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Teaching Through Tragedy and Conflict

Mon Mar 4, 2024 at 07:30 AM

Tragic events that occur locally, nationally, or globally can affect our students emotionally, physically, or cognitively even if they haven’t been involved personally (Huston & DiPetro, 2017). Although no perfect way exists to handle these potentially emotionally-charged situations, discussing the situation--even in small, simple ways--is better than ignoring the topic altogether (Pickering, 2021).

In In the Eye of the Storm: Students' Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy, Huston and DiPetro (2017) collected student responses to when faculty did or did not address a tragedy likely to affect students. When to carve out time to acknowledge an event proves challenging; however, your own feelings and reactions and other factors, such as proximity, magnitude, and direct impact, can serve as your guide. Having the right tools to help students navigate and begin processing the event itself and their reactions and emotions to it relies on faculty being responsive, supportive, and flexible.

Embedding Small Moments to Support Your Students

The practical guide When Tragedy Occurs in the Campus Community: Advice for Faculty and Staff offers an understanding as to how students might react and what we can do to support them. Whether you are teaching on-campus or online, embedding some of the suggestions below, which are derived from this guide, could help students feel supported. Sometimes, the small things you do make the most difference; the key is to acknowledge the emotions your students might be feeling and do what you can to be responsive. 

Acknowledge the Event and Initiate Discussion
Acknowledging the event itself can help initiate a dialogue that enables students to express their feelings and validate them. Oftentimes, students will ask questions to ascertain the facts or contexts before moving on to share their emotions. If you are unsure of the facts or contexts, find a few online sources to share with students. It is also important to express to students that the whys and hows behind an event may never be clear and even though we all want answers, we may never get them. 

Move the Discussion to Emotions
Remember that everyone processes information differently, so some students may express feelings of anger, skepticism, or denial; others, however, may indicate they are grieving or struggling. Invite students to share their personal responses by creating an opportunity with a statement:

 “It might help you begin to process the event by sharing how you feel and hearing how others feel as well” (Responding After a Tragedy). 

If students start debating, shift the conversation and remind students that everyone feels differently for different reasons.

Avoid the Blame Game
Some students may be more informed about the event than others or feel stronger about it as well. If students try to take over the discussion or start to dispute facts, feelings, or details, it might be a good idea to pivot the discussion with a statement such as the following:

 “We have been focusing on anger and blame and while that may be a part of the normal process, let’s stay focused on sharing the feelings you are experiencing.” 

Make Course Connections
Embedding aspects related to students’ feelings around a tragic event or uncertainty can help facilitate awareness or critical thinking about certain aspects. Having students move away from emotions to view the contexts or actions through a different lens can often help them process the tragedy. Online activities could include a reflection-oriented post or assignment; in-class, you could use small groups to explore contexts related to the event or some type of creative activity that allows students the chance to explore their feelings.

Adapt/Alter Cognitive Load
Depending on student reaction, you may want to consider being flexible with due dates or reduce workload for that day or week. Also, you may want to rethink introducing new material and/or expecting students’ to practice normal study habits. Holding a review session for the material you covered during the crisis may also be helpful. 

Remind Students about OU Campus Resources
You should remind students about the following OU resources to help them navigate emotional and mental health issues. You can post these links on your syllabus but emailing students, including in a forum thread, or noting on the assignments directions will serve as effective touchpoints for students to consider these resources. 

OU Counseling Center
OU Rec Well: Student Well-being 
OU SEHS Counseling Center 

References and Resources 

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the Eye of the Storm: Students’ Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy. To Improve the Academy, 25.

Pickering, R. M. (2021). Emotionally charged news in the classroom. In M. E. Kite, K. A. Case, & W. R. Williams (Eds.), Navigating difficult moments in teaching diversity and social justice (pp. 119–132). American Psychological Association. 

When Tragedy Occurs in the Campus Community: Advice for Faculty and Staff

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About the Author

Written by Rachel Smydra, Faculty Fellow in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Image by Matthias Groenveld. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC

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