On Friday, March 15, 50 people were murdered in a terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. We mourn the victims, killed when they had come to pray in sacred spaces, and we are filled with sadness for those who have lost friends and loved ones. News of the horrific attacks has spread around the world, in many places emerging during the school day or just as students and teachers arrived in classrooms. Once again, as we all face news of devastating violence, educators have the added task of helping young people to process, understand, and reflect.
To many people, New Zealand may seem far away. Yet this attack is a reminder of the increasingly interconnected nature of our world. According to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, many of the victims were migrants and refugees making a new home in New Zealand, often after fleeing violence in their countries of origin. And from what we currently understand, the perpetrator was influenced by online networks of hate that promote racism, religious bigotry, and white nationalism. The ideology that appears to have motivated the murders in Christchurch is echoed in other acts of hate—in Norway, in Quebec, in London, in Charlottesville, in Pittsburgh, and in many other places around the world. We will explore these global connections in a forthcoming Teaching Idea on Facing History’s Current Events page.
Even as we wait for more details of the story to emerge, including the names and identities of victims and perpetrators, we are also sitting with many questions and emotions. In classrooms today, some students may feel fear, or anger and sadness, or terrible confusion. If you are a teacher, let your classroom be a place where students can stop and think, be present with their minds and their hearts, and ask questions—even those that may not have answers—within a supportive community of learners.
The following ideas may be helpful as you consider how to discuss this news in your classroom:
Let your students know that your classroom is a safe space. Begin with a brief contracting activity if you have not already forged that safe space. Then follow with acknowledgement. This is not a moment to go straight to the “head” or to cognitive work. Give your students a few moments to reflect and to write some of their feelings and questions. They could then share these with a peer. You might use the following writing prompt:
Events like the violent attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, are disturbing and painful to learn about. They prompt us to ask many questions, some of which may not have an answer. What questions does this event raise for you? What feelings does it provoke?
After they have had some time to process these events affectively, you might help them begin to wrestle with what happened. Perhaps begin with a K-W-L chart to help students distinguish fact from fiction and evaluate their sources of news and information. You could share a news article, like this one from the New York Times, if you think it would be helpful for students to have additional information. Remember to revisit the K-W-L chart in the coming days and weeks to add and clarify information as it becomes available.
Reflect on community responses to hate. Already, people are denouncing the attacks, offering support, and asserting inclusive norms and values. You might share New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s statement to those affected and ask students to consider: What is Prime Minister Ardern’s message for victims? For all New Zealanders? What does she want the country to represent?
Discuss with students:
- What can we do if we ourselves are feeling vulnerable?
- How can we stand with and support others who are feeling vulnerable?
- What are some meaningful actions we can take, even if only in our own home, neighborhood, or school?
We understand the enormity of the task facing teachers who are already juggling numerous responsibilities and are yet again charged with helping young people make sense of devastating events in the world around us. It is easy to feel disheartened, but we believe that making the classroom a community where students can learn, reflect, and respond to the world around them together is an essential part of educating and taking care of our young people.