Violent attacks that target people because of their identities happen around the world with disturbing frequency. What can educators do to help students reflect on and understand these attacks?
This Teaching Idea is a guide for teachers to navigate conversations with their students after news of a mass shooting, terrorist attack, or other violent event. Such conversations are difficult. Yet when we don’t address the violence in the classroom, we risk normalizing it. We recommend coordinating with colleagues and ensuring that students have space to emotionally process the events. Afterwards, you may want to help students explore the nature and impact of hate crimes, and consider ways that communities respond to hate and violence. Finally, we offer recommendations to help students engage with ongoing news coverage in a responsible way.
Start with Yourself
Self-reflection is important preparation for facilitating conversations about troubling current events. As educators, we have to make time to process our own feelings and become aware of the way our own identities and experiences shape the perspectives we hold. Read the “Start with Yourself” section on page 2 of our Fostering Civil Discourse guide. Then reflect on the following questions:
- What emotions does news of this event raise for you? What questions are you grappling with?
- What perspectives will you bring to your reflection on this event with your students?
- What emotions might your students bring to your discussion? How can you respond to these emotions?
- As the news develops, how will you continue to learn alongside your students?
Coordinate with Colleagues
Before you discuss a violent event with your class, it may be helpful to reach out to your colleagues in order to coordinate your response as a school.
- Talk to other teachers in your school about how they plan to respond to the event. This can ensure that students have space to reflect on the event, while also helping to avoid repeating the same conversations with students throughout the day.
- Reach out to your wellness staff to learn more about how you can provide emotional support to your students after traumatic events and to learn when you should refer students directly to wellness staff.
Initial Classroom Response
After a traumatic event, it can be beneficial to focus first on emotional processing, addressing the “heart” before the “head.” Give yourself and your students space to reflect on your emotional responses to the event.
The following ideas may be helpful as you consider how to discuss the event in your classroom:
- Let your students know that your classroom is a safe space. Begin with a brief Contracting activity if you have not already forged that safe space. Then follow with an acknowledgement of the event and its emotional impact. This is not the moment to move directly into cognitive work.
- Share a summary of the event from a trusted news source to dispel rumors or misinformation.
- Ask students to reflect, first in their journals and then as a class, using the following prompts from our Head, Heart, Conscience teaching strategy:
- What information do you know about this event?
- What information is confirmed? What remains uncertain? Are there any facts that are contested?
- What additional information would you like to have to help you understand the event better?
- What emotions does this event raise for you?
- Are there particular moments, images, or stories that stand out to you? If so, why?
- What questions about fairness, equity, or justice does this event raise for you?
- What choices did key figures make, and what values may have guided those choices?
- How were people impacted by this event? Are there people who should be held accountable? If so, how?
Consider the Factors That Contribute to Hate Crimes
When perpetrators of violence are motivated by bias, their actions are often classified as hate crimes. Many countries around the world have laws that impose heavier penalties for hate crimes than for similar offenses not motivated by bias. It may be helpful to explore the nature of hate crimes with your class, and the impact they can have on communities.
Share with students the definition of a hate crime under US federal law:
A crime motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability
Then discuss the following questions:
- Based on what you know about this event, does it meet the definition of a hate crime?
- How do hate crimes impact individuals in the targeted groups? How do they impact people who haven’t been directly targeted? How do they impact whole communities?
- Why do you think hate crimes are punished more severely than other assaults?
- Have you seen examples in your own community of hate or exclusion targeting people because of their identity or group membership?
- How do small acts of hate—slurs, name-calling, graffiti—fracture communities? Do they make it more likely that more violent acts will occur?
- What other factors contribute to a climate in which perpetrators of hate crimes feel emboldened? How do we understand the connection between ideas, rhetoric, and actions?
Explore Community Responses
Hate crimes are designed to leave certain groups of people feeling vulnerable. Consider who may be affected by this violence and the positive ways in which individuals and communities can respond, for example, by denouncing hate, offering support to those who have been targeted, and asserting inclusive norms and values.
Discuss the following with your students:
Ask your students to research positive ways in which communities have responded after the violent attack and to share stories they find with the class.
- What can we do if we ourselves are feeling vulnerable as a result of this attack?
- How can we stand with and support others who are feeling vulnerable?
- What are some meaningful actions we can take, even if only in our own home, neighborhood, or school?
Strategies for Following the News
After you have given students time to reflect and process their initial responses to the event, you may decide to guide your students through strategies for engaging with news coverage of the event in a responsible way.
News coverage of breaking news is often incomplete and may include information that is later discounted. Students should understand that initial reports may change as new information comes to light. Established news sources are less likely to spread misinformation, since they have processes for vetting stories before publishing.
The following ideas may be helpful to guide a discussion:
Begin by asking your students the following questions:
- How can you stay informed about the event while at the same time ensuring that you are taking care of yourself and your peers?
- What questions should you consider before sharing news on social media or with friends?
- Do you have any strategies to make sure that the news you follow is reliable?
Read the Time article Is It Bad for You to Read the News Constantly?, which claims that news has the potential to be stressful or harmful to people if they consume it too frequently or if the news they follow is intense and graphic. Discuss with your students:
- How often do you check the news? Do you have news alerts set up on your phone?
- What are the potential benefits of following the news regularly?
- Do you ever come across news sources that are graphic, intense, or upsetting? Are there some types of news coverage you think people should avoid?
- How can people find a good balance between being informed and being overwhelmed by the news?
Share the News Literacy Project’s Ten Questions for Fake News Detection with your students to help them find reliable sources.