I am not a counselor, but I’m a survivor of tragedy and I’m here today to get very real with you. This post will cover: 💛 dealing with loss in a student’s family, 💛 what to do if a student in your school or community dies, 💛 and how to deal with grief in your own life and still be a leader in the classroom.
So, let me say this again: I am not a counselor, but I’m going to approach this from the perspective of someone who lost several immediate family members and friends while in school, as well as someone who has lost students.
It’s going to be sad at times, but remember that my goal in sharing all of this is to help you better manage grief in the classroom. If you have a plan, you’ll be able to create a space for catharsis and healing.
💛 WHEN A STUDENT LOSES A FAMILY MEMBER 💛
When I was in 3rd grade, I lost my grandfather. Most students’ first experiences with loss will be a family pet or a grandparent. We lived with my grandfather and he’d had cancer, so I’d had time to try and understand what was going to happen. My classmates wrote me cards and my mother bought me my first journal. It went as well as it could have gone.
When I was in 4th grade, I lost my mother. Even though she’d had cancer, I was emotionally unprepared and completely overturned by this loss. There’s a beautiful word for this sentiment in French – it’s bouleversé, and it’s what I was feeling. It is a loss that I have thought about every day for the last twenty years, and it’s taken me each of those twenty years to get to a place where I could share – with you – how much my teachers and school helped me, but also what more they could have done.
When my mother was in the hospital at the end, I spent the last three weeks shuffled from house-to-house while my grandmother stayed with her. I stayed with friends, but I also stayed with teachers. I spent a few nights with each of my 4th grade teachers and their children who were my age. I also stayed with the school principal and her 4th grade niece for a night. After my mom passed, my teachers had my classmates write me cards, much as they had done for my grandfather. I took sessions with an art therapist and was lucky enough to attend a therapy camp for a few days that summer.
I loved the cards. I wasn’t very popular in 4th grade, but I felt from the cards that everyone cared about my loss. (Later, I’d understand that they’d been required to write them, but I promise that that did not make them any less valuable to me) It’s a good idea to have students write a card because it’s a concrete step they can take to extend their sympathies. Provide students with a script if they need one and brainstorm things to say.
I also felt very supported by my teachers and the fact that they’d let me stay with them – playing with their 4th & 5th grade children had helped distract me for a little while.
What could have been better:
Okay, so I was in 4th grade the first time “Your Mom!” jokes were cool. I spent the next two years in tears anytime someone would throw that one around in front of me. It would have been great if my teachers had pointed out to my classmates that that joke would seem pretty insensitive to me. Two years later, when I started retorting “My mom is dead!” in a faux-confident voice, it would have been great if one of my teachers had told me that now I was being the insensitive brat and that my classmates were just trying to be funny kids.
Additionally – and this is very hard for me to write –, I wish someone would have made me write down good memories of her. I was so young, and it hurt so much to think of her in those first few years. As an emotional defense, I avoided thinking of her and pushed away every memory I had. Now, many of those memories are gone. Encourage your students to write down their very best memories, a little at a time, even though it hurts.
💛 WHEN STUDENTS LOSE A CLASSMATE 💛
When I was a sophomore in high school, two of my fellow Drama Club members were in an awful car accident the week before the Regional Acting Competition. The driver was terribly injured, and the passenger was in a coma.
We made the decision as a club to still attend Regionals because it’s what we knew they would have wanted. These were bright and beautiful young women – stars in our Club and community – and my very good friends. When we arrived at the hotel the night before Regionals, our chaperones pulled us into one hotel room and broke the news – Chelynne had died.
We were devastated. I remember our director crying, and I remember two students who had graduated showed up to support us and hold us and love us. In the weeks that followed, we had counselors visit our club meetings and we threw a huge memorial service for Chelynne. And, you know, because we were artistic souls, there were poems and songs and slide shows and pretty much everything you could imagine happening in that school at that time.
We came together as a school community for the memorial service, and it was our chance to support Chelynne’s family and unburden our hearts. It was optional for the student body, meaning that anyone could attend but they weren’t forced. In the years that followed, I attended other memorial services for students, and they followed the same pattern. Memorial services create space that allows for sharing and healing.
I also really appreciated our director being open about her grief. She mourned with us, and it was good for our community to share in that.
