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Discussions, Reassurances Mark Teachers' Responses to Attacks
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As many students enter classrooms this week, their heads filled with television images of the attack on the Pentagon and the destruction of the World Trade Center, teachers are using discussions, reassurances, hands-on help, and opportunities to talk to help students cope. Included: Teachers and administrators share how they are helping students deal with the terrorist attacks.

As youngsters across the country arrived at school with questions and concerns about the terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York City this week, teachers tell Education World they are providing students with facts about the event, reassurances about their safety, and opportunities to talk about their fears.

Virtual non-stop television coverage of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City and the attack on the Pentagon Tuesday made it almost impossible for children or adults not to hear the reports. Staff at some schools opted to keep the news from youngsters on the day of the attack, and others began discussions almost right away.

Teachers and principals at most schools, though, said they planned to have discussions about the incident in classes throughout the week.

"Children and adults grieve in different ways and on different time lines," said David Goldsmith, a fourth-grade teacher at Jeffrey Intermediate School in Madison, Connecticut, a suburb of New York City. "Just because a kid is OK today does not mean he'll be OK tomorrow. Some kids may not be sad for many days."


At Jeffrey, which has an enrollment of 600 fourth and fifth graders, staff decided not to tell youngsters about the attacks on Tuesday, feeling it was more appropriate for the news to come from parents, school psychologist Ellie Cleaver told Education World. "We decided it would panic them more than help them to know what was going on."

On Wednesday, the day after the attacks, the school staff held assemblies for each of the two fourth grade and fifth grade teams, during which principal Jean Stein told the children that their school and their teams were like families that support their members, the school was a safe place, and they would have chances over the next few days to talk about the incidents.

Students' concerns mostly had to do with their security, Cleaver said. "They wanted to know if the school was safe, if Madison was safe, and if they ever should get on an airplane again," she said.

Discussions continued in classrooms, where Goldsmith said he asked his 23 students how much they knew about the attacks and tried to help them understand the facts. Then he let their concerns direct the conversation. As for air travel, Goldsmith said he told his students that airplanes will not be allowed to fly again until the government is sure they are as safe as they can possibly be.

He also stressed that no one has been charged with the attacks yet and it is important not to confuse the acts of groups with those of individuals.

A similar message came from teachers at an Oklahoma middle school. "We spent some time first thing Wednesday morning trying to answer questions calmly, reminding our students not to jump to conclusions, and, especially, not to judge our fellow students of Middle Eastern descent," said Jan Jewell, a teacher at Cheyenne Middle School in Oklahoma City.

In Madison, many of the children have parents who work in New York City, and the attacks had direct impact on their lives. One student told Goldsmith that his father had been scheduled to attend a meeting in the World Trade Center Tuesday morning -- but it was canceled. Another student's mother was unable to fly home from a trip because all flights in the country were grounded.

"We will continue to check in on it, based on what they see on television during the week," Goldsmith said. Cleaver said staff members also are asking parents not to constantly watch television reports of the attacks, because it can be too much information for children to process.


For some other teachers, the chore is not just helping their students cope, but dealing with their own grief as well.

Susan Hurstcalderone, a middle school science teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Bethesda, Maryland, said she learned that a Washington (D.C.) sixth-grade teacher she knew perished on the airplane that crashed into the Pentagon. The teacher was one of three teachers from the area accompanying students on a field study sponsored by a national agency.

The teacher, whose name has not yet been released, had emigrated from Sierra Leone, and relished her freedom in the U.S., Hurstcalderone said. She added that her friend constantly worried about the safety of her family members still in Sierra Leone.

"It's just hard to imagine that life would deal her this as well," Hurstcalderone told Education World. "I can't imagine how her students will deal with this and I can't imagine life without her."

At Hurstcalderone's own K-8 school, where many students and faculty have family members who work at the Pentagon, staff told the students about the attacks Tuesday and then waited for questions. "Most reacted with sheer disbelief," she said. "They asked, 'How could this happen?' 'How could anyone get to the Pentagon?'"

One response faculty gave is that because the United States is a free society and does not condone severe security measures, the country is more vulnerable, Hurstcalderone said. Students remained in school and held small group discussions, and a Mass was celebrated.

"In that sense, I'm glad they were with me," Hurstcalderone said of the decision to keep school open Tuesday, although it was closed Wednesday, as were all schools in Montgomery County, Maryland. "I think it was better to have them with us than home alone watching images on television."


Others, who know the pain of terrorism, want to find a tangible way to let the children in New York City and Washington know they are thinking of them.

Jewell, of Oklahoma City, said her students feel particular empathy for the residents of New York City and Washington because the memories of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building there is still fresh in their memories. The school's "Cheyenne Council," a daily 20-minute advisory program, plans to collect teddy bears and make cards to attach to them. A local newspaper and television station are co-sponsoring the drive to ensure that every elementary school student in New York City and Washington, D.C., receives a teddy bear, she said.

Teachers in some schools, like the one in Madison, also are turning to their experience in dealing with other crises to help students through this one, Cleaver, the school psychologist said.

But the magnitude of Tuesday's attack still is hard to put into perspective, let alone a lesson. "I don't think any of us could have anticipated this," Hurstcalderone said. "But now is the time to draw together and support each other."