I didn’t find out about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School until after school on Friday.  My 5, 6, and 7 year old kids were already home safe, and I had the time to sit quietly and update myself on what had happened.  I spent a bit of time imagining, wondering, role-playing, thinking about what if what if what if, but I quickly shifted gears into reminding myself that what ifs aren’t helpful.  I reminded myself that we, as a society, are responsible for caring for each other, for helping each other, for making decisions that are best for the collective.  Acting on that responsibility is helpful.  Speaking up for things that contribute to that responsibility is helpful.

I had the reasoning and capacity to shift those gears rather quickly, but I really had no idea what to expect from my students.  As they trickled in this morning, I put myself in their parents’ shoes and felt a hint of added anxiety, of uncertainty, of hope.  I am sure that the morning hugs were a bit tighter, the kisses a bit more sticky.

It didn’t take long for the subject to surface.  At morning share time, one boy announced, “It said on the news that a very bad man killed 20 kids and 6 grown-ups and he was a very bad man with a gun.”

That led to quite a bit of discourse.  “Wait, was it 10 kids or 20?”  “Yeah, he used a really big gun, I saw a picture of it.”  “Did you hear that there was this teacher who saved kids by putting them in the cabinets?”  “Some kids hid in the bathroom!”  “Did that happen in America?”

I was struck by several things. 1) The immense amount of factual knowledge my kids had about the event.  It was clear that many, though not all of them, had seen the news in addition to hearing or participating in conversations about it with their parents.  They knew numbers and names.  2) The relatively upbeat tone of the conversation.  I didn’t set the mood.  The first boy who spoke did.  The conversation was descriptive, curious, a bit exclamatory, and not particularly sad.  It felt almost clinical.  3) The students were extremely engaged in the conversation.  Often, I feel like I am pulling teeth to get kids to really listen to each other, ask direct questions to each other, respond appropriately to other kids’ comments.  But not today.  They managed the back and forth of the conversation naturally and beautifully.

For a while I sat back and listened.  I wanted to give them a chance to share what they had to say with each other and to answer each other’s questions to the best of their abilities.  But as the conversation came to a close, I did step in and participate.  I congratulated the group on their ability to listen to each other and have this conversation.  I pointed out the ways in which they had shared their thoughts clearly, asked each other questions, and responded.  I noted that these are the things that make our classroom community strong and special.  I said that in our classroom, and in our school, we all do our best to be good community members, to take care of each other, to be kind to each other, and to look out for each other.  These are the things that make us as safe as we can be.  And these are things that they as kindergarteners and first graders are constantly learning to do better and better.  We all are.

Several hours later at recess, a boy ran up to me and said,  “I’m really excited for Christmas.  I bet those kids were really excited for Christmas but now they don’t get to celebrate it because they died.”

This time I said, “I bet you’re right.  And I can tell you’re really thinking about the kids who died.  That’s very caring of you.”  His comment was definitely the most emotional of the day; he was putting himself in their shoes, a task not easy for a 5 year old.

Sandy Hook is clearly on my kids’ minds, and I’m sure it’s not going anywhere.  As it comes up again in the future, I’ll continue to remind them of the strength of their community and of the power that each of them has to make our classroom a safe and loving place.

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