What could have been better:
I have this memory of the school counselor coming into Drama Club on two different occasions, and trying to talk to us or coax us into sharing. Here’s the issue: none of us liked her. We didn’t like her, and therefore the things she was saying didn’t carry as much weight. And I’m sure she was saying caring, necessary things and imparting great wisdom. If you’re going to have a counselor speak with your students, please make sure your students like the counselor enough to listen to what she has to say.
*I’m not going to touch on the more specific aftermath of suicide, but here are some resources for working with your students and school after a teen suicide:
Also, you can read this fabulous post by Angie Kratzer about why every teacher should watch (and know that their students are watching) 13 Reasons Why.
💛 WHEN YOU LOSE A LOVED ONE💛
I have been so lucky not to have lost a loved one as a teacher, but here are my general thoughts. Above all else, your students are learning from how you handle every situation. This does not mean you have to “be strong” for them. Conversely, I’d say that you can show them appropriate ways to manage grief.
Practice self-care (eat, sleep, stay hydrated), even if you need to enlist a colleague to hold you accountable
Share your coping techniques with your students. It doesn’t need to be constant, but when you’re ready to tell them about your loss, be ready to talk about how you journal/meditate/etc.
Prepare them for raw emotions. Let them know that you’ve endured a loss, and that you may have some raw moments as you grieve. Be open and honest, and they will rise to understanding.
Teaching about immigration
Teaching about immigration can be intimidating for someone without personal experience, but it’s an important topic to tackle with our students. Learning about immigration stories builds empathy and a desire to be a catalyst for positive change.
Here are 15 resources I’ve used in my classroom to spark conversations.
💛 ARTICLES FOR TEACHING ABOUT IMMIGRATION 💛
✨ The Impossible Choice My Father Had to Make In this opinion piece, Reyna Grande argues for a wider consideration of why immigrants make the tough choice to cross borders illegally. Grande’s memoir is called The Distance Between Us, and you could excerpt this for students as well.
✨ Actress Diane Guerrero Recounts Her Family’s Deportation Ordeal In this book review of actress Diane Guerrero’s new book, My Family Divided, critic Concepción de León considers the careful balance between applauding childhood resiliency and mourning it. This is a pretty layered article, but you could also have students read snippets of Guerrero’s new book to develop a deeper understanding of her story.
💛 YA FICTION FOR TEACHING ABOUT IMMIGRATION 💛
✨ American Street by Ibi Zoboi American Street is an #ownvoices book about a Haitian immigrant seeking a better life in America – une belle vie. This is a great book for talking about The American Dream with students, and how that idealogy is formed. What sacrifices do people make? What are their expectations vs. the reality?
✨ The Border by Steve Schafer (from Goodreads) “One moment changed their lives forever. A band plays, glasses clink, and four teens sneak into the Mexican desert, the hum of celebration receding behind them. Crack. Crack. Not fireworks–gunshots. The music stops. And Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys are powerless as the lives they once knew are taken from them…”
This is a YA thriller that will captivate and astound.
✨ The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis (Content warning: domestic abuse) Once again, this is a deeply personal #ownvoices book. This really shows the diversity of the immigrant experience, and highlights problems with the protections offered by our justice system.
✨ Disappeared by Francisco X Stork(from Goodreads) “Four months ago: Sara Zapata’s best friend disappeared, kidnapped by the web of criminals who terrorize Juàrez.
Four weeks ago: Her brother, Emiliano, fell in love with Perla Rubi, a girl whose family is as rich as her name.
Four hours ago: Sara received a death threat…and her first clue her friend’s location.
Four minutes ago: Emiliano was offered a way into Perla Rubi’s world—if he betrays his own.
In the next four days, Sara and Emiliano will each face impossible choices, between life and justice, friends and family, truth and love. But when the criminals come after Sara, only one path remains for both the siblings: the way across the desert to the United States.”
✨ Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed American-born Maya Aziz has the same concerns as any 17-year-old: school, boys, and going to the college of her dreams (NYU) to pursue her goal of becoming a filmmaker. Her Indian parents would prefer their daughter go to college closer to home (Chicago), and definitely would prefer her meet and marry a good Muslim boy. Tensions abound, but they know they can work through it, as a family. But when a hate crime is committed hundreds of miles away, the impact still reverberates close to home. How will this affect Maya’s relationships? Her health? Her college plans?(read my full review & classroom applications here).
