When upsetting things happen in the world, it can be very helpful to give young people a chance to share their feelings and thoughts about it. While we adults may be tempted to avoid bringing up upsetting news, if it is on students' minds, it's present in the classroom, whether we talk about it or not. When we create a safe, supportive space where students can discuss sensitive issues and events constructively, we can turn those events into powerful teachable moments, and foster a stronger sense of community among our students in the process.
Below are some basic questions to help students share thoughts and feelings after a violent incident has been in the news. Below that are two formats you might use to structure this discussion - a listening circle and a microlab.
For more suggestions on handling difficult issues in your classroom, please see our guidelines, Teaching about Controversial or Difficult Issues and Suggestions for Discussing Violent Events in the News.
Questions for discussing a violent incident in the news:
1. What thoughts and feelings have you had?
2. What thoughts might you want to share with the victims of the violence, their friends and families, and with others who are feeling vulnerable right now?
3. What is one thing we could do - individually, as a group, or as a society - to show love for one another in the wake of this event?
4. What do you want to say about [the issue]? What's on your mind?
5. What would you like to do for our community or the world to address [the issue or problem]?
Formats for discussion:
When upsetting events happen, a listening circle can be helpful for young people of all ages, as well as for adults. Listening circles give people a chance to say what they are thinking and feeling, and can help engender mutual understanding and support.
The format is simple: Arrange chairs in a circle. Provide an introduction to the issue at hand, and to the format of the circle. Then invite each person in turn to share what they are thinking and feeling.
Give each person a few minutes to say whatever they want to say - or to pass. When one person is speaking, the others in the group should pay close attention but not comment. The circle is over after every person has had a chance to speak. Often going around the circle more than once allows those who pass on the first go-round to collect their thoughts and feelings so that they can share in the next round.
(grades 4 and up)
One way to support young people (4th grade and older) in dealing with emotionally laden and controversial issues is to start with a small group experience called a "microlab." In a microlab, people gain understanding through speaking and listening. It is not a time for discussion or dialogue; rather each person has a short time (one to three minutes depending on students' age) to speak in response to a question. When a person is speaking, the others in the group - usually only two or three others - should listen only and not interrupt.
1. Divide the class into groups of three or four using puzzle pieces, number cards, or by counting off.
Ask participants to arrange themselves in their small groups so that each person can easily see and hear everyone else in the group.
2. Before you begin, explain the guidelines for a microlab:
- It's okay to pass if you need more time to think or would rather not respond.
- This is a timed activity. I will let you know when it is time to move on to the next speaker. You will each have one [or two or three] minutes to speak.
- Speak from your own point of view.
- Be your own barometer - share as much as you feel comfortable sharing.
- Confidentiality is important, especially when we come back together as a large group. We need to agree that what we share among ourselves in the small group will stay private.
3. Introduce your first microlab question.
(Use the questions above or create your own.) In introducing each question, it's usually helpful to say the question, then give some specifics about the question or model answering the question yourself, and then repeat the question again. This gives participants some time to think about what they would like to say. In between microlab questions, you may want to remind people to try not to interrupt or engage in dialogue.
4. Reconvene the full group.
Ask students how the microlab was for them. Then ask for volunteers to share something they said or felt in their microlab. Remind participants of the need for confidentiality - each person should only speak from his or her experience.
This sharing may lead to a wider classroom discussion. If the issue is a volatile one, discussions can sometimes get heated. If you decide to open up the topic, it would be a good idea to establish some guidelines for discussion or "community practices" ahead of time.
You may want to end the session by having the students brainstorm about questions they have on the issue that would lead to gathering information and further study.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." (Martin Luther King Jr.)
"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." (Mahatma Gandhi)
"In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another." (President Obama)
Guidelines for handling difficult issues in the classroom:
Responding to an Act of Violence in the News
Teaching about Controversial or Difficult Issues
Interrupting Oppressive Behavior
5 Tips for Teaching Current Events to Younger Students
More information on formats for discussions:
An Introduction to Circles
Engaging Your Class Through Groupwork
Microlab for Exploring Tough Issues
Awareness of Anger (elementary school)
Metaphors for Expressing Feelings (middle school)
Coping Strategies: Managing Feelings (middle school)