Holding Space in a Moment of Crisis
Along with their parents, teachers are often the “first responders” for students when a major national crisis takes place. It can be difficult or impossible to have a normal class in the wake of a traumatic or disruptive event.
Creating a space of self-reflection, deep listening, and open sharing in the classroom can proactively invite students to process and discuss crises in healthy ways. What could be a moment of trauma and division can become, instead, an opportunity for connection, empowerment, and mutual support.
Adapted for the classroom from EP’s Reflective Structured Dialogue approach, the tools below can be used to create a dialogic space in your classroom after a disruptive event.
Be transparent. Name the event, outline the process.
Whether it’s an event in the national news or a challenging paragraph in a text you are reading together, transparently name the disruption that you know the class is feeling. This offers permission for students to acknowledge and begin to process their emotions. It may also relieve tension about whether you’ll pretend that nothing is amiss.
Depending on the circumstance, you might also acknowledge your own emotional response too, even if you don’t go into details about what those emotions are.
Many people dive into work or school to avoid the difficult feelings that a crisis can raise. Being transparent and naming the disruption hits the pause button on business-as-usual. It signals that this is going to be a different kind of space, at least for now.
You can further the work of creating a new kind of space by letting the class know the process of this structured, reflective exercise. You can use this time to preview what the students will be asked to do. This could be a general outline or include some specific examples. The purpose here is to provide some clarity, certainty, and security.
Give direction and time for reflection.
Reflection without purpose and direction can veer into a blank staring and long silences. An anchor for reflection provides focus.
Below are two sets of anchors that you can use to guide the students’ reflections. The first is a set of questions that can be used as either journal prompts or as the questions for a timed and structured go-around:
- How have you been impacted by what happened? What feels most at stake? What would you like others to understand about what matters most to you about this event?
- Where do you feel stuck or what dilemma does this moment bring up for you? What does this dilemma tell you about what you think is important or a value that you hold?
The second anchor is more abstract. Display a set of images for the students to look at (printed out or shared in a digital folder). Ask the students to respond to one of these question prompts:
- Find an image that reflects how you are feeling right now after what happened.
- Find an image that represents an alternative vision you have for what could be possible.
Reflection is also a process that can take time. Some students will have something to share immediately, but others might need a few minutes to collect their thoughts and explore their own feelings. Be sure to provide quiet time for individual reflection and for students to make notes before inviting them to share.
Structure the group sharing.
If you have time for the students to share some of their reflections, a structure can maintain the space you have worked to create. It underscores that this isn’t a usual class, and limits the dynamics of debate and argument. Some recommended structures are:
- Allowing students are able to pass if they don’t feel ready or comfortable sharing
- Making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to share/speak (especially if you plan to have a less structured conversation afterwards)
- Pausing briefly to let the group hear and process what someone has said before moving on to the next speaker
- Letting students know the order they will be invited to share (especially online) by announcing a rolling “batting order”—first Jim, then Cassie, then Alejandra—which encourages students to be prepared to speak when it’s their turn
Set aside time to close in an intentional way.
As we encourage students to develop social-emotional skills, we also teach them how to bring closure to these difficult moments in order to re-enter day-to-day activities.
It can be tempting to follow the flow of a discussion at the expense of watching the clock—only to have the bell ring and class abruptly end. That can be disorienting for students, and hard for them to transition. Allow time at the end of your class or exercise for a closing activity. This should invite students to process and synthesize what they’ve heard from others and discovered about themselves. Here are several examples of closing prompts:
- Thinking about what’s been said here today, what is one hope you have for us as a nation going into this new year?
- Write down on a post-it note (to post on the wall of the room) one theme from what you’ve heard shared here today that you want the community to remember.
- Share one thing that you’ve heard shared here today that you want to take with you into this week.
- Reflecting on everything you’ve thought about, shared about and heard today, what is one word or phrase that describes what you want to remember moving forward.
Creating a dialogic space for students to reflect and share lets them reconnect with their internal strengths and resources in crisis moments—skills that will serve them throughout their lives. It helps them make meaning from difficult and disruptive events. And it encourages reflection on the way students want to engage with the world around them.
As always, we are here to support you. If you need more help holding difficult classroom discussions, please reach out.