Making Classrooms a Safe Place to Talk about Death

Should we talk about difficult topics like death and loss in the classroom? According to Dr. Michelle Falter, an assistant professor of English education at the NC State College of Education, absolutely.

Meet Dr. Michelle Falter

Dr. Michelle Falter’s scholarship and research focus on the role of emotions in teaching and literature. She believes the purpose of all literature is to have the reader feel something and feel part of humanity. Recently, her Young Adult Literature class partnered with Davis Drive Middle School on Project LIT, a grassroots literacy movement that provides culturally diverse, age-appropriate books to students in all grades to empower them with stories related to their lives and experiences. In addition, she will travel to Kenya later this year for her project “Strengthening Global Readiness in Kenya through Inquiry-Based Teaching,” which is funded in part by NC State’s International Travel Assistance Fund.

And she demonstrates how to do so using classroom content in two new books: When Loss Gets Personal: Discussing Death through Literature in the Secondary ELA Classroom and Moving Beyond Personal Loss to Societal Grieving.

“Rates of anxiety, depression and teen suicide are up and have been growing among adolescents steadily for a while now. I think through content, we can teach students coping skills,” Falter said. “We’re not telling them what they have to do. Instead, we’re providing opportunities to analyze how characters act in situations in relation to our own lives. That makes it safer.”

In the books, both published by Rowman & Littlefield, Falter and her co-editor, Dr. Steven Bickmore, deliver pedagogical resources written by teachers, librarians and teacher educators for English teachers and English teacher educators. Both books address how to acknowledge the death and loss found in many classic and young adult novels and incorporate those topics into classroom discussion in a way that is meaningful and transparent.

Falter and Bickmore organize resources that address suicide, accidents, terminal illnesses and familial death in When Loss Gets Personal: Discussing Death through Literature in the Secondary ELA Classroom. The book focuses on how teachers can communicate in creative and effective ways with students through classroom texts — like Wiliam Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — that cover such losses. It also provides tools and strategies to apply to other pieces of literature they may want to introduce into their classrooms

In Moving Beyond Personal Loss to Societal Grieving, Falter and Bickmore share how to address grief, mortality, murder, mass tragedies, war and genocide as real burdens to help students identify and confront their emotions. In this book, educators learn how to best use literature to engage students in class discussion in ways that are sensitive, thought-provoking and applicable to real life.

“When we are afraid to talk about these issues, all people suffer,” Falter wrote in a widely-shared blog post about the controversy surrounding Netflix’s television adaptation of Jay Asher’s young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why. The popularity of that post became the foundation on which her two new books were built.

3 Tips for Talking about Grief and Death in the Classroom

  • Consider why the subject needs to be incorporated into classroom conversations with students. “With any challenging topics, whatever they are, teachers first need to really know why they want to talk about it. That takes some interrogating of themselves and their own experiences. If they feel uncomfortable, they have to figure out why they want to talk about it.”
  • Partner with school counselors when integrating sensitive subject matter into class discussion. “Too often teachers don’t partner with their guidance counselors and I think guidance counselors are very open to that. . .They want to be included in the first step rather than being the triage in these situations.”
  • Give students ownership of the conversation. “Let students drive the discussion. I think sometimes as teachers, we want to control the classroom space because that’s safe for us. But if students guide the conversation, they let us know what they’re ready for and how in-depth the conversation can go. Reading about trauma should not induce trauma.”