Teaching After Tragedy Forum

6942601634_45706f749b_mThe horrible events in Boston yesterday certainly weren’t the first tragedy of recent years. There have been many since 9/11: Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook. And those, of course, are only a sampling. If we expand our view outside the United States, that list only multiplies, and exponentially.

Personally, though, yesterday’s events resonated in a way few others have. I teach at Northeastern University, an easy walk from the site of the Boston Marathon explosions. I know those roads. I knew that some of my students and colleagues were along the route, watching the event. I’m new to Boston, but have already learned much about how the city celebrates Patriots’ Day; it’s a proudly local holiday that celebrates the character of this city. And so I watched the news anxiously. I worried about my students. I worried about my newly adopted city.

In the coming days, teachers will yet again wonder how they can possibly speak to their students, whatever their ages, about this event. One of my graduate students tweeted her anxieties on Tuesday, “Hitting the gym hard before I go to work this morning. What do I say to my students? What do I write to my online students? #prayforboston.” At Northeastern we’re in an especially challenging spot. Northeastern starts its spring semester very early — the second week of January — and so this week is the final week of regular classes. When we meet our students this Tuesday or Wednesday, we’ll be offering the semester’s benediction and sending them off to jobs, friends, family. We will want to send them off well.

Many people chose to focus on the strength and community reflected in the response to the Boston tragedy, as in this update from comedian Patton Oswalt:

I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out.

Many others shared Mr. Rogers’ now-famous quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Such sentiments were certainly true yesterday. I was proud to see Bostonians — police, EMTs, and bystanders — rushing toward uncertainty, chaos, and then carnage. I tried to channel Oswalt’s and Rogers’ sentiments when talking with my daughters, who were terrified to see such a scene on streets they recognized, and who wanted my me and wife to explain “why?”

But I’m not certain such pieties — however true and comforting — will suffice when talking with college students. Today’s students have educations bookended by terrorism: they began school around 9/11 and they’re finishing now.

I know that many in the ProfHacker community have taught after those other tragic days. We want to hear your advice about how to meet students reeling from another such event. As teachers and administrators committed to higher education, I suspect we all believe that education can defend against fear, so let’s use this space to foster a conversation: how can and should we teach after tragedy?

A brief and I hope unnecessary reminder: let’s focus here on classroom strategies, not debate about the event itself. There are plenty of fora online for debating what happened, why it happened, and who is to blame. This isn’t such a forum.

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Chase Elliott Clark.]

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