Teaching Columbine at Columbine

As you can see, I’ve had a bit of a dry spell when it comes to blogging.  I did, however, think today’s experience might be interesting to report.  My colleague and good friend Kiki took on a rather daunting challenge.  He taught Dave Cullen’s Columbine as the nonfiction book for his 9th grade English class.  If you have read (or get around to reading) the book, Kiki is the teacher who was with Frank, our principal, when the shooting began.  Throughout the course of studying the book, our kids have been blogging with another class of kids in Kansas City who also read it.  (Kiki happened to stumble on the blog the KC kids had already started for their unit and contacted their teacher.)  I’ve joined in on the discussion periodically.

Today, as a culminating activity, Columbine hosted a coordinated video chat between Dave Cullen (in New York), Frank (in his office), and a panel of freshmen in Kiki’s room with Kiki and me.  The rest of Kiki’s students and a few of mine were watching a live feed in the auditorium, as were the Kansas City kids at their school.  While the video chat was going on, the kids watching it had laptops and instant messaged their questions, which were projected on the wall in Kiki’s room so that our freshman panel could read them and pass them along to the appropriate speaker.  It was quite a feat, pulled off by our two tech specialists and our librarian.

What really struck me the most became evident long before the feeds were hooked up.  The kids who made up the panel were just hanging out, bored, waiting, eating in the classroom (which is strictly verboten at Columbine and therefore doubly enjoyed by students who were already feeling special to have been chosen to moderate).  They were so relaxed.  It was abundantly clear that this was not an emotionally loaded event for them.  Sure, Columbine is their school, and 12 years ago “Columbine” happened there, but they have absolutely no memory of it.  They were 3 years old.  It’s history—no more or less emotional than reading about the explosion of the Challenger or the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Those of us who were there don’t talk about it much to our students.  We forget that our baggage is not theirs.  These are not the kids who were affected by it.  Very few of them even had brothers or sisters at CHS 12 years ago.  I kind of felt it lose a little bit more of its power.  It was just interesting.

Dave, by the way, is a great speaker.  If you have a good-sized group reading Columbine, I highly recommend that you get in touch with him for a Skype visit.

About admin

Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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19 Responses to Teaching Columbine at Columbine

  1. Fowl Ideas says:

    Did the students have any opinion about some of the weird behavior of the adult characters in the book? I laugh every time I think of Reverend Oudemolen “thundering” from his Sunday morning pulpit, “I smell the presence of Satan.”

    My son routinely comes home from school with stories about classmates who are shockingly ignorant of both history and current events. A few weeks ago he told me that someone in his high school history class didn’t know who Hitler was. With that in mind, did the students learn anything about the incident and did they conduct in any research outside Cullen’s book?

    • admin says:

      Its Kiki’s class, not mine, so I don’t really know what day-to-day discussions of the book looked like. I doubt anyone said anything about the minister, because Columbine is still a heavily evangelical Christian community. Bowles Avenue is the Denver area’s own little Bible belt. On the corner of C-470 and Bowles there are not one, not two, but three giant mega-churches, and they carry a lot of clout. We also have a large number of LDS.

      The kids didn’t do much outside research that I know of. They had Mr. D come in and talk, and Kiki, of course, before the panel with Dave. They learned a great deal about the incident because they knew almost nothing. The Kansas City kids were the same. It was a historical event far removed from their lives. As I said in my blog, we teachers don’t talk about it much. At the beginning of the year in ACE, I show a documentary the Scotts and I were in called “The Truth About Hate,” and I let the kids ask questions, but many teachers don’t talk about it at all. At this point, we have several teachers on staff who were students in 1999, so they would have an interesting perspective. One was on my speech team, and she told me once that, now that she’s a teacher, she sees the whole thing through very different eyes. We promised we’d talk about it more, but we never did. For those of us who were there, PTSD is still a huge factor, and the students will tell you they don’t think about it much. Like I said, the kids we have now were somewhere between the ages of 2 and 6 when it happened.

  2. Mary Blu says:

    Hi Paula!

    My 12 year old grandson who presently lives with us recently brought to my attention the fact that children his age here know little about the events that took place on 9/11. The death of Bin Laden ment little to him and I was questioned relentlessly by him. He’s the little “scarey smart” child I have written about in the past. This suprised me because we live about 3 hours north of NYC, near Albany, the capital and many of us here were personally effected by the events that day. I took into consideration his age at the time but then I question WHY is this left out of studies at school? Often I feel I am the only source of modern history or current events for him and that the so called highly praised public school he attends is very lacking in some aspects. He is only in 6th grade but I would think he would have some knowledge to current and recent events, especially those that have directly effected our lives.


