Paris: How I Talked about the Attacks with My French Students

Paris was attacked.

And I teach French.

I knew Monday morning, my students would ask, “Madame, what happened in France?”

I knew I needed to address the tragedy.

I knew they would look to me for answers.

Where do I start? What do I say? 

As a journalist, I thought about the who. I thought about the what.

I thought about the when, where, why, and how.

I thought about the facts. The details.

As their teacher, I thought about what message I wanted to deliver.

I spent much time on the weekend researching and mentally preparing. I talked with my family, friends, and my student teacher.

I tested my lesson plan on Veronica, my oldest. I wasn’t sure what would happen at her school the next day and what she would hear. I pictured someone, knowing that I teach French, saying, “It’s so sad about Paris,” and her confusion if she wasn’t in the know. I wanted the news to come from me, so I sat her down on Sunday and talked with her about what took place Friday evening in Paris.

Her response quieted my fears and I knew the next day would be okay.

Sure enough, on Monday morning, the questions started as my student teacher and I greeted our students at the classroom door.

“Madame, I heard about Paris. What happened?”

“Madame, are we going to talk about Paris today?”

“Mais oui,” I responded. “Entrez, entrez.”

Their faces were full of concern and anxiety.

But before hearing their voices, I wanted to set the tone.

First, I showed them this image and asked, “How many of you have seen this?”

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Most hands shot up and the side conversations started.

I continued, “I know you have a lot of questions and concerns, and we are going to talk about them. I promise. But please hold off for a few minutes. I want to show you a couple things first.”

Then we started class as we do every day – with bell focus.

I said, “People all over the world are hurting. People at home, in Chicago, in the United States, in Paris, in Lebanon, in Syria. People all over the world are suffering.”

I explained that we were talking the attacks in Paris because they happened in France and this is French class.

Yet I wanted the students to think not only about the French, but about all the people struggling in the world today and every day.

I tapped on the bell and we took a minute to close our eyes and breath.

We listened as the bell faded away and when it ended I handed each student a notecard to write their thoughts, comments, and questions.

Then I projected a Powerpoint with the following images and quotes on slides while the students listened to two minutes of the song Imagine.

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After, I played this video that showed the candles, the flowers, and the people of Paris. It showed the world standing with France in solidarity. (If you haven’t seen it, take a peek. It’s beautiful.)

Then I started with the known facts – tweaking slightly to make it grade-level appropriate.

I felt compelled to talk about the attacks with my fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students. I hesitated to bring it up with younger students out of fear that I would be the bearer of heavy news.

I wagered some knew, but not all.

I was their teacher, not their parent. I didn’t want to be the one.

Little did I know that five of my second graders would come to class full of questions, concerns, and opinions.

So, just as I did with the older students, I let them talk. I listened to them and responded to their thoughts and questions.

I had planned out the videos and images I wanted to show. I had bullet points on what I would say. I mapped on a notecard how I thought the 40-minute period would unfold.

Apart from the bell focus, the Powerpoint I created, and the unity video,  each class took on a life of it’s own.

I was so grateful for my student teacher as her knowledge, words, and support were a lifeline.

The projector was on and we interjected with images and maps to answer and guide their questions. Each class looked a little different, but I showed most a map of Paris that marked the spots of the attacks. Our conversations ran the gamut from Syrian refugees to fears for the United States to the G20 summit in Turkey to why is the world paying more attention to Paris than Lebanon.

There were tears.

There were questions to which I didn’t have the answers.

One student said five times on repeat, “Why would they do that? Why would they do that? Why…? Why…? Why…?”

I wondered as well.

I showed them the SNL opener the day after the attacks. It was spoken in French by cast member Cecily Strong.

My goal was to end class with this video of a pianist playing Imagine outside of the Bataclan concert hall.

My students astounded me with their wisdom, insights, openness, and youthful responses.

They are why I do what I do every day.

France feels far away. Lebanon and Syria too.

Yet our world is a shared one.

As their world language teacher, I want them to think globally, of course. But also I want them to think about Chicago, their homes, and their school. I asked them to think about the following:

  • What can I do today to be a helper?
  • What can I do today to be a person of change?
  • What can I do today to be an instrument of peace?

I want to encourage them to spread a message of hope, peace, and love.

Every day.

In big, in small, and in everyday, meaningful ways.

We talk a lot at our school about being a bucket filler and ways to be kind.

My students know that a smile, a door held, a genuine, “how are you How’s your day going,” can make all of the difference in someone’s day.

These acts matter.

I read on Momastery’s Facebook page, “When the world feels hopeless, we must be hope. When the world feels violent, we must be peace. When the world feels dark, we must be light. When the world feels afraid, we must be love.”

Let’s work to close the gaps in our hearts. Let’s seek to understand each other before we jump in with assumptions, bias, or judgment.

Each day I aspire to bring hope, peace, light, and love into the world.

Sometimes I fall short, but each day I wake inspired to try again.

It is my deepest belief that it helps.

Bisous,

Miss Madame

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