"The school building doesn't make us a family. The people do."
By Laura Shovan, with Maria Frazer, Carli Segal, and Jen Vincent
Editors Note: Last spring, educators across the country received the official news: Students would not be returning to finish the school year because of the pandemic.
Now we are in August, and the situation is even more fraught and confusing in so many ways -- some schools remain closed, with online learning only, while others are trying a hybrid approach, and still others are opening onsite with various (and sometimes very debatable) safety measures in place. Some have already opened, only to have to hastily close because of the return of the virus. In sum, pretty much a nightmare.
How does this affect student mental health? This is a tumultuous and political time, as well, with many places embroiled in protests and activism. How can we help kids sort through it all? How can stories help?
Children's author Laura Shovan started asking these sorts of questions, last spring, by starting an online conversation with several teachers. They discussed how kids were coping and what could, and can, be done to help. Their exchange is below.
Last spring, when schools were closing, I began receiving emails about my verse novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. It’s a story about kids coping with their school’s closing. At its core, The Last Fifth Grade is about giving children a means – poetry -- for working out their complicated feelings about losing their school community.
The story also models activism, which made me wonder how educators were talking with students about the growing protests of racial injustice around the country.
I invited Maria Frazer, a high school social worker, Carli Segal, an elementary school counselor, and Jen Vincent, a middle school teacher, to share their insights on their students’ – and their own – experiences of loss this year. Here are their insights as we look back on the past school year – and look forward to handling the next.
LAURA: How are the students you work with expressing their sense of grief and loss?
MARIA FRAZER: I work at a high school, so some of our students [have side jobs as] essential workers, and had to balance that with online education. For some of our students, online learning had to take a backseat to other responsibilities. For others, the structure gave them freedom to succeed in class in new ways.
CARLI SEGAL: My students (ages 5-10) have been sharing feelings and writing notes to me through Google Classroom, talking about sadness and loss over Zoom meetings, and I’ve been receiving descriptions of grieving behaviors through conversations with their parents/guardians, who express concern over mood-related changes in their kids.
They report their children having sluggish days, grumpy days, general low mood or energy, anhedonia (loss of enthusiasm for something they typically enjoy), and bouts of sadness.
Their exposure to the news and images from the protests are stirring up more important weighty conversations at home, along with more emotions — confusion, anger, and fear, to name a few. It’s a lot for an adult to process, and for children it’s so heavy. A trauma-informed care approach is essential to support children living through Covid-19 and also the racial injustices plaguing our nation.
Fortunately, children are incredibly resilient. They’re kind and goodhearted, and their empathy is inspiring. I’ve been encouraging them to express their feelings through movement, safe social connections, and creativity.
Reading books or writing journal entries to get those feelings out. Taking safe walks outside to stay active, video chatting with friends or family members, exploring art and musical interests--drawing, painting, singing, dancing.
For students who are struggling more than others, I’ve referred families to local community counseling centers offering tele-therapy. As a school counselor, my professional scope is only so wide before I need to refer out to those offering youth mental health services outside of the school setting.
JEN VINCENT: I'm a middle school English and Social Studies teacher for 7th and 8th graders. My students seemed to deal with their grief in different ways [and] to experience different levels of grief. Some of my students told me they were bored, others told me they thought e-learning was uncool, and didn't see the point of it, others expressed that they were sad to miss the end of the year fun. Some students acted like it was no big deal and others were in tears. Some were engaged and checked in with me every day, and others barely participated.
CARLI SEGAL: Most share... that they’re grieving their safe sense of community at school, where we’re a family away from home. I’ve been trying to stress that we’re still a school family even if we’re not in a brick and mortar building -- because the school building doesn’t make us a family, the people do.
Many students are generally grieving their sense of normalcy... I’m working with many students and noticing rising anxiety simply because their expected day-to-day has been disrupted. For many students, school is their safe space where they receive guaranteed meals, hugs, and they hear “I love you” every day. Grieving the routine is real.
JEN VINCENT: At first, students were excited to be out of school. I don't think they realized we wouldn't be going back for the rest of the year (let alone indefinitely). Once it set in, students seemed to express their sadness more. Many missed friends, and actually wanted to be at school. My own son, in 4th grade, said, "If I have to do work, I'd rather be at school."
Blurring the lines between home and school isn't easy. Suddenly, home becomes a place where all their learning happens. It's a challenge to focus on academic learning at home while in a pandemic. Students definitely miss seeing their friends and socializing, but they also miss field trips, our fundraiser field day, the 8th grade dance, and 8th grade promotion... it makes me sad that they missed out. We did a reverse parade for the 8th graders. Staff lined up in front of the school and students and their families drove by with signs and messages written on their cars, waving and beeping...
LAURA: When I was doing research for The Last Fifth Grade, I read a fascinating article about a school system that used art to help students cope with school closings [“Art Show Captures Wrenching Effects of Closing a School,” NY Times]. Did (or does) your school system provide creative outlets for kids to process this loss? What about creative outlets for educators and staff?
