Addressing Change & Loss for Middle School & High School

April 13, 2020

A poem, a free-writing exercise, and class sharing can provide support for middle and high school students during this difficult period.

To the teacher:  

In these uncertain, stressful times of physical distancing, coming together and connecting socially and emotionally is especially important. For young people to see and connect with their peers can be ray of light for some, and a real lifeline for others. Students might connect over things that spark joy and gratitude or over things that bring on more challenging feelings. Young people, like all of us, need a chance to express and share their feelings, and get the support of others. 
 
In this part two of our series of lessons and activities for the corona age, we offer strategies for exploring the topics of change and loss with our students. No matter their age, all of our students have experienced change and loss in their lives at some point, some more than others. How well they’ve been able to manage loss likely depends not only on its severity, but also on the level of stability, love, and support in their lives, as well as their own internal resources.
 
As of April 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed students’ lives A LOT. They’ve likely experienced loss on multiple levels—whether the loss of school as a safe, welcoming space, with several meals a day; connections with peers, friends, teachers and other caring adults in the building; the freedom to travel or hang out with friends; internships, jobs, graduation ceremonies, and of course play dates for our youngest students. Young people are probably also absorbing the changing moods of the adults in their lives, as family members are forced to do hazardous work, are laid off, face illness, or are struggling to handle new responsibilities, uncertainty, and stress.  
 
Some students may have already lost family, friends, or community members to the coronavirus. These things are hard to talk about. And yet as Mr. Rogers reminds us, “anything human is mentionable and anything mentionable is manageable. The mentioning can be difficult, and the managing too, but both can be done if we’re surrounded by love and trust.” 

The lessons and activities that follow are intended to help students be in community together, supporting each other with you as a trusted adult at the helm. 

Email students this link to the poem Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda ahead of time – especially if pulling things up on screen during your gathering is hard to do. (The poem is included below.) 

 



Opening ceremony

Welcome young people warmly to the virtual space/online platform or whatever space you are using to connect with your students. Recognize who’s there and who isn’t.  

Remember to reach out to young people who are not able to make it to your gatherings.  Consider making this a shared responsibility as students are only too eager to be of use and supportive at this challenging time of Covid-19. And as we know, students at this age respond to peers more willingly than they do to adults.

Tell students that you’ve brought a poem in to share today, and that you also welcome students to share poems or song lyrics that are providing them with solace or joy these days. Say something about poems being a great way to connect with each other and with our inner world.  (You might also note that April is National Poetry Month.) 

Pull the poem up on the screen for all to see (here’s the link), or ask students to turn to it on their own screens, if you sent it to them ahead of time.

The poem Keeping Quiet is by Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet-diplomat and politician, Pablo Neruda. Read the poem out loud yourself and/or ask a student (or two) to do so. Next, ask students to sit with the poem for a moment or two. 

Ask students:

  • Pick a line that resonates with you right now at this time and explain why you picked that line.  

Acknowledge student feelings and paraphrase some of the connections students had with the poem. If the poem brings up a lot for students, use that as a jumping off point for further connections.  Ask students:

  • Share any connections, reflections, or additions to what their classmates said.


Free Writing / Journaling 

Emphasize the major changes that have taken place in our world as a result of the new coronavirus that has been spreading across our community and the world.  

Ask students to take some time to freewrite about the changes in their lives, considering some or all of the prompts below.  

Freewriting is a strategy developed by Peter Elbow in 1973. It has been compared to brainstorming, but it comes in the form of writing a sentence, paragraph, or page, without stopping. The goal is not to be grammatically accurate or worry about spelling, but more to simply go with the flow of thoughts popping into your head, and keep writing. Encourage students to use paper and pen (or pencil) to write, not a laptop or other electronic device. Writing longhand can help us to process information, clarify our thoughts, and make sense of what’s happening in our lives. It can help us tune in, manage stress, and process our emotions.  
 
Prompts to consider:  

  • What impact has the new coronavirus had on you, your family, your friends, your community?
  • What has been gained (e.g. new appreciations for what was or is, new discoveries, old connections, new connections, quieter neighborhoods, birdsong)?
  • What has been lost (e.g. high fives, fist bumps, hugs, school, friends to hang out with, visits with loved ones perhaps, people’s health and in some cases people’s lives)? 
  • How have the changes made you feel?

Invite students to share out an insight they might have gained through their freewrite.  

 



Closing

Invite students together to take some deep belly breaths.  
 
Many of us are in the habit of shallow breathing from our chests, especially when we’re stressed.  Explain that deep belly breathing can counteract our stress and anxiety.  It can have a calming affect, if done from a large muscle in your stomach called the diaphragm.  
 
Ask students to place one hand on their chest, and the other right under their ribcage so they can feel how their diaphragm moves as they take some deep slow breaths.  During belly breathing, the hand on their chest should remain relatively still. 
 
Breathing slowly in through their nose, the air should move downward into their belly filling it up, so that the hand below their ribcage rises. On the out breath, ask students to relax their belly. They should feel their hand fall inward as they slowly exhale through their mouth.  
 
Invite students to take ten deep breaths like this, in through their nose and out through their mouths. 
 

Explain that if at any point students feel stressed or anxious, to try taking some deep belly breaths to send a message to calm the body’s nervous system. It might feel awkward at first, but that’s because many of us have gotten used to breathing from our chest. Changing our practice can help us go back to what is considered a more natural and healthy way to breathe.