Love and loss are two sides of a quarter—oppositional, yet inseparable—and they strike at the core of what it means to be alive. I am able to recognize the coexistence of tragedy and meaning because teachers and authors lifted those topics up to the light, in their own ways, throughout my time in school. They reified Walt Whitman’s (1891) quote, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse,” written in Leaves of Grass and later popularized through the teachings of fictional English teacher Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society.
Learning from Loss is my verse.
In the United States, most teachers have a student in their classroom who is grieving. It is unlikely that any educator, whether a preservice elementary teacher or a tenured college professor, will complete an academic year—let alone a career—without the heavy coat of loss making its way into the classroom, on the back of a student if not on their own shoulders. I suspect you might pick up this book because you are one such educator, teaching one or more students who are muddling through the throes of grief as I was at fourteen. For you, the reality of loss is all too real; perhaps you are sad, scared, unsure of where to begin.
This book is here for you. As you approach and engage with it, I hope that you come to treat it as your space—a safe space—within which to grapple, question, breathe, and prepare for the challenges and rewards of supporting grieving students in times of need. I know firsthand the longitudinal power and potential of an educator’s empathic efforts; it is because of such efforts that I am writing this book today. Yet so, too, do I appreciate the seeming impossibility of tackling the topic of grief with students, and welcome ambivalence as a reaction to this work. It is these three entities—power, potential, and (im)possibility—that we will explore together.
At first glance, this may seem to be a book about death. But I contend that it is equally a book about life—and the light of it. So often, times of sorrow bring into sharp focus what we value most in this world: connection, laughter, learning—all of which comprise classroom life. When grief disrupts this energy, in whatever form, we ache. Simultaneously, the most valuable tenets of our lives—the delight, the meaning—become richer and more necessary.
I believe that together we have the power to persist through the challenges posed by the presence of grief in schools and to do so mindfully, with compassion, while supporting our own needs, too. We owe this to ourselves as well as our students—for school may be all they have.
Learning From Loss will guide you through the balance that is the what, why, and how of grief support in a schooling context, from the logistical to the interpersonal and curricular. You will engage in writing exercises geared toward self-exploration and social-emotional awareness to better understand how loss impacts your teaching. We will look at lesson plans, activities, and teaching strategies for creating grief-responsive classrooms and pedagogies across grade levels, from action protocols for the days after a loss occurs; conversational strategies with which to approach parents, guardians, students, and colleagues; resources for cultivating resiliency and social-emotional well-being in all students, including those who are grieving; to wellness strategies that seek to protect and replenish teachers’ hearts. This volume—grounded in extensive reading, research, interviews, as well as my own experience—will provide you with the tools you need to approach the tender work of teaching about and around loss, no matter its form.
The topic of grief support remains absent in most teacher preparation programs. Amid the demands of standards, test scores, performance reports, and the countless other commitments that tug on teachers’ time, it can feel daunting to address the topic of loss in schools. But teachers realize that the issue of managing grief in the classroom seems no longer a question of if or should but when and how: How can teachers best scaffold the topic and experience of loss to support young learners in the face of fear and sadness? When a student loses a parent, or a faculty loses a colleague, or a trauma occurs too close to home, what should we do? What should we say? How can classroom teachers and administrators collaborate most effectively with trained psychologists, counselors, or crisis response teams so that a school’s support efforts are successful?
Teachers need opportunities to commune, collaborate, and communicate about the challenges and rewards of encountering and addressing loss with their students if we are ever to work toward the creation of schools in which grieving students feel safe, welcomed, and respected. Your selecting this book makes me think that I am in like-minded company and that your seeking out resources on this topic means you already have the tools you need—the sincerity, the motivation—to succeed in supporting grieving students no matter any hesitations you may feel.
To learn more about Learning from Loss, visit Heinemann.com.
Brittany Collins is an author, educator, and curriculum designer dedicated to supporting teachers’ and students’ social and emotional wellbeing, especially in times of adversity.Her work explores the impacts of grief, loss, and trauma in the school system, as well as how innovative pedagogies—from inquiry-based learning to identity development curricula—can create conditions supportive of all learners. She is the Founder of Grief-Responsive Teaching, a professional learning community and resource hub that supports students' and teachers' wellbeing in times of loss.
Brittany is passionate about connecting theory and practice to foster collaborative relationships with students, teachers, and writers around the world. She is the Director of Teaching & Learning and Product Manager of Global Writing Workshops at Write the World LLC, where she designs, develops, and implements original writing curricula and supports middle and high school students and teachers across continents.
Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post; Education Week; Edutopia; Inside Higher Ed; We Need Diverse Books; English Journal and Literacy & NCTE of the National Council of Teachers of English; Teachers’ and Writers’ Magazine; and Thrive Global, among other outlets, and she has developed curricula for PBS Learning Media, Write the World, Smith College, Boston University, and Race Project Kansas City, among other schools and organizations.
Brittany studied English and Education at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Creative Nonfiction at the Yale Writer’s Workshop; and is pursuing her certificate in Trauma Studies from the Trauma Research Foundation.
You can connect with Brittany on her website or on Twitter @brcollins27.