Scary Times in the Classroom

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Wednesday morning, the Virginia Tech community woke up to find a Crime Alert emailed by the campus police department, giving us these details:

Last evening at approximately 11:15 p.m., a statement appeared on Yik Yak which read “Another 4.16 moment is going to happen tomorrow. Just a warning”.

For us, this was more than a generic threat, even if the police had indicated that there was no evidence this was “a credible threat.”

We marked the eighth anniversary of the April 16 shootings on our campus not quite two weeks earlier. While few of the current undergraduates were on campus that day in 2007, they are all quite aware of what happened and they join in as we mark the anniversary each year.

After receiving the Crime Alert, my students were understandably anxious. They chatted nervously, conjecturing that the absences that day were because people were staying away from campus “because of that message.” They weren’t talking about it explicitly. I can only guess they thought that not mentioning the threat might make it go away.

Every time the door opened, heads whipped around to check who was coming in. Normally, we leave the door propped open so latecomers can slip in quietly. That day, they wanted the classroom door locked. One student even went outside the back door to double-check that it was locked too.

The class seemed to relax a little after the doors were locked. We were busy with project presentations, and students appeared to be paying attention. I admit, though, that I watched the hallway through the window in the door just in case, and I mentally rehearsed what I would say and where I would tell students to hide if something did happen.

After class was over, I told students to stay safe, and most of them left. A handful remained since their next class is in the same classroom. Their conversations about the threat started up again. When I left the classroom, they wanted me to leave the doors locked. They said they would let people in as they saw them.

Later that afternoon, we received a new Crime Alert that told us the police arrested a student who turned himself in. By Friday, class was back to normal. At the beginning of class, I asked if they wanted the door locked. They answered no, and we went on with class.

I have many goals as a teacher. I want to help students become stronger writers and more effective communicators. I hope to help them become more confident about their abilities. Rarely do I think about keeping them safe and calm in times of danger.

Last week’s events reminded me that, too, is part of my job. Looking back, I’ve realized that I was trying to give them control. I let them decide about the doors. I asked two students to let people into the classroom who arrived late. Students secured the back door. They decided to keep the door locked after class was over.

I wish I could say I made conscious decisions, but I was just going with what felt right in the moment. I’ve always believed that student choice is crucial to good writing assignments. Apparently giving students some choice and control matters when there are scary times in the classroom, too.

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About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.