Getting Kids to Write About Tragedy
I had intended to post this week on a new idea we have for assessment of writing. I will post that next week. Events have overshadowed and overtaken that plan.
On Jan. 17 a 16-year-old sophomore in Brattleboro, VT, took her own life. Few knew outside the immediate community because it was a holiday and she had died at home. News organizations rarely report about a private suicide.
On Jan. 18, 200 miles away, a 15-year-old boy shot himself in a bathroom of his high school in northern Vermont. His death was more visible; since it occurred in the public school, it was widely reported in the news. And then, as word trickled out, the girl’s death was also reported.
Both were good students. Both were good athletes. Both were, by all accounts, well-liked and outgoing. They were energetic achievers. Their deaths were shocking, and since Vermont is such a small state, they were shocking to everyone.
Young Writers Project runs a student-led site for teens: youngwritersproject.org, and we kept the students updated about the tragedies and encouraged students to share their memories, their feelings, their grief, their confusion. Sadly, we had done the same thing in 2009 when another 15-year-old boy, a top student, athlete and musician, shot himself on school grounds.
We were overwhelmed then and now by the earnestness and openness of the students, by their respect for each other and by the complexity of their thoughts. Some were straightforward in their sorrow – either because the girl or the boy were friends. Some grieved for people they did not know. Some tried to make sense of it. Some wondered about some of their own friends’ states of mind.
Other teens expressed anger – at adults for arguing about what should have been done to prevent them or about what the schools should have done in response. They expressed irritation at their peers for being overwrought, for, almost, rushing to immerse themselves in the sorrow.
A few even wrote pieces imagining themselves actually doing what these two fine people had done. Hauntingly, YWP had even published one of the girl’s poems in 2009 as part of our Newspaper Series; reading it now, it is eerie and heart-breaking.
It is a widespread belief by professional counselors that talking, sharing, opening up helps students – and adults for that matter – cope with sudden, tragic events. They also counsel kids to not assume that you are OK, but to reach out and talk with anyone.
YWP feels it provides a small service to these kids. We are honored to do it. But what should schools do in situations like this?
I spoke to a lot of teachers that week. Some were directly involved – in the same school systems, same schools or, even, at schools where the students had previously been. At the schools directly involved, counselors were brought in for students – and for adults. In related schools, teachers were alerted early; many told their students about the deaths – not the method, just the fact that they were gone. They directed the kids to information about counseling if they needed it.
One school talked to the kids about the girl – who many knew – and about the fact she’d taken her own life. All else stopped; for several days, whenever the kids wanted, they would talk about it. “We didn’t want them just talking in the halls,” the teacher said.
It appears that none of the schools that I know of got their students to write about it. I talked it over with practicing teachers in my two Master’s classes and while most agreed it was a good idea, they felt the incidents were too far away – not directly on the kids’ minds – and didn’t seem appropriate. A couple remarked that their school systems would never allow it. All of the teachers, though, thought it would be a good idea.
In no way am I criticizing the fine, well-meaning professionals who had to cope with the teens’ deaths – directly or indirectly. But I do think it’s time schools begin to think about bringing these topics more front and center and to think about using writing as a salve. Face it: the Internet connects student communities outside of school like never before. And writing is a great clarifier; it helps students figure out what they are thinking; it develops their own critical thinking.
And when this writing is done in digital classrooms, it is open. A very valuable exercise in my mind.
I agree with the teacher who said she didn’t want to have the discussion confined to hallway whispering: As educators we have an obligation to help kids face things head on.
If you wish to look at what kids wrote outside of school about these two tragedies, go to http://youngwritersproject.org/connor.leah.
Geoffrey Gevalt is founder of Young Writers Project, a small nonprofit in Vermont that works with hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in an effort to improve students’ writing skills and digital literacy. To see the project’s work, visit youngwritersproject.org, digitalteachers.net or ywpschools.net He can be reached at ggevalt (at) youngwritersproject.org or 802-324-9537