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How do I talk to my students about what happened?

January 7, 2021 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


This guest column was written by Ami Patel Hopkins. It represents her individual opinion and does not represent the viewpoints of organizations with which she is affiliated either professionally or personally.
It is the morning of January 7, 2021, the day after arguably one of the darkest moments in the United States.

I know I am not alone as I think of the question yet again: “how do I talk to my students about what happened?”  There is no simple answer to this question. However, it is important that as educators we create the space for the students to process what happened.

The Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, Dr. William Hite, issued this statement yesterday: “We must always remember that our children are watching. They have lost so much over the past year, and now they must reconcile what they have been taught about the ideals of our democratic nation with the criminal attacks they have witnessed in our Capitol.”

There is more to being a teacher than teaching content. This is not the first time that I have had a difficult conversation with my 5th and 6th grade scientists. There were many instances in 2020 when I created these spaces for my students. Last night, I could not sleep because my heart was broken knowing my students (our future) were witnessing another traumatic event in their lifetime. It is also mentally exhausting to put my own emotions aside so that I can be a pillar of strength for my students.

How do I prepare? I anticipate how my students may feel and what they  may say or ask. What I appreciate about youth is that they are honest humans. I see it with my own toddler and students and I am glad that they see me as an adult who will listen to their truth.

From the beginning of this unusual school year, I have established an environment where we do a check-in before we get to that day’s science content. Part of our daily routine is me posting a Google form in Google Classroom that asks students two questions: 1)  How alkaline are you feeling today (with the choices of acid, neutral or base)?; and 2) Who are you feeling like today? (with the choices of Amy — the amygdala; Tex — prefrontal cortex; or Hippo — hippocampus; names borrowed from Chris Bergstorm). We then as a community of learners, analyze the class data, infer why people may be feeling a certain way and share with each other.

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The day after Walter Wallace Jr. was killed, most of our class felt like “acid” for the first question. Acid is 7.5-10 on the pH Scale and if you choose this option during the check-in, you are feeling “frustrated/sad/upset/OFF.”  I can hypothesize that many of my students will feel like “acid” today.

We will start with our check-in and then I will ask what is most of the class feeling like today?  In today’s case, I might start by saying, “I’m feeling pretty acid as well.” This way, students know they are not alone and that everything they are feeling is valid.

We may not know how to answer questions posed by our students or our own children today, but we can do one thing, let them talk it out and listen. School is exactly the place where critical thinking and dialogue should happen and we have to provide that place to our students.

As educators, we can reiterate the importance of credible sources vs. fake news and help the students process the history of what happened yesterday.

As always, the students’ voices should be at the center of the conversation and as educators we facilitate the dialogue.

How do they define what happened? Provide resources about the electoral process. If a student asks me, “Mrs. PH, why were there less arrests yesterday than during the George Floyd protests?”  I will answer by saying, “honestly, love, I do not know,” but then proceed to ask follow-up questions like:

  • Do you think it is just that there were fewer arrests?
  • What message does this convey if there were fewer arrests?
  • Was there more than one source that reported that there were fewer arrests?

If we do not talk about it, we are doing a disservice to our students. Yes, it will be difficult, but we owe it to our students to have the conversation or at least create the space so students know that we are listening to them. They need to feel heard, seen and valued. No student is too young to have the conversation. What is different, is how we have the conversation with different ages.

I know my limits in having this dialogue with my students as I am not a licensed psychologist so it is important for us to lean in on other professionals and their expertise.

These are some resources I am using as I prepare for today’s class:


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