Coping with Tragedy in the Music Classroom
How Music Teachers Can Help
By NAfME Member Audrey Carballo
Considering the recent events surrounding the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I’d like to take a moment to grapple with how we handle events such as these in the music classroom. Please note I am not a music therapist, nor do I claim to have a psychology degree. I only know what I have lived through and witnessed in my 36 years in the classroom.
Dictionary.com defines a tragedy as an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe. There are three sides to this equation. What the students know/feel about the event, what you know/feel about the event, and those emotions that are common to both.
Ever since 1990 when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, news has become more accessible than ever before. You watch news unfold before your eyes—not only on television, but also on your phone or tablet. You no longer have to wait until the morning paper is delivered to read about what happened. The reporting is instantaneous.
While that is wonderful in some respects, it can be quite overwhelming to our students. While teaching at a middle school, I remember being in homeroom when the attacks on the Twin Towers were occurring. Right after the morning announcements, the television feed defaulted to MSNBC. Homeroom wasn’t dismissed until 9:00am. The first reports were already being broadcast, and—well—everyone knows what happened from then on.
I found myself in a room full of middle school students who were looking to me for answers, support, and guidance. On my wing of classrooms, the three of us teachers sought each other out, wondering what would happen in school next. The bell signaling the end of homeroom and the beginning of first period rang. I told my students to go on to their next class, and their next teacher would counsel them. For me, I kept the news on. I didn’t pretend that something devastating wasn’t happening. Both my students and myself watched the events and news reporting unfold as the day crawled by.
Students were frightened and wanted reassurance that they would be safe. That’s exactly what I did. I assured them we were very far away from the attacks, and the likelihood of something like that happening at our school was almost zero. Some students wanted to pray. I let them. Some students wanted to call their parents. I let them. I did keep the speculation to a minimum. We didn’t sit around and conjecture as to who the attackers were.
I had soft music playing in the background. I went around and spoke with each student. I encouraged them to write their feelings down. I offered drawing paper for those who didn’t want to write so they could draw what they were feeling. I assured them it was natural to feel frightened, but that didn’t mean something bad would happen to them. They wanted comfort, and I was going to make sure they received it.
After the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas on February 14, the feeling in my school changed. My school is in the very next county, and we are about 30 miles away from the school. Once again, students began to talk about what happened, and they wanted answers and reassurance that it wasn’t going to happen at our school. We are a K-8 and even the little ones knew what happened, even if they couldn’t grasp the entire scope of the tragedy.
Immediately, changes went into effect in our district. All classroom doors were to be locked at all times. Students going to the bathroom or running errands had to sign in and out of their classrooms. Every teacher was asked to print out a current copy of their student rosters and to have them readily available in case each student needed to be accounted for. Lock-down drill frequency increased. Gates to the teachers’ parking lots were locked and chained. All students, kindergarten through 8th grade (and staff) were issued an identification badge, which must be worn at all times. Teachers were asked to identify “potential safe spaces” in their classrooms in the event an active shooter comes onto the campus.
All these changes are unsettling to students. We are creatures of habit. Once those routines are disrupted, it is off-putting to students and staff as well. The requirements being asked of us today is the new “normal.” While the nation seeks answers and solutions for school safety, we continue to teach.
It is so important to allow students to feel safe and secure. Our job is to reassure them they will be. If that means we need to suspend playing the recorder for a few moments and allow students to talk about how they feel, then we must do that. We teach the whole child, not just the musician. When they are in your classroom, you are, in effect, a surrogate parent to those children. No one can play, sing, or participate to their best ability when they are worried about something else. Use music to help them deal with their emotions. Reach out through music.
About the author:
Audrey Carballo, a 36-year NAfME member, is in her 36th year as a music educator for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system, the fourth largest school system in the country. Her teaching experiences include general music, exploratory music, and chorus to regular and exceptional students in elementary, middle school, high school, and exceptional student settings.
She has been an Assessor for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and currently serves on the National Education Association Member Advisory Board Panel and as the Union Steward and Chairperson of the Educational Excellence School Advisory Board Council at her school. Recently, Audrey was the Children’s Choir Director for the Miami Music Project, which is an El Sistema program spearheaded by the world renowned conductor, James Judd.
One of her most rewarding experiences has been with the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. In addition to teaching Broadcast Journalism classes, and giving private lessons in voice, composition, theory and piano, her duties included being the Vocal and Advanced Theory instructor for their Better Chance Music Production Program. Audrey was one of the co-authors of an article published in the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness titled, “A New Synthesis of Sound and Tactile Music Code Instruction: Implementation Issues of a Pilot Online Braille Music Curriculum.”
Audrey collaborated with Jin Ho Choi (another instructor at the Lighthouse) for nine months, creating their Braille Music Distance Learning course.
Follow Audrey on Twitter @scarlettfeenix.
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