MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Thousands of students in El Paso, Texas, went back to school today. It's the first day of classes for the city's largest school district. Looming over today, of course, is the fact that 22 people were killed, and dozens more were injured in a mass shooting last week at a local Walmart. Mallory Falk from member station KERA visited one of El Paso's schools today to see how teachers and students are dealing with the trauma.
MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.
KELLY: Glad to have you with us. So it was a middle school that you got inside today. Tell us how the day went.
FALK: Sure. So, obviously, this was not a school shooting. Schools were not targeted, but the district wanted to be sensitive to students and asked reporters not to visit classrooms. But I was able to speak with a teacher there at Terrace Hills Middle School. Her name is Sarah Cooper. She teaches eighth-grade math. And she said that, in some respects, this really felt like a typical first day.
Both teachers and students were feeling some angst and some excitement but that it was also different because this huge tragedy happened here just over a week ago. And so she said she was trying to go about the normal back-to-school routine but also preparing for the possibility that students might bring up the shooting.
SARAH COOPER: We're going business as usual as much as possible. You know, we're starting the day. It's the first day of school - fresh starts. And then if a child reaches out, then we would talk about whatever it is that they needed to discuss.
FALK: And, Mary Louise, she said that a lot of other teachers there were taking the same approach.
KELLY: And to that point that you just raised about wanting to get students talking about this, how they're feeling, what questions they have about what happened - how has the school handled that? What plans did they put in place?
FALK: So at this school, there's already time blocked off during the day for what's known as social emotional learning, where students sit in a circle, and they each take a turn responding to a question from their teacher. So today, that might be, what are you most excited to learn about? Or what's something you want me to know about you? And teachers felt that this was really an opportunity where students might start to bring up how they're feeling or ask questions because it's already this designated time in the school day to have a really open conversation.
KELLY: So that's how they're trying to get students to ask questions. What kind of answers were teachers and school staff prepared to give? I mean, I'm thinking specifically about the fact that this alleged gunman drove hours to get to El Paso. And according to police, he was specifically targeting Mexicans. How did they talk about that with middle schoolers?
FALK: Yeah. And like you said, this is a middle school. And the conversation really depends on the age of the students. It's going to look different for a middle schooler than a high schooler or a kindergartner.
FALK: And so, you know, Sarah Cooper, the eighth-grade teacher I spoke with, said one of the things people are really grappling with is that this isn't a city where people - where residents generally target each other based on race or nationality. And so she was prepared to have a conversation about the fact that that's not really the case anywhere else - or everywhere else - and to validate students' feelings that they might not - when they're concerned about their safety but encourage them not to let that anxiety and fear take over.
COOPER: Because then those people win, right? Those people who are doing these things that instill fear, they win if we're scared to live. So we can't let that happen. We have to overcome that.
KELLY: A teacher there ending that report from a middle school in El Paso, Texas, where students went back to school today.
Mallory Falk from KERA, thank you.
FALK: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.