Hope is the Thing with Feathers – Teaching in a Time of Overwhelming Tragedy

How does one process news like that of the school shooting in Broward County yesterday? What do we do when the classroom bell rings for us today, but a school just like ours will instead be dealing with the loss, hurt, pain, fear, emptiness, and uncertainty of another mass shooting? What can we say to adolescents whose educational experiences are littered with pox far beyond even the terribly usual trials young people can and must endure?

Painfully, we’ve all had more than enough practice at wrestling with such questions, but attempting to digest the senseless slaughter of innocent school children within the walls of our professional workplaces is never easy. Blessedly, it feels far from normalized. Horrifically, by the sheer number of circumstances we’ve been presented with over the past few years, it does, in fact, become almost routine.

Basically, the haunting normalcy of these events leaves in its wake a sense of utter helplessness, despair, and at times, hopelessness.

As a teacher, as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter, as an educator who teaches next door to her very best friend and works with people she considers family, I am close to lost. The what if of such a scenario playing out at yet another school, let alone my own, is something beyond terrifying. It rips into the realm of disorienting, numbing, paralyzing.

My own daughter starts kindergarten next year. While a completely idealized reflection of my personal experience would only be partially true, I know for certain my teachers and parents did not need to explain to me what I should do, at the tender age of five (or ten, or eighteen), if someone should enter our place of learning, intent on carrying out an act of chaos that would put my life in danger.

That I might not come home from school because of the actions of someone with a gun, was not my reality.

It is now the reality of our students, our colleagues, and our own children.

To say I am disappointed by inaction is an understatement. Pointedly, I’m terrified to imagine the scale of an event it will take for change to occur. I’m disheartened by the unending cycle of condolences, followed by outrage, followed by a seemingly patient and quiet resignation to our circumstances as we wait for the next special report to interrupt our regularly scheduled hand-wringing and begin the cycle all over again.

Our students, sadly,  have little choice but to see these events as a part of their education. While the events at Columbine, an event we could not know and would shutter to imagine as a prelude to so many more school shootings, were a deeply disturbing occurrence in only the last two months of my own high school experience, our students already count this most recent tragedy as one among many.

As educators, we have little choice but to wish fervently, speak passionately, and push daily against such vile intrusion into our schools, all the while preparing solemnly for the possibility that our communities could see just such a tragedy.

So what do we do today?

The normalcy of routine can be reassuring to some. I could go about my way of logical fallacy presentations and book club discussions on modern nonfiction texts today. And most likely we will. But I feel like we all might need something more.

In reading Tricia Ebarvia’s post on Moving Writers this morning, I felt her searching in much the same way I am. Her initial list of possibilities is recognizable to many of us and a place to start:  “hug your kids a little tighter, tell them they’re valued, be a little kinder, read to them, remind them that they’re safe but to look out for one another, urge them to reach out to adults, and so on.”

Her beautiful post goes on to suggest a variety of approaches from classroom discussion, to the analysis of political cartoons, to reflecting on the words of our nation’s leaders in the wake of yesterday’s events.

A few months back, in the days after another mass shooting, this time in a church, Shana reflected on Kylene Beers’ piece “Once Again,” suggesting we really consider the purpose for which we teach in order to best move ourselves and our students forward with purpose and passion. I love Shana’s heart in this piece and her wrestling with the raw emotion of such events by asking teachers to reflect on whether making meaning or making life meaningful should be our goal. 

So with a lot of options, I think today, I am going to write with my students. The thrust of Ebarvia’s post today is the avenue we can take that will most likely feel familiar, as both embedded workshop practice and proven activity to handle stress. I am going to give my students space to write.

A few minutes. An extended session. Whatever the class needs.

The writing can be open response. It can be prompt related if we think our students need it. It can also be response to beautiful words. Poetry saves souls, I am convinced, and Ebarvia must have been thinking along the same lines. Several of the poems Tricia shares are powerful reminders of the depth of the human spirit, how we cope with tragedy, and what it means to be human. Student reflection on these will bring wondering, questions, hope, fear, pain, and maybe unexpected release.

