Teaching beyond the Terror

Article excerpt

School superintendent Dan Gaetz spent last Tuesday in a whirlwind: reaching out to children in his district's 39 schools, fielding calls from people wanting to help, wondering how soon parents on the nearby military bases in Okaloosa County, Fla., might be called to duty.

The sudden, devastating violence that struck the United States last week forced Mr. Gaetz to draw on every skill he'd learned as an educator - including improvisation. And on Wednesday morning, he got at least one hint that his efforts under pressure may have paid off.

"A girl came up and shook my hand and said, 'Thank you for keeping school open,' " he says. She continued: "I know everything will be OK, because I'm coming to school today."

Repeated school shootings have forced educators to stockpile tools for dealing with student and community fears. But the scope of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington created unprecedented uncertainty.

"There is no template to apply to this situation," Gaetz says. "Do we go back and dust off reflections of educators from the day after Pearl Harbor?"

As it turns out, they did something close, seeking out moments to do what their job demands: Teach.

Quick on the heels of offering whatever comfort they could, they began to impart important lessons in everything from being helpful to avoiding stereotypes.

At first, of course, teachers faced immediate challenges: tracking down parents who were traveling or working at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, reassuring parents who came to school to pick up children. Some confronted the surreal: Middle-schoolers in Indianapolis, for example, couldn't distinguish at first between the towers collapsing on TV and the planned implosion of a city arena they had witnessed in June. In other classrooms, too, teachers had to explain to kids that what they had witnessed on television was not in any way "cool."

The unanswerable

Many teachers found themselves in the uncomfortable position of not having all the answers for their young charges.

For Rachel Henighan, who teaches at Stoddert Elementary School in Washington, D.C., the week yielded difficult lessons about the extent to which she can keep everything under control.

"You can usually answer all their questions, you can usually straighten things out," she says. "And you don't know, and you can't. It's not that it undermines their certainty in you, but it just makes it that much harder for a kid to cope with it, because somebody who usually can explain, can't."

Still, many teachers have worked hard to give children a sense of certainty and to teach them that even small gestures can be helpful.

On Wednesday, schools in Washington and New York were closed. But across the country at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, Calif., near Los Angeles, principal Nancy Whitson tried to set an example by purposefully engaging students.

Later, she says, students may explore the issue more academically. But her first step was to allow kids to talk with teachers and counselors about concerns. They also turned to writing letters of condolence and raising money for disaster relief.

Such efforts got under way rapidly in many schools. Kindergartners in Oklahoma City who were studying "friendship" for the week also drew pictures for the relief workers in New York. Two young sisters in Reno, Nev., started a penny drive for the Red Cross at their school.

In Okaloosa County, where community members reached out by carpeting school lawns with small US flags, Mr. Gaetz said it wasn't too early to capitalize on "teachable moments." Wednesday was Literacy Day, and he marked it by putting the local paper, with full coverage of the attacks, in the hands of all 30,000 district students. Some adults expressed reservations about confronting kids so bluntly. …