It’s Time for an Honest Conversation

Archive from The Teacher Triathlete, September 10, 2016

A wise person once said, “We must prepare our kids for their world, their real world, not the world that we wished they lived in.”  

I wish I could remember who said this and where I was when I heard it. This simple idea had such a huge impact on my philosophy and practice as an educator ever since I heard it many years ago.

Throughout my almost two decades working in education with kiddos ages 5-12 and their parents, I’ve engaged in and facilitated many difficult conversations I never wanted to have.  We don’t get to choose or create the world we live in.  We also don’t get to choose the conversations that kiddos and parents initiate with us.  However, we do get to choose how we respond.  While I’d like to wish the bad away and only talk about fun and learning at school, that is not the world they live in.  It is not the world any of us live in.  School does not happen in a vacuum.  It happens in the reality of our world, and kids do not compartmentalize.  Let’s face it, we’re not very good at it either.  When reflecting on these hard conversations from over the years, I know I’ve made some missteps.  Yet, I always try to do my best when answering.  Sometimes my best is not ideal, but I keep trying… 

There was a shooting in Colorado. At a high school. There was a shooting at a high school! Kids are dead!”

A classroom mom franticly squealed during a conversation on April 20, 1999 as I was walking from the kindergarten classroom where I was a teacher’s aide to the parking lot.  I was speechless.  

“Christina, we’re under attack.”

During a tearful phone call around 6:30AM PST on September 11, 2001 with my dad as I was getting ready to drive to my first day as a student teacher in a kindergarten classroom.  I wanted to stay home that day.  I didn’t.  

“Why did this happen?”  Can it happen here?  I mean, are we safe?”

Asked by one of my third graders after our school-wide moment of silence around the flag pole on September 11, 2002.  I told them we were safe and that they had nothing to worry about.  I knew I was not being honest with them at the time.  I didn’t actually know if we were safe.

“Ms. Nosek, my dad told me we’re at war now.  What does that mean?”

Asked by a third grader during a whole class morning discussion in March of 2003.  I didn’t know how to respond.  I just told him that his dad is right and that the war was very far away.  

“Did you hear about what happened at Virginia Tech?  My dad was crying.  He went to school there.” 

A third grader told me in a conversation after school in April of 2007.  He then went on to talk about how he’s never seen his dad cry before and that it must have been really bad to make his dad cry.  My response was that it was an awful thing that happened and that I cried, too. 

“Ms. Nosek, are we going to talk about what happened in Connecticut at the school?”   

The first thing said to me as I opened the door for my fifth graders the first day after winter break, which was the first time I saw my students after the Sandy Hook tragedy.  My eyes immediately welled with tears.  We talked about it as a class for about 20 minutes that morning.  They all knew what had happened in an elementary school classroom just like ours.  They all knew what happened to kids just like them and to teachers just like me.  As the conversation went on, I choked many tears back.  I wasn’t ready for it then.  I’m still not today.

“Someone can jump the fence right outside our classroom. It’s a chain fence!  We’re not protected here.”

Overheard in conversation later on that same day between two of my fifth graders in January of 2013.  I wanted to assure them that we were safe and that they had nothing to worry about, but I didn’t.  I didn’t even believe it myself.  They would have known I was lying if I looked them in the eyes and told them they had nothing to fear.  Instead, I jumped in to their conversation to remind them that all of the adults at school are trained to do our best to keep everyone safe if something bad happens.  I even showed them the special door block locking mechanism on our classroom door.

“Why would two guys bomb a marathon?  The runners didn’t do anything! My mom runs marathons!

Asked by a student in April of 2013.  All I could say was that I just didn’t know, and that I had the same exact questions as her. 

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“What’s nine-eleven?  You mean like the emergency phone number?” 

“It’s when some guys crashed their planes into tall buildings in New York.”

“I never heard of it.  That actually happened?”

“It’s the terrorists.”

“We weren’t born yet, but my parents told me all about it a few years ago when we were watching the news.”

“My mom’s good friend was in the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.  He was a hero.  He tried to stop the hijackers.”

These were a few of the questions and comments from my fifth graders as I introduced last week’s issue of the 5th/6th grade edition of Scholastic News.  

Honestly, I was completely shocked that two of them had never even heard of September 11th while the others knew many of the details.  It’s amazing how in a diverse San Francisco Bay Area classroom of 10 and 11 year-old adolescents that some knew vivid details of our country’s most devastating day, one had family connections to someone lost, others knew about it without knowing the vivd details, and two of them didn’t even know it happened.  As a teacher, I knew it was time for one of those honest conversations.  By coincidence and good luck, Back to School Night was the following night.  I mentioned this conversation in my talk to their parents.  Many silently, slowly nodded.  A few just dropped their heads in sadness.  I could tell by the looks on many of their faces that they realized 5th grade was the year of a fine balance- the last year of an innocent and fun elementary childhood, but at the same time a year when their children will truly start realizing some of the scary realities of our world. Due to this, many hard conversations take place in fifth grade.

These conversations already happen between kids on our playgrounds, in our backyards, and in their homes.  In turn, they also must happen in our classrooms.  I wish they didn’t.  I really wish I could just get on with the business of teaching academics to kids. However, when a child has something difficult on her mind, there is no way academic learning can take place until the big issue is addressed.  When fear and uncertainty, or even just innocent curiosity, are overtaking a fifth grader’s thoughts, he won’t be able to focus on the math lesson until he gets the chance to safely explore his thinking.

In a world where Code Red Drills are now the norm for our kindergarten through college age students, it is our job as educators to help kids openly express their feelings and questions so we can help give them the tools and strategies they need to start trying to understand them. Even if we choose to ignore the reality our kids live in, they are still talking about it outside at recess, looking at YouTube videos at friends’ houses, and chatting about it with each other whenever they are out of earshot of adults. They already know we do not live in a perfectly safe world.  We’d be doing them a disservice to pretend any different.  Let’s stop pretending with our kids and start being honest with them so they can have a real opportunity in starting to right our world’s wrongs.  

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 7.49.00 AMIn kindergarten, this may involve things such as helping kiddos attain strategies to solve their own personal difficulties with sharing and using kind, helpful words.  In second grade, it may involve just listening and giving a warm hug when an individual child initiates a difficult one to one conversation.  In fifth grade, it will involve truly being honest with our kids when they ask questions, and providing a safe and caring space to talk about the fears they have about what’s going on in the world.  It will also involve letting the parents in on these conversations. When a difficult conversation is held in the classroom, it always warrants an email to invite parents in as collaborators.  In addition to holding open and honest conversations with our students and their parents, we can also turn to books.  On Monday, I plan to do a book talk with my fifth graders on both Nora Raleigh Baskin’s Nine, Ten and Jewel Parker Rhode’s Towers Falling. Both books are beautifully written realistic fiction stories where adolescents are the main characters. These two thoughtfully crafted stories can help upper elementary and middle school aged kids who may not be familiar with the attacks on September 11th understand the meaning of that day without being exposed to the graphic images and details that they will surely see one day soon, if they haven’t already. 

When we do not appropriately name and recognize the issues in our kids’ world, we are leaving them on their own to understand, and potentially, misunderstand them. Making a subject at school or home taboo will only increase a child’s natural curiosity about it.  Rather than dismissing or ignoring the issues in their world, let’s honestly acknowledge what they’re feeling and seeing so we can empower them to start taking the steps to make their world, our world, a better place. We owe it to them. 

Much Love, Friends  

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