Creating Civic Spaces in Troubling Times

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

This morning I awoke to a troubling Facebook post by a colleague of mine from the east coast. My friend is a well-respected, veteran educator who teaches high school social studies. He shared how there had been a fire drill the day before and in response, he froze. He directed his students to stay in their seats to make sure it was not a false alarm. One of his students responded, “yea, to make sure this ain’t like Florida.”

It was not a false alarm and eventually, the fire drill was completed. But, this teacher’s response, and the response of his students was not an isolated event. Streams of educators throughout the nation responded to his post that they too experienced similar events in their school in the past week. One elementary teacher lamented that she told her 3rd graders that they were staying put until further confirmation during a fire safety exercise and one 8-year-old quickly agreed, “Yes because if an intruder pulled it, we’d all be going outside where it’s not safe.”

Early in my teaching career, one of my students was killed in a horrific traffic accident. Being a young teacher, I did not know how to respond to tragedy, it was left out of my teacher preparation program. Should I go on with the lesson at hand and avoid the topic altogether- thinking I might give my students (and myself) a respite from the loss, or should I address the grief we were all struggling with? I called my mentor for direction and he advised me to address the tragedy. He encouraged me that it not important that I have all of the answers, but it was imperative that I be present, open, listen and create a safe environment for my students to do the same. It was a heart -wrenching class, full of tears, memories and anger towards what we all felt was a preventable loss. After much discussion, the students launched a letter-writing campaign to local papers and elected officials demanding traffic lights be installed in the dangerous intersection that took their friend’s life. Communicating their grief and taking informed action was a cathartic process.


As educators, we have a responsibility to prioritize our students’ lived experiences in informing the essential questions we address in our curriculum. The proven practices mandated in the high school civics requirement as well as the new Illinois social studies standards support such endeavors. We must create civic spaces that engage students like current and controversial issue discussions that lead to students communicating conclusions and taking informed action (service learning). The Parkland High School students and their peers from around the nation are not going away. They are demonstrating that civic engagement does not begin and end with voting at 18, but encompasses a wide variety of issues and strategies for taking informed action, from lobbying, to social media campaigns, to advocacy.

My story and that of my colleague also point to the fact that educators need support in addressing tragedy in the classroom. Here are some resources that I hope will be helpful.
How do you address tragedy in troubling times? What are some of the strategies and resources you can share with others? What questions remain? Please comment below. Together, we can empower the youngest members of our community for civic engagement.

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