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Las Vegas: How do teachers respond when tragedy seeps into classrooms?

Given the 24/7 coverage of the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the fear and anger many Americans are feeling, how should schools and teachers respond?

There is no clear road map for educators when a madman with an arsenal of weapons including automatic rifles slaughters 59 people and injures 520 others attending a music festival below his hotel room. And there is no shielding kids from the headlines when the smartphones in their pockets provide them second-by-second updates. Research shows 60 percent of  kids ages 10-14 and 84 percent of teens ages 15 to 18 now have phones.

Today, two Northview High School teachers share how they handle tragedies of this magnitude. Jordan Kohanim teaches Honors 10th and 11th grade English/Langauge Arts and is the school's debate coach. Tania Pope teaches AP English Language and Composition and 10th grade Honors and is literary magazine mentor.

Thanks to both teachers for producing these pieces so quickly and thoughtfully.

By Jordan Kohanim

It seems as though at every moment there is a new death toll. After the recent events in Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida and Texas, many students come to school with underlying feelings of anxiety, anger, and fear. Some have family members or friends affected directly by these disasters while others are just overwhelmed with the deluge of media reporting on it.

Teachers are faced with a difficult dilemma: how do we respond to these events?

My colleague and I approach this situation very differently for different reasons.

In my classroom, I have the luxury of a curriculum that doesn’t directly speak to these issues. While literature in general carries aspects of rhetoric, themes on humanity, and questions of personal response, I am able to use canonical literature as the vehicle for examining these concepts — thus avoiding the need to bring in current events.

While this may seem callous, I remember my school days and how classroom time was a reprieve from chaos outside of school. I loved the fact that I knew in school there was routine. There was order. There was not a need for emotional response. I craved the day-to-day regularity of school.

I feel my students are often crushed with so many powerful crises outside of my room, they appreciate not having to deal with it in class. If a student comes to me individually, we talk together without an audience. For me, I have the privilege of making my room a safe place away from inundation of catastrophes. That is my curriculum though.

By Tania Pope

In teaching Advanced Placement English Language and Composition, I have the luxury, in contrast to Mrs. Kohanim’s experience, of directly speaking to these issues. The focus of the class is non-fiction reading and writing of past and, mostly, current events. We face these very relevant social and political issues head on in the daily experience of the classroom environment.

This experience can get emotional. This experience can get personal. But what we work hard to do as AP Language teachers is to create a safe environment. We do this through critical analysis of the issues.

Sensational news is not the nature of the classroom; instead, we expose the students to vast amounts of reading material, and we investigate the issues from various perspectives. Discussion has to be supported with evidence and with the goal to achieve rhetorical virtue, a place where intellectual argument is celebrated, where divisive, tribal labelling is avoided.

With that said, yesterday’s tragedy and tragedies before this need time and context. Delving into discussion without all the facts may set us up for messy “alternative fact” lessons. We are very much still in the early stages of learning about the unfolding details surrounding the worst mass shooting in the history of the US.

I know today I will address, with compassion, that we need a little more time before investigation of the issues that will arise like gun control and mental health. For now, I will tell my students to listen to NPR, watch varying news reports, and read from various news outlets. For now, I will tell my students to think compassionately of the victims.

When the dust has settled, we will talk, and we will think, and we will work toward creating engaged students prepared to take on their scary reality with knowledge, a critical and philosophical lens, with the right rhetorical tools and language, and with the courage we need to make this place a better, safer, more tolerant world for all of us.

Ultimately, teachers are charged with a difficult task — one we handle at our own discretion. Just as all great human endeavors, both approaches have merits and pitfalls. We can only do the best we can with what we are given each day, just like our students.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.