    Mary Blu

    ps. Will be blogging again soon. Nice to know you are still to be found!

    • admin says:

      Bear in mind, there is a whole lot of history to history, and we keep adding, not subtracting. Schools just can’t teach everything. To thoroughly cover every recent event in the last 15 years, we’d have to cut less recent things, like Kent State and Vietnam. Textbooks have to catch up, and schools can’t afford a new text every year. We have to gain some perspective. Modern history is hard. Also, as adults, we don’t realize how quickly events that feel very current to us fade for kids. The shootings at Columbine, 9/11–these seem so current to us, it often doesn’t occur to us that they aren’t even at the edge of a teenager’s experience.

  3. Fowl Ideas says:

    I have a question that may initially sound insulting but isn’t meant to be.

    Women tend to be attracted to men who appear to be self confident and are treated with respect by their peers. Why is it that so many women cannot tell the difference between a man who’s earned the respect of his peers, and a cocky sociopath who is feared by his peers? Men can usually tell the difference in a heartbeat but women, particularly young attractive women in the mid teens to mid twenties age range seem to walk blindly into the same trap repeatedly.

    Have you observed this same sort of behavior and do you have an opinion about it?

    • admin says:

      Well, let me begin by saying that I have been mystified at how often a pretty face and/or a well-apportioned body has rendered young men blind to pure evil in some women. Men genuinely think women hate such women because they’re beautiful, rather than because they’re the cold-hearted narcissists they are. When people are young, chemistry is strong and untempered by experience.

      At any rate, in regard to your observation, I think it’s about your own lens; what you look for is what you see. If you look for girls who get sucked in by jerks, that’s what you observe, and you miss the girls who aren’t like that. I’ve been with the same guy since high school. He was slightly nerdy, shy, but not socially inept. He’s still introverted, but he’s also confident and well respected. I had no time for those popular, conventionally “perfect” guys who thought the world of themselves and no one else. One of my debaters, a pretty, well-liked girl, absolutely publicly shredded a guy that everyone knew was a jerk and who desperately needed a take-down by such a girl. (It was the only action I’d ever seen anyone take with him that actually had a lasting effect. He behaved himself around her after that.)

  4. Fowl Ideas says:

    My apologies for neglecting to include the fact that both genders make the same mistake.

    A co-worker of mine way, way back in the 1980’s was a young woman who had a face and a figure that one finds in Playboy or Penthouse. Unfortunately she had a personality that was as ugly as her body was beautiful. The first time I saw her in the hallway she looked at me like she stepped in something. I burst out laughing, much to the amusement of several of my male co-workers who already knew her. Three or four months after she started working there I saw her talking to a friend of mine. She had a ludicrously radiant smile on her face as she gazed upon her engagement ring. Apparently another employee I had seen but didn’t know well enough to talk to inherited a house and whatever else his parents owned when they were killed in a traffic accident. She swooped in like a vulture. I’d love to know how it turned out but I left that job a few months later and never saw them again.

    I was not attempting to imply that women behaved in a uniform manner in my previous post. All stereotypes are perpetuated by a minority within any group and as my above reminiscences illustrate, it’s the crappy behavior of that minority that tends to be remembered. The point of this story and how it relates to Columbine is simple. News articles and post event blogs focus on the criminal behavior of a relatively small number of athletes. By tolerating that behavior and by showing up every Friday night despite the presence of the athletes in question, the community of Littleton unintentionally inspired a homicidal rage in the two killers. Littleton isn’t unique. Most Americans leave no doubt that as long as someone else’s son or daughter is being victimized, they’re ok with it.

    • admin says:

      This is hard for me to know how to reply to because I just don’t care about sports. I don’t know why anyone sits in the cold unless their kid is on the field. They could be the nicest kids in the world, and sports just do nothing for me. It’s not that I’m not competitive. I have happily spent thousands of hours at speech competitions. I just feel about football the same way many feel about debate. Snore.

      Once again, high schools are microcosms of our culture. Look how many professional athletes are convicted of sexual assault or beating their wives, and people still shell out big bucks on tickets to make these guys millionaires. In the meantime, people bitch about teachers like me raking in $54,000 a year. I get harassed by parents and maligned by politicians. Strangely, I feel no desire to kill anyone.

  5. Fowl Ideas says:

    Your self control is admirable.

