This past week’s tragedies in France and Beirut have brought terrorism home again for Americans. While my heart breaks for all of the victims of mideast violence, the attacks in Paris hit me hard. I think many Americans felt the same way. Yes, there is a curious phenomenon going on when the attacks in Beirut get a smidge of the attention as the Paris attacks, but we do pay more attention when things seem closer to home. The murder in our neighborhood seems more tragic than the one in Manhattan. Likewise, the Paris attacks were more real to me because I have been there. I know people who live and work in Paris. I have walked some of the streets that were scenes of tragedy.
But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about how we talk about tragedy and its aftermath with children. In the past days, I have seen several excellent articles, including this one by Common Sense Media, which outline how to discuss world tragedies in the news with students. I want to talk a little bit about our role as teachers and how students look to us to make sense of things.
On 9/11, I remember discussing the events of the morning with startled and shocked ninth graders. We discussed who did it (guesses), the motivations (conjecture), and what would happen in retaliation (supposition). In retrospect, my role should have been to help them understand that some events are very complex and can’t be explained easily. I’d like to think I did that, but I didn’t. I gave my opinions. I entertained theories about what had happened. I never admitted I didn’t know much more than they did.
Following the tragedies of this week, my heart and mind have been troubled by a flood of voices with solutions. Social media and news media have carried these voices farther and projected them louder than they might have been in 2001, but those voices are almost all knee-jerk reactions with dubious understanding of the world or the people in it. In other words, everyone has an opinion. When you don’t, it begs you to form one on the quick. That isn’t a really great environment for processing.
We need to tell students that it is ok not to know how to feel about a tragedy like we saw this week. It’s ok not to know how one might solve the problem of terrorism. We don’t have to. That isn’t a prime responsibility of a student in school. We need to admit that we don’t know much about it, because we know we don’t. Most of us don’t know much about the real politics of the middle east. Even social studies teachers have a limited understanding at best. Sure, it may be a teachable moment, but in truth, very few schools have an expert in Mideast policy on staff. We need to encourage them to listen carefully to what they hear, and also think very critically about the motivations behind the messages. We need to let them know that most people who speak on the subject don’t know much more than they do. We need to caution them against racism and xenophobia borne of fear. We need to let them know that people are often motivated by events such as these to push an alternate agenda. We need to let them know that they don’t have to form an opinion right now. It’s ok not to know.
We need to teach that some things are too complicated for a simple answer. What’s more, we need to make kids wary of anyone who claims there is a simple answer. The politics of the middle east are a puzzle that the top minds in governments around the world struggle to understand, and we need students to realize that for all the talk and vitriol that follows an act of violence, that very few people really know what they are talking about.
We need to help our students understand that it’s ok not to know what to make of violence and tragedy. We need to help them see the human side of tragedy and strife, and leave the empty conjecture and armchair politicking for the talking heads on cable news. We need to remind them, as Common Sense Media suggests, that they are safe and that their confusion is normal and healthy. In the grand scheme of things, this is confusing and emotionally troubling for all of us.