writings and Reflections

Productive Discussions in the Midst of Troubling Times
Tara Christie Kinsey

On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, a violent mob illegally breached the Capitol Building, forcing a delay in the congressional certification of the presidential election. Over the course of that afternoon, a troubling and concerning situation unfolded in our nation's capital. In the midst of the breaking news about the day’s violent and disturbing events, I wrote to our parents and guardians, sharing that I would be gathering with faculty and staff to ensure that they had the support they needed to be there for their students in the days and weeks ahead.
I also encouraged them to consult the following recommended resources, which provide research-supported guidance on ways to engage children as developmentally appropriate:

At the end of the following day, I once again wrote to parents and guardians, this time to share a few examples of how students gathered with their teachers to process their reactions, emotions, questions, and concerns about Wednesday’s upsetting events. 

In upper school, faculty and students gathered on Thursday morning for a town hall to start the day. After introductory remarks by Head of Upper School and Assistant Head of School Elizabeth Stevens, our upper school students led insightful and well-informed discussions about the complicated politics of the different ways in which politicians and the media referred to the individuals as “protestors,” “rioters,” “domestic terrorists,” or “thugs”; the varying levels of police preparedness and the role of race in law enforcement’s response to the mostly-white crowd; the courage of members of Congress who returned to the task of confirming our lawfully-elected next President and Vice President of the United States; the important role journalists play in times like these, sometimes at risk to their personal safety; and the power of words to incite or calm violence. Following the town hall, students continued these important conversations in smaller grade-wide meetings and throughout the day, when a number of students shared their gratitude for being a part of Hewitt, a community in which they feel supported and can openly discuss events like these in a safe and brave space.

In middle school, advisors began the school day by asking: “What questions do you have about yesterday’s events?” Middle schoolers asked about a wide range of topics, including: whether we have ever seen anything like this in a presidential transition; the nature of the laws broken at the Capitol Building; the desire to shine a spotlight on the women staffers and interns who remembered to secure the electoral college ballots during the evacuation; whether the 25th Amendment was going to be invoked; and police action, inaction, and the role of race when handling protests. Teachers of history classes had programming ready in order to put the events into their appropriate historical context, to discuss what citizens must do to support our democracy, to encourage self reflection, and to continue conversations about the importance of reliable sources of information. Some students chose to spend their lunch hour in an optional meeting with Head of Middle School Launa Schweizer to discuss the events in further detail.

In lower school, students met with their homeroom teachers during Morning Meeting. Teachers assessed what students knew by asking, "What is on your mind today?" or "How are you feeling?" Head of Lower School Terell Cooper-Edwards shared that, as expected, most of our youngest students were unaware or had very little knowledge of the situation. Older students, however, were more familiar with Wednesday’s events and were guided by their teachers through discussions about what they had heard or seen. Students were encouraged to frame their comments from the “I” perspective, to consider the connections between emotion and action, and to explore answers to the following questions: How do we collect information about events? How do we distinguish between fact and opinion when trying to understand a situation like this? What should I do if I see or hear something I don't understand? What can I do if I feel scared or don't want to engage in this kind of discussion? Fourth grade students centered their conversations on a developmentally appropriate news article from Newsela.

I am proud that Hewitt girls and young women have such caring, dedicated, and skilled teachers who, with full hearts and open minds, encourage age-appropriate dialogue about troubling events like the ones that happened on January 6. No matter the grade level they teach, Hewitt teachers know the importance of centering students’ voices, and grounding difficult conversations in what students already know. As always, Hewitt’s faculty drew strength from the four pillars of our academic philosophy--presence, empathy, research, and purpose--pillars that uphold the foundation of a program designed to inspire girls and young women to become ethical leaders who will effect real change in our world. I could not be prouder of my Hewitt colleagues for the job they do every day.

A fellow educator and good friend recently reminded me that it is a privilege to work with young people, to help them develop habits of citizenship, and to know both the value--and the fragility--of our democracy. In my conversations with faculty about the events at the Capitol, many noted that their students were a source of joy and hope for the future. As both an educator and a parent, I am grateful to be a part of a school community in which students learn how to fight for important ethical and humanitarian concepts and causes about which they truly care. For this is our mission: to inspire girls and young women to become game changers and ethical leaders who forge an equitable, sustainable, and joyous future. We have important work to do in our nation, our city, and our school. And I am heartened to know that the Hewitt community joins me in feeling extraordinary gratitude--and pride--that ours is a school fit to this most important task.

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