I was teaching 2nd and 3rd-grade children on 9/11/2001. Actually, I wouldn’t call it teaching. The second tower fell while children arrived for school. That morning felt as if we had a torrential storm brewing somewhere on the horizon, but we couldn’t see it, nor did we know when it would hit.
As my students filed into class, it was clear we were shaken. One child had a grandmother who lived in NYC. The children chattered about what they had seen and heard, trying to make sense of it. I was trying to figure out how I could teach any of the lessons scheduled for the day.
We all knew something big was happening. I set aside my instructional goals for the day, knowing none of us could focus on academics.
Instead, we read stories, wrote in journals, drew pictures, and allowed ourselves to be and feel however we needed.
Skipping forward to June a couple years later, I received an early morning phone call informing me that a child in our class had died in a car accident. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my students, so our principal broke the news. I felt their eyes on me as I cried silently.
Another day of instructional plans gone. Several students cleaned out Holden’s desk. We all wrote letters to his mom. We grieved. We held space for each other.
I don’t know this for sure, but I doubt any of us have forgotten those days. The memories linger, not just because of the trauma, but because of what we learned about ourselves.
The most important lessons we learned had little to do with academics, but everything to do with learning about what makes us human.
We learned how to grieve, mourn, and support each other.
We learned that it’s okay to cry, that each of us has value, that school is about more than academics, that the most important lessons are the ones that help us become better humans, and that none of us are guaranteed tomorrow.
Sometimes we need to stop the world long enough to process grief through art, writing, storytelling, gardening, baking, dance, and other creative outlets known to help our brains heal.
Twenty years later, I’m reminded children of the pandemic never stopped learning. They just learned different things. Whether kids will process and apply their learning in healthy and beneficial ways is up to us.
Just as my students and I worked through the unimaginable and grew together into better people, children of the pandemic will do the same if we allow them the space they need to grow.
If we can engage students by working through real-world issues, and simultaneously let go of what we adults think school is “supposed” to be, children will rise to the occasion and become resilient, empathic, complex-problem-solvers.
Kids need space to process enormous change as it’s happening, just as adults do. Exhibit A: the amount of hobbies new and old that brought joy and stability while the pandemic changed life as we knew it.
We have what is perhaps the biggest opportunity in history to fix the world’s most complex problems by leveraging children’s out-of-the-box thinking. But we’ll have to let go of the status quo and trust decades of research on innovative, trauma-informed teaching strategies in order to get there.
After seeing what children are capable of when allowed a safe place to grow and learn, I’m hopeful for a better tomorrow. The trick is letting go of how we think things should be to see how they are, and what they could be.