Guidance For Instructors Leading Class Discussion on Hurricane Katrina

When a tragic, violent, or other powerfully emotional public event occurs, the impact on individuals and communities may reach your classroom whether you invite it or not.   You may want to address the topic of Hurricane Katrina in class, students may want to discuss it, or the subject may come up spontaneously because of your course content or implications.

If students mention the event, you may want to acknowledge the value of having a discussion but, in fact, defer discussion until you have a plan to handle it. In lieu of discussion, you could ask students to write briefly on the topic, and then you could summarize and present their ideas and reactions at the next class session. If you find you are not ready to handle the topic, do not feel obliged to do so.

If you decide to initiate discussion of the Hurricane Katrina in the context of your course:

  • Be sure to allow enough time so that you will not have to abbreviate a productive discussion.
  • Create a direction and purpose for the discussion, e.g., a clear framework, a connection to your class content and goals, or an acknowledgement of this significant event.
  • Expect the topic to stir powerful emotions, and be attentive to the human and emotional toll the tragedy is taking and the impact of information disseminated by you and others.
  • Give students an opportunity to respond privately to the emotional impact of images and information (e.g., through writing) before moving on to process that information analytically.
  • Explicitly acknowledge the difference in types of comments made during discussion, distinguishing between emotional comments and informational or analytical ones. You can help students understand one another better if you assist them in seeing the different orientations of each other’s statements.
  • Urge students to speak for themselves and listen to each other, taking care to respect each other and the value of constructive discussion. 
    (See also Ground Rules for Class Participation).
  • Understand that students will have varying reactions to the discussion, and some will prefer to remain silent.
  • Be sure to have a strategy for bringing the discussion to a close. Again, a short writing exercise might be helpful. You could also remind students of ways they might be of assistance or take action.
  • (In the case of a major catastrophe, for example, there will be a link to key websites on the U-M home page.)

If you want help in planning a class session or debriefing a session where the topic came up, email crlt@umich.edu (and a consultant will contact you) or call 764-0505.

If you have suffered personal loss and need assistance, contact the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FASAP): http://www.umich.edu/~fasap/

If you have students who are troubled and need assistance, suggest they contact Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS): http://www.umich.edu/~caps/

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