The fall is fast approaching. Despite the lack of clarity about what school is going to look like, teachers are starting to prepare. One of the topics I’ve seen come up in teacher conversations: whether or not to use the pandemic as a teaching moment in our classrooms. Should you create math lessons using data about case numbers in different states, for example? Should students write pandemic journals? Would it be appropriate to do a unit on the 1918 pandemic flu?
Idil’s thread on pandemic math sparked me to write this post. She sums it up well when she says: “It’s a lot to ask to do a math lesson about this well. It is hard pedagogical work & hard emotional labour. We have a responsibility to speak to the moment, and it’s a pandemic and maybe folks aren’t ready to learn to do all of this at the same time.”
This is really the “both/and” that lies at the heart of trauma-informed practices. Ignoring hard topics and pretending they do not belong in the classroom is to ignore our students’ (and our) life experiences. The truth is that it’s not possible to “leave it at the door” especially when, for many of us, there is no physical door to our classrooms anymore. When the “door” is a Zoom window, it’s really not reasonable to ask people to pretend that things can have any semblance of normalcy. At the same time, trauma-informed practice doesn’t mean we must (or should) directly engage with or unpack student experiences of trauma. It can be triggering and overwhelming to examine or reflect on hard times while we’re living through them. So we both cannot ignore trauma and hard times, and we shouldn’t focus on trauma and hard times in ways that do harm. How do we make sense of this?
As with most things when it comes to teaching, there is no single “right answer.” Instead, here are some guiding questions that can be helpful in navigating your decision-making about using the pandemic as a teachable moment.
Guiding question 1: is this lesson/activity/unit appropriate if one of my students, students’ family members, or colleagues dies from COVID-19?
This question, for me, is the most important consideration. I’ve seen a few “cutesey” activities shared on Twitter and Instagram, including a journaling project called “I survived the pandemic!” In this project, students are supposed to write in the style of the Scholastic “I Survived” series. When I saw this, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would feel like to hand this writing prompt to a student whose parent had just died from COVID, or who was worried every day about getting sick and not surviving. What is the value of this writing project for that student?
If you’re considering using the pandemic as a teachable moment, remember this: the pandemic is not over. Thousands have died and thousands more will die before a vaccine is available. Students and staff in your school will lose loved ones or have lost them already. Students and staff in your school are afraid and anxious. We should not do any activity that makes light of the pandemic, treats it with irreverence, or fails to recognize the emotional gravity of the situation.
Guiding question 2: Am I asking students to opt out or opt in?
For some students, engaging with pandemic-related academic content will be triggering, stressful, and overwhelming. For others, engaging with pandemic-related academic content will feel relevant and empowering. Some students might feel both ways at the same time. Choice is important. I sometimes hear teachers say: “well, if any student has a problem with it, I’ll just offer them something different.” Here’s the thing: that puts the burden on students to recognize they are having a hard time and then make themselves vulnerable in speaking up. If you require the whole class to engage in a pandemic-related activity, it might be overwhelming for students to try to opt out or ask for an alternative activity. Because of the power dynamics in most schools, students may not even realize they can ask at all. Instead of asking students to opt out, provide multiple options from the start.
Make it shame-free. Don’t say “this is the activity we’re doing, unless you don’t want to in which case you can do this other not-as-cool thing.” Create two (or more) equal options, or open-ended projects or topics. For example: “Today we’re practicing persuasive writing by creating public health messaging. Your task is to create a public service announcement. You can choose from this list of topics: eating vegetables, moving for 30 minutes a day, or washing your hands and wearing a mask.” Or keep the prompt wide open!
Elizabeth Dutro, in writing about trauma-informed literacy pedagogy, says that “making intentional space for stories of trauma is always posed as invitation, never as requirement.” This frame is essential whether we are inviting students to directly reflect on their experiences or to engage in academics connected to ongoing collective trauma.
Guiding question 3: What’s the balance?
Engaging in pandemic academics will help some students process and make meaning of their experience. But making meaning shouldn’t be forced or required, and often it’s impossible to make meaning of a traumatic experience while the experience is still happening. Remember that your students (…and you, and your colleagues) may just be in survival mode until the danger has passed. If you have personally experienced trauma or grief, you likely know that meaningful reflections on those experiences often come months, years, or decades after the actual event.
At the same time, creating space to process and check in can be powerful. Whether it’s a community circle, a rose and thorn check-in, or another structure, it’s important to make space for your students to bring their full selves to school. Witnessing one another’s daily triumphs and struggles is part of what builds a strong community. Students often look to their teachers to help guide their understanding of the world when the world feels complicated. Classrooms – virtual or in-person – should be centered around our shared humanity. To show up as full people, in all of our complexities, we need space to talk about what’s going on and what we’re feeling.
The key here is balance. It’s not helpful to remove all mention of current events from the classroom and ban all discussion of the pandemic. It’s also not helpful to spend all day, every day engaging in heavy conversations, with no break from the weight of the world. Make room for students to escape into unrelated topics. Make room for joy, fun, and silliness. Those moments matter.
Guiding question 4: What do my students say they need?
As a final guideline, we need to remember that we’re not going to get it right all the time. It’s not possible to avoid every single potential trauma trigger in the classroom, or anticipate every person’s emotional reaction to any topic. You can only make decisions informed by the best information you have available. The bulk of that information needs to be your students’ and their families’ feedback and ideas. Find ways to build in regular, ongoing feedback from your students. You might use a simple Google form, send an email, or schedule 1:1 conferences. Ask about how things are going, what feels good about class, what feels challenging, what students and their families need from you. Adjust your practice based on what you learn.
This year is going to be difficult. There won’t be any single answers to the complicated questions in front of us. I hope these guidelines can help you to embrace a “both/and” approach. Sending each and every one of you strength and support. Thanks for reading.