I’ll humbly add the following piece. I think this is what my classes will reflect on today : hope2

We are going to use our writer’s notebooks to pour out some emotion and let it linger on the page. Coping and healing can begin in our classrooms. We need not be counselors, but we can do what we’ve always done…provide the safest emotional space possible for all of us to deal with the increasing lack of safety that surrounds us.

As educators, we share common challenges, but thankfully we also share a common purpose. Together we can move our students and thereby the world to a better place. I’m glad to be wrestling with all that it means to be human with you.

Be well today, friends.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 


8 thoughts on “Hope is the Thing with Feathers – Teaching in a Time of Overwhelming Tragedy

  1. […] our goal is to foster the development of caring, engaged citizens.  My students left me feeling hopeful and confident in their […]


  2. […] weeks ago, after the tragedy unfolded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I was compelled to write about how we can help our students (Shana too wrote beautifully about positive activism in the classroom), those young people who […]


  3. […] my hope is greater after this tragedy, too. I’ve been so warmed by stories of students who survived the shooting mobilizing to […]


  4. Amy Rasmussen February 15, 2018 at 7:22 pm Reply

    I cried in front of my first period today. I know, me, right? with the cold hard heart. I’ve thought so much about what you said awhile ago, Lisa: How do we help other teachers teach the day after — how do we? Like you, I struggled today.

    After some personal prayer, I felt the need to ask students if they wanted to talk about it. They did. We first read this poem The Opposites Game http://theamericanjournalofpoetry.com/v2-constantine.html — I cried at the line “The opposite of a gun is where you point it.”

    We talked. Students wanted to talk about what happened yesterday in FL. They wanted to talk about what we’d do here on our campus in a similar situation. They had questions. Most pointedly: Why don’t we ever run drills during lunch or during passing periods? Why do we run more fire drills than active shooter ones? Why aren’t there more counselors? Could that school have done more? What could we do? What would we do?

    Heartbreaking questions. Heartbreaking that they even have to ask them.

    After a lot of talk, one student in second period said, “Let’s put a wall around the school and guard it with a SWAT team.” He was not kidding. (although others chirped: “School’s already a prison.”)

    If only.

    Not really…but still.

    I do not have any answers. I did challenge my students though. I told them: You do have weapons, you know. You’ve got those pens right there. Nothing else is working, perhaps it’s up to you. Write about your lives, your fears — your questions. Perhaps that is what is needed: Student voices pleading for the chance to learn in safe spaces, pleading for solutions.

    Final thought: During my last class today, a student said she’d just learned: a student across town brought a gun to school — and another in a neighboring district did, too. WTF?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • mrsturnerblog February 15, 2018 at 8:49 pm Reply

      Good Lord. God help us, is all I can say.

      I cried in front of my kids, too. That’s not necessarily unusual—I’m a softy and cry all the time. But yesterday we had mass for Ash Wednesday (Catholic school) and the priest talked about death and how we never know so we should make the best of every moment. And then to hear the news yesterday afternoon. It hit some of my kids very hard, particularly the seniors. They’re just on the cusp of this new and exciting life and to think that kids just like them woke up and started their day yesterday dreading an anatomy quiz only to have their life cut so tragically short…well it hit hard. And then there were my kids who talked about arming teachers or getting concealed carry permits—we’re in Alabama and guns are not in short supply. My response was that I didn’t think more guns would solve the problem. I have no answers; I just want to keep pushing and keep praying.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. mrsturnerblog February 15, 2018 at 7:15 pm Reply

    I’m just devastated. I gave my kids time to write and then we talked. It seemed to be what they needed in order to start processing all of this. 😭

    Liked by 1 person

  6. dkenley February 15, 2018 at 9:00 am Reply

    Beautifully Written…Thank You!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Erin February 15, 2018 at 7:47 am Reply

    Well said, my friend. I’m sorry that you had to say it.

    Liked by 2 people

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