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Talking About Tragedy in the Classroom

By Sarah Kingstone


Reports of recent tragedies have been especially difficult to read. Innocent lives have been taken. The motives appear indicative of a confluence of very troubling global trends: the resurgence of violent nationalism, fear-mongering around immigration, and the use of social media to spread identity-based, violent ideologies and conspiracy theories. I have found this additionally troubling as I am no longer working in the classroom — a place so conducive to explorative and critical conversations, communal support, and reflection.


After such an event when I was teaching, I would have been met with a flurry of comments and questions:


“Did you hear…?”

“Did you see…?”

“Why…?”

“This reminds me of….”

“I went there with my family last…”

“I heard from my parents that…”

“I read an article that said…”

“Wait, what?!”


The students would be seeking understanding and connection. We, as teachers and mentors, do not have all the answers, but we can provide space and guidance for these young people as they attempt to process information and events, whether benign, complex or horrific, while also beginning to develop their understanding of themselves and their relationship to the world. Especially when the news is as upsetting and tragic as that of the events in Christchurch or Colombo, acknowledging, discussing, and processing these events in the classroom can provide both a recognition of the immediate confusion and pain, and an informed and empathetic view of the world for the future.


This article considers the ways in which teachers and mentors can structure and guide these conversations to encourage critical, productive, and respectful inquiry, analysis, and reflection. Based on my experience and research, promoting conversations that give space for students to practice historical and critical thinking and empathy can have powerful outcomes in the face of inhuman and antisocial actions.


Thinking Historically

For young people in particular, understanding why we are studying something in the classroom is necessary for authentic engagement in learning. Developing historical thinking skills supports the understanding that history is an essential context to contemporary local and global events, relationships, processes, systems, and structures. Additionally, these skills can enhance the intelligence with which students digest the benign, complex, and sometimes horrific information they constantly encounter. With this accumulated knowledge, they can then make decisions about how new information fits into their understanding of themselves and their world, instead of allowing other manipulative forces to make those decisions for them.


When we talk about events like the Christchurch shooting in the classroom, historical thinking skills and concepts can be used to explore the surrounding context in complex and nuanced way, including the history of gun-related violence and gun laws in New Zealand, the history of white nationalism and the global resurgence of white supremacism and demographic paranoia. Not only do students build skills and self-reflect, but they are also equipped to confront the ignorance and fear-mongering that incites identity-based violence.


Thinking Critically


Critical thinking is a key component of historical thinking skills. Both aim to analyze a diverse spectrum of information to make connections and build an educated and evidence-based judgement. After spending years studying government and non-government groups’ systematic manipulation of populations in service of mass violence and genocide, I believe that critical thinking skills are fundamental to combating political manipulation and supporting peace-building practices like inclusivity, justice, and equity.


After the recent bombings in Sri Lanka, the government blocked access to social media sites in the hopes of reducing the spread of misinformation and hate speech. While this is based on valid information about the role that social media has played in places like Malaysia, the United States and the United Kingdom, it enhances the government’s ability to censor diverse opinions. Addressing the root causes — misunderstanding, fear, and ignorance — by teaching young people the skills necessary to question, analyze, and distinguish between misleading and reliable information is critical to compassionate participation in the world.


Educator James E. Ryan provided an essential starting point in his commencement address to the Harvard class of 2016, offering questions that build deeper understanding and more meaningful connections, especially when delving into challenging conversations with young people:


Wait, what? — the root of all understanding

I wonder…? —the heart of all curiosity

Couldn’t we at least…? —the beginning of all progress

How can I help? — the base of all good relationships

What truly matters? —the heart of life


Using these questions to slow and structure our responses to tragic events, as well as untangle the complex discourse that arises around these acts can powerfully confront the divisive intentions of those who promote and enact such violence.


Practising Empathy


We are already programmed to be empathetic—it is “an instinctive mirroring of others’ experience”. There is some debate about the power of empathy, but honing young people’s social emotional awareness in partnership with critical and historical thinking in the classroom can help them process their own and others’ lived experiences.



Jelani Cobb, writing in The New Yorker, describes tragedies such as the shooting in Christchurch as “the product of an absence of human empathy and a drain on the reserves of those who possess it: decency these days requires the ability to stare barbarism in the face, repeatedly, randomly, intensely, without even becoming inured to the ugliness of its features.” Alden Habacon, an expert on inclusivity training, encourages mentors not to avoid difficult discussions, but to break down the divisive “us and them” language by making connections between exclusionary ideologies and violent behaviour and establishing more broad identifiers of commonality and community. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, provided a poignant example of this in her response to the Christchurch massacre. She spoke of “us”—using Maori words for kindness, compassion, and generosity — but refused to create a rhetorical dichotomy against an othered enemy or “them.”


When conversations in the classroom expose young people to diverse ideas and experiences and give them space to build commonality and shared experiences, divisive biases are undermined. However, when we rehearse lock-downs and active shooter drills, put up metal detectors at the doors to schools and arm teachers, we respond to fear without confronting the underlying causes—isolation and marginalization, perceived and real powerlessness, and ignorance.


Indeed, Alden Habacon argues that challenging conversations are critical to raising children with a “deep capacity for inclusion.” Using the practices of critical and historical thinking and empathy when having difficult conversations enhances understanding and builds self-reflective relationships, which are ultimately the guiding principles for positive youth development in the classroom.


The suggestions provided above are not meant to be prescriptive or conclusive. It is important to acknowledge that in some cases, additional professional support may be necessary or appropriate in response to specific trauma or to reinforce the feeling of safety.


If you have any questions, concerns, or additions that you would like to share, please do not hesitate, we would love to continue the conversation.


Further reading:


What School Shooting Drills Look Like Through Students’ Eyes, by Jesse Dorris

The Baby In the Well: The Case Against Empathy, by Paul Bloom

Alden Habacon’s website

Drawings of Dogs Instagram Account

Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions, by James E Ryan

Many thanks to Sarah for her contribution this week. You can contact her via her individual member profile, or join the conversation on the EPPE Network Twitter account.

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