Helping Kids Cope with the Incomprehensible

 A MiddleWeb Blog

Our lockdown drill during Safety Week has a new PA tone that sounds while we darken our classrooms and hide in the corners: a repeating screech like a World War II air raid klaxon.

This definitely has the advantage of providing “sound camouflage” (as explained to us by our superintendent), and ensuring kids know a lockdown is serious. On the flip side, I am old now, and the drill went on for 32 minutes. The phrase “my ears were ringing” has new meaning.

I try to check in formally with students after a lockdown drill, because I’m always surprised (although I shouldn’t be) about the amount of questions they have.

I have learned that their need to talk about shooter drills is not dependent on how much information they have received. I can explain the drill’s schematics six ways from Sunday with multi-sensory input and a thousand checks for understanding and it won’t decrease their level of questioning. Rather, their need to talk is driven by how much they need to process.

“What’s the point of a drill if the shooter is someone who knows how the drill runs?”

“What’s the point of hiding in the corner if the shooter has a weapon that can destroy doors and glass?”

Some of this is just the pure and often delightful orneriness of middle schoolers. Emerging into the formal operations stage of their psychological development, they are deeply concerned with justice, integrity, and hypocrisy. Asserting anything as “true” or factual to a middle schooler is shark bait, inviting their relentless gnawing to find all the loopholes and contradictions.

But some of it, I sense, is what happens when you give students permission to talk about what’s really on their minds. “Any questions about the drill?” might be greeted with a few seconds of silence and shaking heads, but once the ice is broken…. ‘I’m asking,” I say, “because it can be weird or scary to experience, and I want to make sure you feel like you have all the information you need.” Then the talk starts. And goes on. And on.

“What’s the point of collecting our phones when we could help by calling the police?”

“What’s the point of turning off the lights when the shooter can see into the classroom anyway?”

We are nothing but our stories

The essential question of the drill conversations this year was definitely “What’s the point?” I tell them the point is the series of events we practice, working in concert, that are designed to slow down and stop a person intent on harm.

One of my boys smiles. “So we’re basically trying to knock down the bad guy’s kill number.”  More kids embroider the idea. And I watch as a young adult community, in real time, takes up a story that transforms the drill into something they can participate in without overwhelming terror, something they can handle.

There’s so much I could choose to do, at this moment, and it all runs through my head. I should snap at them to stop making light of drills, maybe. Tell them to stop questioning the choices that could save their lives.

Or, perhaps, instead, I need to recognize the painful truths that they already know: that no single step we take will stop a shooter, that no drill is foolproof. “We’re knocking it down to zero,” I say at last to the boy. “Each part of the drill helps prevent the bad guys from doing anything at all.”

There’s no right answer to how to help kids come through a shooter drill feeling happy, safe and confident, because this is impossible. But I do believe some of the answer is to guide them using their own ways of making sense out of an incomprehensible situation, through their own metaphors and stories. After all, this is what I am doing, writing this story for you.

This is what adults do – the adults our students are trying, and hoping, to become.

Dina Strasser

Dina Strasser is a veteran educator of 20 years, 14 of those as a middle school ELA/ELL teacher. For six years she worked in many capacities at the non-profit group EL Education. Now she's back in the classroom, and this year she’ll be teaching middle and high school English language learners. Her early experiments with dirt have progressed into a lifelong love of the outdoors.

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