✨ Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert Seventeen-year-old Danny receives news that he’s been accepted into the Rhode Island School of Design. To anyone looking on, this seems like great news. Except that Danny has a huge secret – he hasn’t been able to draw in a year. But even as Danny’s struggling to overcome his own artist’s block, some of his parents’ secrets come to light and threaten to topple everything they’ve worked for. Danny must find a way to face the past in order to make room for his future. (Listen to our episode about this book on the YA Cafe Podcast).
✨ The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez (from Goodreads) “A dazzling, heartbreaking page-turner destined for breakout status: a novel that gives voice to millions of Americans as it tells the story of the love between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl: teenagers living in an apartment block of immigrant families like their own.”
This is a captivating work of fiction, so real that you’d think it was a memoir. The narrative is honest and rich, and it will definitely hook students!
This is a great choice to round out your study of immigration with students and make sure they’re getting more than one narrative. Denied, Detained, and Deported is a collection of well-researched stories that show a darker side of the immigration experience.
These aren’t stories where hope paid off. These aren’t stories with a happy ending. Moreover, Bausum works to show us how our history can shape our future.
✨ Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card by Sara Saedi(from Goodreads) “At thirteen, bright-eyed, straight-A student Sara Saedi uncovered a terrible family secret: she was breaking the law simply by living in the United States. Only two years old when her parents fled Iran, she didn’t learn of her undocumented status until her older sister wanted to apply for an after-school job, but couldn’t because she didn’t have a Social Security number.
✨ Title: Hiding in Plain Sight by Leezia Dhalla (10:14) In this talk, Leezia Dhalla delves into her personal experience as an undocumented American to explain why nearly 12 million immigrants choose to live in the United States without the social, economic, and legal protections afforded to documented residents. This is another personal story from an evocative speaker, and students will definitely listen up.
✨ Title: Immigrant Voices Make Democracy Stronger by Sayu Bhojwani (12:43) This TED Talk is about the impact of immigrants running for political office. This is definitely a discussion-starter for the classroom! One of the most powerful things we can share with students is a real example of civic duty in action, and how change happens in government
✨ Title: My Immigration Storyby Le Tan (12:16) This is another personal story from a very compelling speaker. She says, “And I realized, at the same time, that it is OK to be an outsider, a recent arrival,new on the scene — and not just OK, but something to be thankful for, perhaps a gift from the boat.Because being an insider can so easily mean collapsing the horizons, can so easily mean accepting the presumptions of your province.” This is a really compelling discussion starter for students – what is more clearly seen from the outside? Additionally, what can immigrants share about the state of our systems?
Anti-racism in Secondary ELA
Educational scholars of yesteryear compiled a list of literary works that they deemed to be essential reading, used to build cultural capital and reflect a shared history. The issue is the majority (if not all) of the canonical decisions were made by white, middle class, cisgender males who chose works that often reflect the perspective of – you guessed it – white, middle class, cisgender males.
While it is true that the canon has evolved a bit to include more modern classics such as 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird, it is notable that these titles continue to be narrow in scope since they, too, serve to amplify white voices.
Given the dynamic plurality of the citizens of our country, a large portion of our students’ stories are being ignored or muted, all for the sake of past practice. The good news is that we all have access to tools to expand the canon and move it toward inclusivity and intersectionality.
When we talk about diversifying, we mean adding more voices to the material aspects of our classrooms, like updating our reading lists to include authors from backgrounds not currently represented. When we use the term decolonizing, this is changing material and immaterial aspects of our teaching practices to de-center White European heritage.
Below are 5 powerful affirmations to guide anti-racism in Secondary ELA.
1. REPRESENTATION MATTERS
According to projected numbers from the 2020 Census Bureau, the majority of children living in the United States are students of color. In order to best meet the needs of all learners, it is critical that students see themselves reflected in the works presented to them. Research shows that readers make meaning and build knowledge when engaging with texts that they can relate to.
Moreover, students have their very existence affirmed when they read texts written by and about people from their own culture, religion, orientation, etc. They learn that their voices matter, that their stories secure an important place within the larger human experience. Books also have the power to serve as windows, exposing students to lives that may differ from their own, leading to increased empathy instead of increased apathy.