    People place enormous value on anything or anyone who can facilitate the formation of pleasant fantasies. People place far less value on those who actually perform a worthwhile service.

    As I frequently remind my teenaged children, “Be careful. Just beneath the surface people are mean, stupid, and dangerous.”

  6. admin says:

    That’s the lens thing. My experience is that most people are good. Most of the time, even when I really disagree with them, I find their motives are good. I think the “mean, stupid, and dangerous” people are the minority.

    Oh, and I don’t get the notion of pleasant fantasies about the famous jerks. In my romance novels my heros are smart above all else.

  7. Fowl Ideas says:

    I observe the Rule of Most:

    Most people can be depended upon to behave in a manner that is mostly civilized most of the time. This creates the illusion that people are basically good. What many people fail to take into account is the fact that anyone is capable of just about anything in the right environment. If you are not feared or otherwise unusually influential, your best friends will often turn on you for what amounts to petty reasons. I especially have no trust in people who are charming.

    I refer to some people as Facilitators. Women who are unusually feminine and men who are unusually masculine are objects of fantasy. They “facilitate” the formation of fantasies. Members of the same gender want to be just like them and members of the opposite gender want to be with them. The masses have a remarkable ability to ignore the fact that their favorite celebrities are sociopaths. Marketing 101.

  8. HatGirl says:

    Hi Paula,

    Interesting blog. Although I’m sure the teacher had the best of intentions, I’m not sure if a “required” read of Cullen’s book is a good idea for any Columbine students, present or future. But I could be wrong. What do you think?

    Just have to weigh in on Fowl’s posts. I agree with you, Paula that most people are good. The statement: ” What many people fail to take into account is the fact that anyone is capable of just about anything in the right environment” is questionable, at best. When someone makes an argument using absolutes, like “anyone” or “anything” he/she falls into the “generalization” trap as people will emphatically counter with examples of “exceptions”, rendering said argument flawed and not “factual”. Just my take on it, anyway, with no disrespect to Fowl at all.

    BTW: Are you in countdown mode? Teaching is the best; but oh, that summer break? Heaven.

    • admin says:

      Kids who asked to be excused from reading it were. (I think there were two, and it was the parents who objected, not the kids.). It was fine. The kids were fine with it, and very interested. I really think those of us who were there lay our own emotional baggage on it. (It’s hard–nay impossible–not to.) At this point, especially since the unit is done and went so well, I have to say it’s their school. Why shouldn’t they learn about it?

      OMG, am I ever in countdown mode!

  9. Fowl Ideas says:


    People are not “basically good.” They’re basically self interested. In our present, semicivilized environment it is in most people’s self interest to avoid being bad. Put people in an environment where food is scarce and people are desperate and you’ll observe very good people doing very bad things.

    Summer is coming.

  10. HatGirl says:

    Hi Paula,

    You put to rest my doubts about the “required” read; your explanation of what went down, as a positive experience has me now echoing your statement: “It’s their school. Why shouldn’t they learn about it?” Thanks for sharing that perspective.

    Happy thoughts going out to you as the countdown continues….

  11. Fowl Ideas says:

    How does a student who is excused from the required reading participate in any sort of discussion about the topic at hand? And if he can’t participate as everyone else does, upon what criteria does a teacher base his grade?

    I thought the public school system was a bit looney when I last attended. Today it seems even more over the edge.

    • admin says:

      Parents have always been allowed to excuse their children from certain assignments and units, from sex ed, to evolution, to Catcher in the Rye. Personally, I would not do this, but I am not someone who has been mistrustful of school curricula or who felt that sheltering my kids from information or ideas was in their best interests.

      Sometimes, FI, I think schools can’t win for losing with you. I suspect if a school taught a unit with which you disagreed and didn’t allow people to opt out, you’d be upset with that, too. Schools are human institutions, run by humans, attended by humans. They will never be perfect. As a parent, I feel that one of the most important things my kids learned in school was how to function as imperfect beings in an imperfect world.

      In answer to the question about how the teacher grades, we seldom base major grades on class discussion. For kids whose parents opt them out, we assign a different book, let them go to the library during class, and give a final evaluation that focuses on the same basic concepts that were taught with the regular unit (narrative techniques, differing points of view, etc.). The student will not get the same rich experience, because he will not have been able to interact with peers or have nearly the same teacher guidance, but the parents know that when they pull their child.

  12. Fowl Ideas says:

    A society where morons, psychopaths, and criminals are allowed to become parents makes life hard on school teachers and policemen. I admire your patience.

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