to take care of the students, that there was someone willing and able to take Helaina home when her parents couldn’t, and that Helaina was able to get the help she needed from a therapist later on. Hearing the many ways that Helaina has coped with what happened can help reduce anxiety in the students who are thinking about something like this potentially happening to them.
4. Model understanding and compassion.
It’s important to help students recognize when they are making generalizations or stereotyping. If a student does say something inappropriate or hurtful during a discussion, Dr. Laitner recommends thanking them for their participation, correcting what they’ve said, and moving on. “We never want to shame anyone,” says Dr. Laitner. “But this article presents a great opportunity to model compassion and understanding and to correct any misinformation the kids may be coming in with.”
5. Monitor students’ reactions.
Watch out for students who exhibit signs of anxiety or distress while reading or discussing the article. “I would be looking out for the kids getting visibly upset, maybe a little tearful,” says Dr. Laitner. “But I’d also be looking for the kids who are withdrawing in class, who start to stare off, and the ones who get a little goofy and start acting out.”
If there are students who seem to be having a tough time, be sure to check in with them and excuse them from the discussion if need be.
6. Prepare a transition activity.
We don’t recommend you tackle this article close to dismissal time, but if you do, Dr. Laitner advises leaving time for a quick transition activity before students go home for the day or move on to their next class. Perhaps it's playing a favorite classroom game or responding to a creative writing prompt.
Be sure to also check in with your class and ask them how they are feeling after reading the article. Some students may be ready to move on immediately, but some may have more to say or have lingering questions.
Things to remember:
- You may have stronger reactions to this story than your students do, and it’s okay to share what you are feeling with your students. It may even help them to know that the story makes you feel sad, anxious, or angry, too.
- If a student wants to confide in you about something, listen to him or her and signal that you can be trusted. Let your student know what he or she shares is confidential, and share the limits of that confidentiality. (Check your school’s policy.)
- Be aware of any resources that your school or community may offer, such as counseling, for students who need more time to talk.
- The conversation doesn’t have to stop here. Dr. Laitner recommends visiting the topics of compassion and tolerance often in your classroom.
We hope that these tips will help you provide a successful, constructive, and meaningful learning experience for your students.
Here are some additional resources we recommend:
Team Scope would like to extend a HUGE thank you to Dr. Robin F. Goodman, Executive Director of A Caring Hand: The Billy Esposito Foundation, and Dr. Christina Laitner, a psychologist at the Center for Stress, Trauma, and Resilience at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Mackenzie Carro is an Associate Editor at Scope