MARIA FRAZER: Our school found ways to connect with students that hadn’t been done before, from Instagram challenges to virtual prom (last spring). The virtual prom was very different from any other prom. There were shout outs from celebrities, the students got to give speeches, and it lasted longer than we imagined it would, with everyone dancing together at their own homes.
CARLI SEGAL: I’ve embarked on virtual scavenger hunts, shared some cool rocks I found in my yard during a virtual science fair, introduced students to my ginger cat during ‘pet show-n-tell’, and participated in a drawing lesson where we all followed a YouTube video to learn how to draw Iron Man.
Students have also been drawing pictures, painting, singing, making Tik-Toks, and expressing themselves through movement. They’ve been sharing their work with their classmates and teachers. I’ve been encouraging all students to keep a journal for their thoughts and feelings since they’re living through this historic time.
...Although this experience has been less than ideal, opportunities to see students’ smiling faces — even through a computer screen — has been uplifting and healing. We as a staff assembled a video slideshow of photographs of each of us in our homes holding an inspiring message to our students, which helped us reassure students how much we miss them. Staff members shared they found that video cathartic too, a reminder we’re all on this unexpected journey together.
JEN VINCENT: ...Our art teacher did a great job of celebrating student art via a Padlet for everyone to see. The district administrators and coaches also invited teachers to send in pictures that they compiled into light-hearted videos. We took pictures with our pets, in our college/university gear, and staying active during quarantine.
LAURA SHOVAN: How does reading about loss help students deal with their experience? Do you have any favorite books you recommended to kids or that they shared with you and their peers?
MARIA FRAZER: I think reading about school closure like in The Last Fifth Grade, students can identify with the characters and their experience. Even though our school is still open, school as a physical space holds a lot of meaning for both students and the greater community, and it is its own kind of loss.
CARLI SEGAL: During virtual class meetings, students have been sharing their favorite books. While they may not touch on loss as a theme, generally escaping into a fictional world in any book has been therapeutic for students.
Some books I like to recommend specifically for students struggling with feelings of anxiety or loss include:
● THE INVISIBLE STRING by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
● IN MY HEART: A BOOK OF FEELINGS by Jo Witek
● JONATHAN JAMES AND THE WHATIF MONSTER by Michelle Nelson-Schmidt
● THE DON’T WORRY BOOK by Todd Parr
● B IS FOR BREATHE by Melissa Boyd (Mindfulness strategies for kids)
● HELP YOUR DRAGON DEAL WITH CHANGE by Steve Herman
JEN VINCENT: I read Cleo Wade's Where to Begin to my students via a web tool called Flipgrid. I chose it because it's a mix of poetry and prose about how to hold onto hope, and to know that we all have the power to make positive change in our world. While it didn't specifically talk about loss or the pandemic, I found it inspiring, and wanted to share with my 8th graders as they ended their time at our school and moved on to high school amidst a global pandemic.
LAURA SHOVAN: What conversations will you be having with students now about social justice in our country? Is it comfortable to have these conversations virtually, or are we missing a moment when kids might be talking openly and reflecting on current events with their peers?
JEN VINCENT: All year, I taught with the Teaching Tolerance social justice standards alongside my literacy and social studies standards. The social justice standards are divided into four areas: identity, diversity, justice, and action. Throughout the year we talked about race and racism, bias, and speaking up. We ended the year looking at power and what different types of power there are.
CARLI SEGAL: When school is open, I regularly facilitate classroom lessons on celebrating individual and cultural differences with all students. These discussions and activities are usually inspired by stories (The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss, Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh, The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi, to name a few). I also facilitate lessons on citizenship, and what it means to be a positive influence in your community.
In addition to classroom-based lessons, I facilitate school-wide events under the Anti Defamation League's "No Place for Hate" initiative (such as Teaching Tolerance's Mix-it-Up At Lunch Day). These events encourage students to step out of their comfort zones and get to know other students, to foster empathy and kindness and an appreciation of all the ways their peers may be different.
In this virtual learning environment, I've spoken with several students who asked questions about social justice and whether or not they can trust police officers. I'm eager to engage in these conversations with students, meeting them where they are and validating their often confused, concerned feelings. My goal is to help students understand what's happening and empower students to take action in safe ways.
A few days ago, a fourth-grade student shared she and her family wrote "We stand with George Floyd - VOTE!" at the end of her driveway. Underneath, they added, "If you agree, draw a heart." They left chalk for neighbors and she shared her driveway is filling up with hearts. Small acts like that show students the power of action in uniting people to make positive changes. When we return to school, I plan to continue this advocacy in education.
Maria Frazer is a school social worker and middle grade author in Texas.
Carli Segal, M.S.Ed., M.Phil.Ed., is an Elementary School Counselor in suburban Philadelphia, where she has been serving children and families for 10 years.
Jen Vincent is a 7th and 8th grade English and Social Studies teacher for Mundelein School District 75 in Illinois. She's also the founder of Story Exploratory, a fun and funky writing community where people come to feel seen, celebrated, and empowered.