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Responding to Tragedy in the English Classroom

September 06, 2005

Hello again.

How should we respond in our professional role to the terrible events that are making life sheer hell for the people caught up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

When large scale natural disasters strike, I think it is unnatural to go about our business as if nothing had happened. These vast tragedies remind us all that we are vulnerable to forces outside our control . . .

. . . If you read my blog about lesson content you will know how much importance I attach to being sensitive to the way we choose content for lessons. When a tragedy of the proportions the people of the American deep south are experiencing occurs, it is natural for teachers and students to want to address the issues in class. The implications are very wide-reaching. The teacher could have family or friends affected directly.The students may live in areas that are vulnerable to similar catastrophes. Both teachers and students may feel a strong urge to do something to show support for victims. So how should we deal with these isssues in class?

I think this a situation when the teacher needs to respond to the students' demands. If you go in with prepared lesson material then you are open to the accusation of exploiting the tragedy for your academic goals. Instead, I think you need to let students explore their feelings, help them to express their reactions and answer their questions as far as you can. Resist the temptation to expose them to long real-time broadcasts. Once the students have explored their own reactions, move on to a practical step. Do they want to collect money for a relief organization? Would they like to send messages of support to the stricken area?

Our global village and common humanity demands that we respond to the suffering of those affected by disaster but it is important to find the right approach so that what you do in the classroom is appropriate for your students and respectful to those who are going through such terrible events.

Your thoughts?


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