Teachers adjusting lesson plans; Challenge will lie in helping students comprehend loss

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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When Columbia fell out of the sky Saturday morning, the spirits of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch fell with it.

The West Texas ranch has been taking in at-risk children since 1939, and Amarillo native Rick Husband volunteered to carry one of the school’s banners into space when he commanded Columbia.

“We were looking forward to having a ceremony, bringing Rick to campus, showing the boys that a national celebrity cared about them,” said Dan Adams, the school’s senior vice president for programs. “Now we have to make it into an opportunity to talk to children about values, about courage, about how you handle loss.”

The leaders at Cal Farley’s are facing the same challenge as all teachers and those who work with children: how to talk to them about tragedy.

Sadly, they have experience to draw on, from the Sept. 11 attacks to Columbia’s nearest antecedent, the Challenger explosion of 1986.

“When the Challenger accident occurred, we were called upon to change our lesson plans,” said Wendell Mohling, associate executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “But we ended up teaching more important lessons to our students about science and life.”

Counselors and teachers said the best way to deal with the issue is to discuss it openly and sensitively.

“Get them as much straight information as possible,” said Lauren Wallach, a counselor at Dallas’ J.W. Ray Learning Center and president of the Dallas Metro Counseling Association. “Make sure they’re not perpetuating rumors and scary stories that aren’t true.”

Dr. Wallach said that teachers can’t be sure how much students of any age will know about the disaster when they arrive. Parents may have tried to shield the tragedy from their children, especially if they’re young. But shielding isn’t always effective.

“They see this stuff on TV, but no one explains it to them,” she said. “They hear things, bits and pieces, and they build up their own stories around what they hear that are twice as scary.”

Schoolteachers will have to deal with these issues Monday. But Sunday school teachers have already begun answering questions such as “Why would God let this happen?”

“God did not let this happen,” Pat McKinney said she told children Sunday at Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas, where she’s the youth director. “I told them this is a time for science; we will learn from this.”

Synagogues were faced with similar questions after the tragedy.

At Living Christ Church in Dallas, Miriam Martinez said students in her Sunday school class dealt with the tragedy well – until they realized the gender of some of the astronauts.

“They didn’t realize there were two women on board,” said Mrs. Martinez. “They thought they were all men. That just kind of touched their hearts.”

Mrs. Martinez said her Sunday school class also talked about the impact on the families left behind. “Some of the kids were thinking about if their mom and dad had passed away,” she said.

Younger children may need to be told that they were not to blame for Saturday’s accident. That feeling could be worsened by Columbia’s disintegration having occurred over Texas.

“We dealt with 9-11 for a couple weeks,” she said. “But after that, there weren’t any repercussions. They figured out that no one was going to target the Cityplace building. New York was too far away. Having this happen so close might not make the impact greater, but it could last longer.”

Columbia’s disintegration is unlikely to have the same sort of broad impact on a generation of schoolchildren that the Challenger disaster did. Because it was to carry Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to go into space, Challenger’s flight was integrated into school curricula for weeks or even months before the launch.

Students learned all about the crewmembers and the wonders of space travel, and millions of them were watching the launch when Challenger exploded.

“We had all the kids in the library watching it,” said Dr. Wallach, who was a second-grade teacher in 1986. “We teachers had to check our own emotions before we could start to work with the kids. It was difficult.”

By contrast, Columbia broke apart on a Saturday morning, on a mission that had been little noticed by most students.

Dr. Mohling, a former high school science teacher in Kansas, said students’ interest in space exploration spiked after the Challenger accident 17 years ago, and he predicts a similar increase after Saturday’s event.

“It’s our challenge to make sure students understand that accidents like this happen in science, but the quest for exploration must go on,” he said.

Staff writers Tawnell D. Hobbs and Katie Menzer contributed to this report.