Lessons to inspire your students
Started by Melissa Ragan in Web resources Sep 21.
By Michelle K. Fitzgerald
We all will encounter tragedy at various stages – and from various levels of involvement. The upcoming 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is certainly a reminder of that unfortunate truth. 9/11 was a tragic event broadcasted and witnessed in real time by an estimated 1/3 of the world’s population. It was a day when we were not only connected by technology but by our shared humanity.
We can experience tragedy firsthand or by watching it play out in the media as was my experience with 9/11. Dealing with tragedy is difficult for adults and, of course, children. The task can be especially daunting for our colleagues in the field, when we must face or teach about tragedy in our own classrooms.
Let me tell you a story a teacher should never have to tell…
Mariana was my student. She was the student that you find yourself wondering about while you’re at home preparing dinner for the evening. Initially, Mariana lacked motivation in school. She was reserved and marked by the shyness that often comes with being behind academically. Socially, however, Mariana made her presence known through intimidation, scowling grimaces, threats, and an occasional fist fight. She was, indeed rough around the edges to say the least. Once, her eighth grade gang member “boyfriend” visited the school to initiate a fight with a fifth grader who tormented Mariana by calling her “dumb”.
She was the epitome of the child whose heart story was indelibly wounded.
At first, Mariana resisted all of my attempts to open up the possibility of a world that did not have to hurt so much. It was as if filling her mind with travel to islands where the water is beautifully transparent lacked credibility. I told her stories of museums with Frida Kahlo’s tormented artwork and how the chocolate in Hershey, Pennsylvania tasted different. I tried to convince her that sushi wasn’t yucky and that I loved watching the news in Spanish because I could learn more words…Day after day, I fed she and my other students the possibility of college and career, family and friends, love and laughter…When I looked into her eyes, I was unsure if I she knew that my belief in her potential was real, or if she fancied my stories as fairy tales for princesses who were not like her. Maybe she thought she was too brown. Too Compton. Too poor. Too female. Too dumb. Too hopeless.
Maybe she thought she was too lost but I was determined to find her.
The day of fifth grade promotion, Mariana showed up as someone I did not know. Her dark hair cascaded in bouncy ringlets that picked up the glimmer of the June sun. She wore a bright pink, satin dress with a sash tied into a bow…she even wore a shoulder wrap. Her ankles buckled here and there as she click-clacked in one-inch heels across the cracked concrete on the school grounds…her best accessory? Mariana’s smile.
When I called Mariana’s name at graduation, she sauntered up the three small steps across the wooden stage toward me. Her smile was so genuine. She reached for her certificate and, when I reached to shake her hand, she threw her arms around my waist and uttered, “I love you Ms. Fitzgerald”.
There she was. Mariana the reader. Mariana the promoted student. Mariana the girl who could defy the odds that say she was too brown, too Compton, too poor, too female, too dumb, too hopeless.
I found her. She found herself.
I heard Mariana’s name twice since then. The first time, her middle school computer lab teacher allowed her to call me during school hours. She giggled when I told her I had cameras watching her. No boys, Mariana. Just books.
There were cameras watching her but, of course, they were not my own. Cameras that would capture her fate on a cold December night.
The next time I found Mariana was when her name floated in the thick, biting air of grief. The school secretary reminded me that I knew the girl who made it on the news the night before...Mariana who always seemed so lost was found. This time, the sheriff’s department found her lifeless body – bullet ridden – next to her bike. Cold concrete against my Mariana’s cold body on a cold December night. What a cold night in a cold world on a cold Compton street.
Mariana was 14 years old.
Lost and found.
When I visited the site where Mariana took her last breath, it nearly choked me. Images from a tragic event are vivid reminders of its impact on our beings. As we teach content about 9/11, showing images from that day solidifies the information and offers students a more comprehensive understanding of not only the tragedy that day, but also the compassion and bravery that flowed in response.
Photos from 9/11 are difficult for adults to view. Photos from 9/11 are difficult for children to view. Even the most self-aware adults struggle to deal with the complexity of viewing images from a tragic event. So, how do we navigate children through viewing photos from a tragedy such as the events on September 11th?
To prepare students to view images, such as those in the Visualizing 9/11 Lesson in the 9/11 Education Trust curriculum, a teacher could ask the students to imagine they were photojournalists. In a quick write, students would consider what they might witness on September 11th and the days after. After some students share with the class, teachers can provide insight into what some of the images might contain. To give this “warning,” one might liken it to viewing guidelines used in the movie industry. During the lesson, if students find the images too disturbing, teachers could reassure them that they do not have to view them at length. However, we should encourage all of the students to understand that viewing the photos would prove integral to their overall understanding of 9/11.
The most important lesson I learned in working through tragedy with children is to create a safe environment. Every year, just when the time is right, I tell a heart story, as I like to call them. Sometimes I share the loss of my grandmother as a young child. Sometimes I share Mariana’s ’s story; it depends on my students. Then, I encourage students to share their own heart stories. Sometimes students cannot speak because the emotion stifles them. Some shed silent tears on expressionless faces as they pour out their heart story. I do this to encourage students to be aware of their own humanity and that emotion is a part of our existence. This year, someone made a joke at the end that left us all laughing through many salty tears. After our heart story session, every tough subject matter seemed easier to tackle.
Preparing students to approach difficult content can be intimidating to the most seasoned educators. After all, we are teachers – not school counselors or psychologists. However, I do believe that, if we simply follow our rational thoughts about propriety and ground ourselves in our own humanity, we can guide students through the tragedies that often find their way into our history as Americans.
Michelle K. Fitzgerald is a 12th year educator in the Compton Unified School District in California. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Bilingual in Spanish and English, Michelle’s background in education reflects extensive work with English learners. Her current projects include writing middle school curriculum for the English Language department and piloting a dual immersion language program in the afterschool setting. She has particular interest in socio-economic, political, and cultural influences on educational experiences and spends time researching contemporary thought on these subjects. In addition to classroom instruction, Michelle coaches an award-winning dance and cheer team. When she is not teaching or coaching, Michelle enjoys reading, writing, and cooking. She can be reached at email@example.com.