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Lesson plan: How to talk as a classroom about gun violence in schools

May 27, 2022

Handwritten messages are left at the memorial site at the memorial site on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, outside Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich., after a 15-year-old allegedly killed these four classmates, and injured seven others in a shooting inside the northern Oakland County school one week earlier. Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP, File

Lesson by Kate Stevens. For a google doc version of this lesson, click here.

While mental health is often at the forefront of these discussions, the way we discuss them with students can either destigmatize mental health, or further stigmatize the issue. Check out “Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies” and consider how you might design lessons that engage students through a trauma-informed lens. 

Warm Up & Watch (15-20 mins)

Start with the facts. If needed, offer a recap of what happened, where it happened and other factual & verified information. Give students a place to ask questions and clarify what they know (and what may be rumors or misinformation). Note that new information about the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, is emerging every day. You can find the latest updates here.

You may want to prepare the students for watching the latest news by starting with the following video:

In this segment from Student Reporting Labs, hear from Michigan educators following the 2021 school shooting in Oxford, Michigan: How Michigan educators are talking to students about the Oxford school shooting (3 minutes). Allow participants space and time to share their thoughts, reactions or feelings.

While watching, ask learners to listen deeply; notice what common themes or messages emerge from those speaking. What stood out or resonated to you as you listened? Why? Invite participants to share out after being given some time to write & reflect. (This is a great opportunity to turn and talk to a partner, exchange ideas and have partners share out.)

Option 1: Respond in notebooks. Possible Prompts: What do students know about what happened? What did they hear or see, which may or may not be factual? How do they feel about the latest school shooting, school safety or how they respond to such instances of community violence? Set aside any additional time to catch up on the known facts, and clarify with participants. Choose the thinking prompts that best meet the needs of participants. 

Option 2: Facilitate a class conversation or circle. What do participants notice? What do they wonder? What and how do they feel? Invite participants to share, and establish norms for discussing vulnerable topics. 

  • Some helpful norms may include: Starting and ending with deep breaths, only one person may speak at a time, establishing the purpose for the conversation (ex: to listen, not to debate), thanking people for sharing. 

Main Activity

Processing tragedy, school shootings and community violence looks different for everyone; however, there are some fundamental strategies for supporting communities & individuals in the wake of trauma. As an educator, remember to make time for yourself too. You can’t pour from an empty cup. 

In this main activity, students will learn about Psychological First Aid, create their own first aid kit, and have an opportunity to learn about & share resources available to them.  

Learn: Your students probably noticed a common theme among the educators interviewed in the segment above, which was the focus on healing and supporting individuals impacted by the shooting. Some teachers expressed how crucial listening is, others expressed being steadfast and predictable. One of the ways we can frame “taking care of ourselves” is creating a mental health or Psychological First Aid kit.

Source: Learning for Justice & U.S. Department of Homeland Security 

Psychological First Aid guidelines, including the US Department of Homeland Security’s “Listen, Protect, Connect, Model & Teach,” help pivot communities toward healing, and provide guidance for how to process. 

Whole Group: Introduce students to the Listen, Protect, Connect, Model & Teach framework, and learn the basic principles of each area. Share the graphic in this doc with your students. 

  • As a whole group or in small groups, generate some examples of each aspect and collect the ideas on the board or in notebooks. 
  • What are some examples of the opposite? For example, what might it look like to be a poor listener? Or to not have healthy boundaries? (Ex: When I use Snapchat to stay connected with my friends and get support vs. when I mindlessly scroll or feel drained or bad after spending time on social media.)

Apply: Now that participants have some familiarity with Psychological First Aid, ask them to reflect and construct their own first aid tool kit. Prompts and writing space are available on the doc available here. What can they add? What has helped in the past? What ideas from the group brainstorm may they refine or envision in their life? 

  • Students can be as creative as they can imagine with this task (i.e.  brochure, slideshow, infographic, poster, etc.) or keep it as simple as creating a chart in their notebooks with emojis or icons to help connect ideas.Students can use the following questions to help generate ideas about each step of the Psychological First Aid tool kit.

Note: Since this is a student’s first aid kit, you may wish to determine if you’re collecting this task to respect student privacy. There may be important ideas on a student’s first aid kit that they may not be comfortable sharing with others. 

Reflect and discuss: After students complete their first aid kits, ask if any students are comfortable sharing some of their ideas or have any suggestions for the community first aid kid, and where they may want support (as individuals, or as a community). This is a great opportunity for the facilitator to share their own strategies (model & teach) that work for them. Affirm that it is normal and okay to feel what they feel, and that no one has to share anything from their first aid kit if they do not wish to (respecting student privacy). 

  • What resources are available in and out of school? Who can they go to and how can a student get connected with those resources?
  • How can they support the community, both their close friends and peers they don’t know at all as they pass them in the hallway? 
  • What have they noticed or seen from their own communities (or other communities) in carrying on and picking up the pieces after community violence?  

Closing: After concluding the lesson, try collecting 1-2 key takeaways from students as an exit ticket. Or, if students are comfortable sharing, ask them to share ideas that benefit the whole community first aid kit. 

Optional extensions

  • Classroom Voices: How do teens want to solve America’s school shooting problem? In this story, originally published in 2018, middle and high school students shared their thoughts on gun violence with NewsHour after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. 
  • Discover: What resources and services are available for participants if they are concerned about a friend or classmates hurting themselves or others? Connect with your school’s counselors, mental health team or community resources. Share these directly with participants, especially upon concluding traumatic topics.
  • Discuss: To understand gun policy in the U.S. and hear from lawmakers on what gun regulations are under debate, see this story and this story.

Kate Stevens, M.S. in Curriculum & Instruction, is a high school language arts educator.  An instructional coach, global professional development leader, and former photojournalist, she currently teaches & coaches in Poudre School District (Fort Collins, CO). In 2015, Kate was honored with Colorado Department of Education’s Online & Blended Teacher of the Year. Connect with Kate on Twitter @KateTeaching.