2. DIVERSIFYING THE CURRICULUM IS JUST ONE STEP
Because racist practices are deeply woven into most aspects of life in the United States, we understand that diversifying the ELA curriculum is a fraction of the work that has to be done. It is just one facet of anti-racism in Secondary ELA. Luckily, there are powerful resources out there to guide you while reflecting on race in America, identifying your own privilege, and dismantling racial biases:
Not every teacher has the ability to change their whole curriculum in a single summer. We get that. Sometimes, the money isn’t there and a teacher has to make due with class sets of novels that are ten or fifteen years old. We’ve worked to provide a variety of solutions so that you can have the biggest impact within your means. (Here’s an idea for how to get free books from Danielle’s blog.)
4. TEACHERS MAY HAVE LITTLE SAY
Sometimes, curriculum decisions are made at a district level, and it can be difficult or impossible to pivot in a single summer. Sometimes, core texts are approved a year in advance, and there’s little wiggle room. Within our recommendations, we’ll show you how to reframe conversations around your “fixed” texts to increase empathy and critical thinking in your students. Our goal is to help you use the tools you have to disrupt racism.
5. TALKING ABOUT RACE MAY BE NEW TO MANY TEACHERS
See that massive, grey animal over there in the corner? For far too long, that elephant has lurked in many places – public and private – waiting to be acknowledged. Here in the United States, there is an unspoken rule among white people that it is best to simply avoid talking about racial issues. Kind of like a “hear no evil, see no evil” modus operandi.
By negating opportunities to talk about race and identity in open and productive ways, white people remain rooted in a practice that perpetuates systemic racism: staying silent. Thus, the cycle of oppression continues because, as Resmaa Menakem shares, “white comfort trumps my liberation.”
White educators must stop putting their own feelings at the center of the conversation, listen deeply, and do the work. Learn from Black scholars such as Zaretta Hammond and Cornelius Minor.
Examine and then reexamine the conscious and unconscious curricular choices you make in the classroom. Seek input from others, particularly Black and brown stakeholders, and especially your own students.
Desiring racial equality means nothing until we explicitly discuss the role white supremacy plays in our institutions and how privilege and power go hand in hand.
This post uses affiliate links. This doesn’t affect the price of your purchase, but Amazon does give us a small kickback.
We use this money to maintain our site. Thank you for your support!
Final thoughts on...
Teaching about immigration: This is something students are clamoring for, and I get questions from teachers every day, asking for ideas for teaching immigration. These brave voices have shared their stories, and now it’s time for us to pass them on to students.
We also share more difficult changes, like substitutions you could request in the future. We are not saying that you need to replace every text — we want to continue a dialogue on how to make our curricula more inclusive.
Grief in the classroom: Spend some time now contemplating how you’ll handle grief in the future. Imagine your students come to class one morning, having learnt of the death of a classmate overnight:
How will you fill your class period? What materials will you provide to students?
What level of noise and movement is acceptable to you? How will you gently let your students know?
How will you create therapeutic spaces for healing & catharsis? How will you encourage students to share when they’re ready?
How will you prepare all students for the ways in which people react differently to loss? (industry, lethargy, stillness, melancholy, etc.)
What will you say to disrespectful students?
How will you practice self-care and management of your own emotions?
YA Cafe Podcast: The Resolutions by Mia GarciaNovember 29, 2018 at 9:00 am
[…] This book was a wonderfully diverse story, and if you are looking for more like it you can visit Danielle’s blog post on sharing immigrant voices in the classroom. […]
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay MejiaFebruary 21, 2019 at 8:00 am
[…] has a great blog post on Sharing Immigrant Voices in Secondary ELA if you are looking for resources and recommendations on that topic, and if you are looking to […]
Internment by Samira Ahmed - Nouvelle ELA Teaching ResourcesMarch 28, 2019 at 8:00 am
[…] want to facilitate conversations about immigration you can check out Danielle’s blog post on Sharing Immigrant Voices. Also up on Danielle’s blog is a review of Samira Ahmed’s first book, Love, Hate, and […]
YA Cafe Podcast: The Downstairs Girl by Stacey LeeAugust 8, 2019 at 8:03 am
[…] It’s important to remember as teachers we need to be constantly challenging the dominant, white supremacist narrative. If you’re looking for culturally responsive ways to teach about immigration, you can check out Danielle’s blog post on sharing immigrant voices in ELA. […]