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Addressing Sandy Hook (and other tragedies) in the Classroom

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For several years I was the director of a program that went into the local public schools to lead grief and loss counseling groups.  There were about 10 facilitators running about 33 groups in elementary, middle, and high schools.  The kids in the groups had experienced some form of loss.  For example, I ran a group for middle school students who were in a bus crash on the way home from a ski trip.  Two of their friends and one chaperone were killed in the crash.  Another group I led was composed of elementary students who lost a parent due to some form of violence.

Through running these groups I learned the following:

  • Many young people do want to talk about the death of their loved ones and death in general.  Adults, often through their own discomfort and with best intentions, shut them down believing it is better not to have these types of discussions.
  • Young people feel as many adults do in these situations: angry, sad, scared, powerless.  As with adults, they sometimes need assistance identifying and expressing these feelings.
  • As with adults, young people want to do something to overcome feelings of powerless.

As a teacher educator and former classroom teacher, I believe that world events should be addressed in the classroom.  Students know what has happened, and as with us, as educators, these events often weigh heavily on them. Learning activities can help students cope with their thoughts and emotions.

Our students are likely feeling the collective weight of these troubling events. We understand the enormity of the task facing teachers who are already juggling numerous responsibilities and are yet again charged with helping young people make sense of devastating events in the world around us. It is easy to feel disheartened, but we believe that making the classroom a community where students can learn, reflect, and respond to the world around them together is an essential part of taking care of our young people. (

The activities to address events such as Sandy Hook depend on the age of the students (not for younger kids), the climate of the school, the make-up and temperament of the particular class, and parental attitudes (parent permission forms may be in order).  They should also be offered to students whereby any student or even the entire class can choose to pass from doing the activity.  Students who choose to pass can be given alternative work to do.

Here are some possible activities:

  • Sharing Circle: Have a morning circle or group to offer students the opportunity to discuss how they feel about the event. Feelings cards can be used to help students identify feelings (they work with all ages).  This is not a forum to discussed the details of what happened.  The news does enough of this.  The focus is on feelings.
  • Sympathy Cards:  Have students create, individually or as a group, sympathy cards for the families who were affected. (Sympathy cards for Sandy Hook can be sent to Sandy Hook elementary School, 12 Dickenson Drive, Sandy Hook, CR 06482-1218.  The school colors are green and white.)
  • Have students individually or in small groups create memorial posters.

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  • Show and discuss some of the initiatives that have been established to help the community affected.  For example for Sandy Hook, see Help for victims of Sandy Hook.  See if students want to help in any way.
  • Create a website in memory of those lost, creating pages for each person lost.
  • For older and more students – have a debate or a Socratic Seminar about gun control using statistics, a review of laws, and other data to inform the debate or seminar.
  • Peer Counseling:  Have students develop a plan to help another student who is in distressed.  Teach, demonstrate, and practice peer counseling skills.

Doing these activities can be a scary and risky proposition.  I understand that.  If an educator chooses to do these type of activities, s/he needs to stay grounded and calm, and have the ability to cope and deal with what may come up from the students.

A student may react strongly from a given activity.  I believe this student had all those feelings stored up already and that this may be an opportunity to provide some needed help.  A school counselor or psychologist can help in this situation.

If education is about preparing students to be active and contributing citizens, then world events shouldn’t be shut out and ignored.  As horrible as they are, they become teachable moments for students to feel that they count and can make a difference.  Activities such as the ones described can help students heal and give students the opportunity to help heal the world.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

December 16, 2012 at 3:42 pm

5 Responses

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  1. These are some very positive ways to respond to students’ needs after this terrible event. Just one caveat. Please don’t suggest balloon releases. They cause needless suffering to animals who swallow them as well as litter once they land.

    Susan van Gelder

    December 16, 2012 at 4:27 pm

  2. Great resources and explanation Jackie, I agree whole heartedly.

    Rhonda Doyle

    December 16, 2012 at 8:28 pm

  3. This is very helpful. Thank you.


    December 17, 2012 at 1:04 am

  4. […]  We can MODEL how to write compassionate letters and emails of sympathy to the victims’ families and to the grieving community. We can express our feelings, and help students develop understanding and empathy. […]

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