Discussing Traumatic Events
When a tragic, violent, or other powerfully emotional public event occurs, the impact on individuals and communities may reach your classroom whether you invite it or not. You may want to address the current event in class, or students may want to discuss it, or the subject may arise spontaneously because of your course content and its implications.
If you feel unprepared for a class discussion of an event, you may want to acknowledge the value of having that discussion but, in fact, defer discussion until you have a plan to manage it. In lieu of discussion, you could ask students to write briefly on the topic in class. You could then ask if students want to address the issue in the next class session, but if you find you are still not ready to manage the discussion, do not feel obliged to do so. Even observing a moment of silence as a class can be helpful.
If you decide to initiate discussion of the event in the context of your course, there are several matters to take into consideration.
- Be sure to allow enough time so that you will not have to abbreviate a helpful discussion.
- Prepare for the discussion in advance. Consult Vanderbilt University’s Teaching in Times of Crisis for thoughts to consider.
- Create a direction and purpose for the discussion — that is, a clear framework or a connection to your class content and goals, or an acknowledgement of this significant event. It could be helpful to set some guidelines for the specific discussion before it begins.
- Expect the topic to stir powerful emotions. Be attentive to the human and emotional toll taken by the event (especially if tragic) and the impact of information disseminated by you and others. Although your objective may be to discuss the situation analytically, you can’t expect students to check their emotional responses at the door.
- Give students an opportunity to respond privately to the emotional impact of images and information (for example through writing) before moving on to process that information analytically.
- Urge students to speak for themselves and listen to each other, taking care to respect each other and the value of constructive discussion. (You might want to refer to your section’s community agreements, or set up specific guidelines for this particular discussion before it begins.) Understand that students will have varying reactions to the discussion, and some will prefer to remain silent.
- Explicitly acknowledge the difference in types of comments made during discussion, distinguishing between emotional comments and informational or analytical ones. You can help students understand one another better if you assist them in seeing the different orientations of each other’s statements.
- Be sure to have a strategy for bringing the discussion to a close. Again, a short writing exercise might be helpful. You could also remind students of ways they might be of assistance or take action.
- If you want help in planning a class session or debriefing a session in which the topic came up, email the GSI Teaching & Resource Center and a staff member will contact you, or call 510-642-4456.
- If you have students who are troubled and need assistance, or if you need assistance for yourself, contact Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), 3300 Tang Center, 510-642-9494. You might want to refer students to CAPS’s webpage dedicated to resources on coping with stress. CAPS also offers drop-in hours for students. Please see the CAPS website for details. More options are described in the University Health Services’ Mental Health Handbook for faculty, staff, and GSIs and Gold Folder.
Adapted with permission from University of Michigan, Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, Guidance For Instructors Leading Class Discussion on Hurricane Katrina.