Open Classrooms, Open Hearts: Making Room For Everyone

Broken hearts

Today’s post deals with the difficult subject of violence in our schools and the recent school shootings. It’s a hard topic to bring up, but it feels important, so here we go.

In 2008 I went to work for a small private college. I had a beautiful office on the first floor of an old building, with high ceilings, a glass door, and a big window that looked out across the quiet, green campus.

During my first week, I met with the head of campus security for a crash course in the protocol for emergency response and the campus notification system. We spent most of the meeting talking about weather—under what circumstances classes would be delayed or campus closed and how students would be notified—standard stuff. But then we veered into a realm I was unprepared for, what to do in the event of an active shooter. The Virginia Tech shooting had happened the year before and campuses all over the country were wrestling with this new threat. The security director looked around my peaceful office and asked me what I would do if I heard gunshots in the building. Hide behind the desk? No, it’s a straight shot from the door with its glass window and a bullet will pierce the wood. Better to be in the corner at the front of the room and, if there’s time, to push the bookcase in front of the door. Do not go into the hallway. Do not try to jump from the window and run to the parking lot. Stay put. Stay quiet. Wait.

I’m reminded of this training every time a violent incident occurs on a school campus. Just one month ago, a former student walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and in six short minutes, he killed 17 people and injured 17 others. The reports from within the school were harrowing. Kids were capturing the terror in real time and broadcasting on social media. Two teachers sacrificed their lives for the safety of their students.

The day after the Parkland shooting, I joined millions of parents across the country who rushed through the morning routine to drop off kids off at school. Waiting in the drop-off line, listening to the radio we heard a student tell their story of survival. The juxtaposition was intense. I looked at my kids running with their classmates into school, the amazing teachers I trust to care for and shape my kids’ lives, the rockstar principal who knows every student by name, and found myself anxious and scared for their safety.  

While the odds are that none of us will personally experience the trauma and loss of Newtown, Parkland, or Virginia Tech, collectively we are witness to a growing epidemic of violence in schools. Each tragic event sparks a debate about why shootings happen, what we can do as a nation and how to prepare for what seems to be the inevitable. Teachers across the country are forced to look around their classrooms and think, “What if it happened here?” and to make plans for what they would do in the event of a shooting. Where they would go, what they would do, how they could protect their students.

So that’s the sorry state of affairs, with our schools at the nexus of a debate about guns and safety, and teachers and children being asked to carry the kind of responsibility and stress we typically expect from soldiers or public safety officers. Ignoring the situation won’t make it go away, so we have to find the courage to address it. Talking about violence in schools is hard. It’s emotional and there’s a huge range of responses and ideas about what we should do to make schools safer. As parents and educators we have a responsibility to make room for kids to participate in this dialogue, to examine our own feelings, and to help students explore theirs in a safe, respectful environment.

With that in mind, here are some ideas for how to get started:

Prepare yourself

Before opening the conversation, make sure you feel ready with questions, facts, and resources to help guide the discussion. Take a moment to ask yourself how you feel about the subject and to explore your own point of view. Understanding your own perspective and potential triggers can help you avoid censoring students or reacting negatively in the heat of discussion.

Create a safe, respectful, supportive environment

Sometimes students don’t participate in discussions about sensitive issues because they worry that they will be teased, their opinions will be ridiculed, or strong feelings will arise because the topic hits close to home. Make it clear that there’s room for all views and moderate the discussion, encouraging everyone to participate.

Establish a baseline

You can’t move forward with a discussion until you understand where you’re beginning. Use Pear Deck to have students write down their thoughts and share them anonymously. Ask them what they think they know and what they want to know. Ask them where that information came from and to examine their sources. Have students ask themselves "What do I know, and how do I know it?”

Go deeper

While there’s plenty to unpack in any individual event, try introducing deeper, more abstract questions. Talking about the actions of an individual who has acted violently is important, but asking “Why do people hurt each other?” pushes students to move beyond the news into a deeper understanding of the human condition. Help students make connections between the topic at hand and their own lives. How does the issue affect them,their family, friends, or community? Why should they care? If there is no obvious connection, help them make connections by thinking about what else they know about.

Keep it open  

Encourage students to question their own views and to remain open to different points of view. Try having students take up the opposite viewpoint from the one they hold and ask them to imagine what someone with that viewpoint would say and why. Talking about difficult subjects is hard because it’s hard! These are big, messy, complicated and emotionally-charged subjects. Give students time to express themselves and try various kinds of group discussions to allow multiple perspectives to be heard.


Be heard

If the issue you’re discussing lends itself to further steps, ask students to identify ways they could channel emotional reactions into an action. From writing letters, calling or texting their representatives, to raising money, participating in demonstrations, or writing articles, there are so many ways to get involved. Encouraging students to find their voice and use it is critical for shaping engaged, active citizens.


For more tips on discussing hard topics with your class, our Chief Educator has a great post on Discussing Hard Topics With Students and a ready-to-go-Pear Deck to get started.   

Today's post was written by VP of Marketing, Kate Beihl.