January 11, 2021
In the six years of my teaching career, I’ve had more days of teaching on “the day after” than I’d care to think about. There have been days after national tragedies, controversial elections and local misfortunes for our school. As a teacher, I know it’s important to help students process these events. It’s also important to help them practice their critical thinking in uncertain times and make sure they don’t fall prey to misinformation.
There is often also a warring voice inside me that doesn’t want to give up precious time already planned for our curriculum. When that voice makes me uncertain of how to spend the next school day, I always come back to 9/11.
I was 13 years and 2 days old on Sept. 11, 2001, and feeling the heady importance of finally being a teenager. I was convinced that I was grown now, that the world would make sense in a way it never had before. The events of 9/11 shattered that illusion suddenly and soundly. This was made worse by middle school teachers who were not allowed to help me understand. My parents tried to help, but they didn’t have the tools to effectively have those conversations with me, so I was left mostly adrift and alone, attempting to process this radical shift in the world.
I don’t want my students to feel alone.
Last week, I was again teaching on a “day after.” I knew my ninth-graders would have varying levels of understanding and emotions about the events of Wednesday, Jan. 6. I spent much of Wednesday evening putting together a resource to teach from the next day. I’ve taught on “the day after” so many times now that I’ve learned a few things that almost always work for me. They are:
- Find a quick, age-appropriate way to summarize the situation for your students. This could be a video from a news organization, an official statement, an infographic or something you create. This will give all your students the same baseline of knowledge.
- Facilitate a space and let the students fill it. This isn’t the time to teach a complex geo-political history lesson. That can come later. In the immediate aftermath of a major event, the first thing we all need to do is process. Ask students broad questions and let their answers guide a discussion. “What do you know?” and “What questions do you have?” are great places to start.
- Give students space to form and express their own opinions. Depending on what kind of event you have experienced, it may be a complex issue. Present students with facts. Use primary sources. Ask students, “What do you notice? What do you wonder?”
- Give students space for self-expression. Maybe your students can write in writers’ notebooks. Maybe they can create visual art or a performance. Not every student will have big emotions and/or want to process them through art, but for many, this will be important for their own well-being. I also like to find a piece of art (I’m partial to poems, like the one above by Langston Hughes) that can help us understand what’s happening.
- Give students choices where possible. Some students may not want to engage in this discussion. They may be longing for the normalcy of your classroom. If you can, provide these students with meaningful work they can complete independently while you’re leading a class discussion.
Teaching on “the day after” can feel daunting. There’s a feeling of grave responsibility – we don’t want to cause harm to our students in our attempt to help them. But by having these conversations, you help model to your students how to cope with the many difficult events that we all experience in life. You help calm fears and grow knowledge. You might even help them find their own place within the complex narratives of these events. No matter what, you’ll be showing your students that they are not alone.
About Owen Bondono: I teach ninth grade English in Oak Park, MI. I am white, transgender, middle class, married, bi and able-bodied, and my pronouns are he/him/his. I acknowledge that everything I write is informed by the perspectives and privileges I have been afforded in life. As the 2020-2021 Michigan Teacher of the Year, I hope to learn from and advocate for all teachers and students in the state, with a focus on building and supporting a diverse teaching force.