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Framing the Sandy Hook Tragedy: Teaching the “Whole” Student

by Neil Finney

What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School and how can we possibly make sense of such a heartbreaking situation?

Each day that we open our doors for learning we are affecting the future. Our schools are absolutely designed for curriculum goals and preparing society’s future citizens – but our job, as educators, is so much more than that. Schools are organic and dynamic. They can be a refuge from broken homes and shattered dreams. We affect students each day with our humanity and compassion for their lives and our approaches to shaping them into responsible and caring individuals.

We have a duty and obligation to prepare our students for the real world. They live in a time where horrible atrocities are possible – but these kinds of evil have always been present. The absolute horror of losing 20 first-graders and 6 educators to such an evil and inconceivable act of violence serves as a reminder of exactly what is at stake for educators and society when it comes to teaching our youth.

As educators, we are charged with the protection and care of our students. Mental health initiatives, crisis response programs and psychological assessments can help us to identify, support, and even, treat, students who are “at risk,” depressed, or disengaged from life and its values. But it is those lessons that focus on character, those projects that center on social issues, and even, those classroom conversations about events such as the Newtown shooting that allow us to educate our students about the fragility of life and the critical need to protect it.

Schools act as central places for communities that should teach to the “whole student,” and in doing so, prepare students for the outside world. There is so much more to schools than reading, writing and arithmetic (as the traditional addem goes), we need to teach the person in an individualized way, starting from where they are and  focusing on what they need.

To do this, we educators, need to listen to our students and build on their strengths. We must deliver our programming in ways that increase success and grow self-esteem. We should personalize the learning for the “whole” student – body, mind and soul – to holistically prepare our youth for the world in which they live.

Some of our most powerful teachable moments come out of tragedies such as the Newtown Shooting, what terrible or devastating event have you needed to address with your students? How did you approach the situation as an educator?


During Neilʼs 9 years of teaching experience, he has taught in London, England; Ontario; public and private schools; elementary and secondary; junior; intermediate; core french; developmental skills; and now junior gifted (grades 4,5,6). He is a Reading Specialist that has been incorporating technology in his practice consistently throughout his career. Neil has recently published his first book entitled “Ignite. Incite. Inspire.” – Examining 21st Century Issues in Education, which is a collection of teaching articles and posts written from January to December 2011.


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  • Aviva (@avivaloca)

    Neil, up until this year, I’ve always taught younger students, and these issues never got discussed. This year, I teach Grade 6, and many of my students are very connected. In fact, I noticed a lot of them tweeting about Sandy Hook before I even read about it. I’m really thankful to our Board though that released suggestions on how to deal with this topic with students. Ensuring students that they’re safe at school and letting them know that we’re here to listen to them helps a lot. I’m curious to hear what others have to say about this!


    • neil

      Hi Aviva,

      Absolutely. Keeping the communication lines open with our students is crucial when dealing with a tragedy such as this. I was in teacher’s college when 9/11 happened and I remember how much of an impact it had on the teacher training we received – in terms of “teachable moments.”

      Our students are connected to the world in instant – and constant – ways. They need to learn how to cope, filter, but most of all, process, all of these life events in order to understand the world in which they live. Thanks for the sharing, Aviva. Looking forward to more conversations!

      • Janet Lee

        Neil and Aviva,

        In the high school, my students want to talk about how to keep themselves safe. They too are very well connected to the outside world with knowledge we never had as kids. Being in a portable classroom for most of my career, I am very aware of our safety.

        Teachable moments do come upon us suddenly. As a teacher, I take action to discuss the problem with students even though I might not have had the chance to work out my own feelings first. Talking with teenagers can be enlightening. I love to hear their thoughts and then measure them with my own to come to a new understanding. These discussions about current passionate events can make other days easier. This is how we get to know each other and build community. I wonder how we might use current events to bridge the gap between elementary and high school students.

        Aviva, what were some of the items on the list? I wonder what items students would add to the list of how to keep “us” safe.

        • Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca)

          Thanks for the reply, Janet Lee! The focus of the list was on ensuring students that they’re safe. It was talking about how students are supervised, how visitors report to the office before they go through the school, how teachers are visible in the hallways and the classrooms, and how doors are locked after a certain time to ensure that nobody comes wandering through the school. It was good to have some suggestions to use with students if they did have questions. I think they wanted to know that they are safe at school.