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Newtown: From Grief, a Chance to Teach & Learn

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Newtown is the documentary that no one wants to watch, but everyone needs to watch. The horror that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14, 2012 was devastating. We all heard the shocking news that day—the news that 20 small, innocent children and 6 adult staff members were fatally shot in a mass shooting incident. It broke my heart then, but it wasn’t until viewing this incredible film that it truly hit home. The testimonies of so many families and community members broken by this event are something I will never forget.

I am many things to many people, but most know me as a first-grade teacher and mother to Madeline, my sweet, one-year-old, loving daughter. I had the opportunity to screen Newtown earlier this month at SXSW Edu. I sat in the theatre and wept for everyone in Newtown, but especially for the families that lost their loved ones.  

As I left the theatre following the screening, the first thing I did was send a group text to my team of fellow first grade teachers.  I didn’t know where to begin or what to say, but I knew something needed to be said.  My text simply read,  “Just watched a screening of Newtown.  Devastating. Hug your kiddos a little tighter tomorrow morning.”

It was all I could think of.  I didn’t feel my text did the film or the Sandy Hook community justice, but I’m not sure there is anything that could.  But then it occurred to me: perhaps the best way to honor the lives of the children and educators who were taken that day is to talk about it—to keep the conversations going.  These discussions need to take place in our schools and communities, and we need to be real about what we can do to prevent tragedies like this from happening again.

The film’s description of the days that led up to the mass shooting, that horrific day, and the grief-filled days since, also provided a gut-wrenching reminder of my massive responsibility as an educator.  Of course, as educators, we are responsible for the academic and intellectual growth of our students, but our jobs don’t end there.  Our students, and the communities they grow up in, deserve more than that—as teachers, we are a frontline defense. 

 The gunman had been planning this shooting for over a year and there were clear signs that he was at risk of hurting himself and others.  This tragedy could have been prevented. These first grade children and their educators did not have to lose their lives. By watching this film, and taking advantage of the resources that are available, as educators, we can make a real difference.

A good place to start is the “It Starts With Hello” campaign developed by The Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit organization founded and led by several family members whose loved ones were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. The organization provides free education to identify, intervene and help at-risk individuals. This curriculum has a place in all schools and all communities.

In addition to providing tools to identify and help troubled individuals, it is vital that we teach the kindness and empathy skills in our classrooms and communities. These skills will ensure that we treat others with respect and will help us process and heal from the tragedies in our own lives.  PBS LearningMedia has developed an incredible collection called “Kindness, Empathy & Resilience” to aid in those discussions in schools, homes and communities.   With relatable characters like Daniel Tiger and Arthur, the tough conversations are a little easier.  

Here’s hoping that these lessons will be brought to the forefront and all our children will feel loved and included. As an educator, as a mother, it is my promise to the victims of Sandy Hook—I will do everything I can to prevent what happened in Newtown from happening in any other town.

Editor's Note: Independent Lens' Newtown premieres on PBS beginning April 3rd at 9pm. Check your local listings. 

Julie Hildebrand lives in Austin, Texas.  She teaches first grade at Patton Elementary in Austin Independent School District, and was a 2014 PBS Digital Innovator.

Julie Hildebrand

Julie Hildebrand First Grade Teacher

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