Is the pandemic a teachable moment?

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. 

Summer learning


*update: both of these classes are now full/closed. Stay tuned for future course and workshops! 

Professional development online mini-course

ReTURN to School with Trauma-Informed & Restorative Practices: I’m excited to be collaborating with Triad Restorative Justice for this mini-course for educators. Over two weeks, you’ll learn about the foundations of trauma-informed and restorative practices and put your learning into action by creating a plan for your return to school – whatever that may look like. I know that, for me, when times feel uncertain and I’m trying to figure out how the heck to teach, I return to my core values of trauma-informed and restorative practices. We hope to offer you a space to explore how these approaches can ground your work as well. 

Details and pay-what-you-can registration here. 

 

One-credit graduate course

Excited to share a new graduate course I’m teaching through Antioch University. This 1-credit course for teachers explores the four priorities of a trauma-informed approach, with a focus on how to apply this learning to the fall. No one has any answers about what the fall will look like, but what’s certain is the uncertainty and unpredictability for ourselves and our students. I believe that trauma-informed principles can help ground us and guide us through difficult times, providing clarity on what’s important for us and our students.

The course is four weeks long, mostly asynchronous with some live Q&A/community-building sessions on Zoom. I’m hoping to build a collaborative learning community so you can network, brainstorm, and dream with other teachers.

More details and registration here.

 

COVID19 & trauma-informed practice

There are no shortage of resources floating around about emergency distance learning and coronavirus and it can get quite overwhelming, so I’m not doing a comprehensive resource round-up here. Instead, I’m using this post to gather together some links related to my work from the past few weeks. I will update as I have more to add.

Thanks for everyone’s support and interest in my work lately! I’ll be continuing to offer a few additional PD opportunities over the coming weeks. Dates, information, and registration are all on Ticketleap.

Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning

This article is a write-up of a workshop I’ve been offering on trauma-informed practice guideposts for distance learning.

Trauma-Informed Practices & Distance Learning – Lunch & Learn Video and Transcript

If you missed it live, check out the recording and transcript of this Q&A I did with Life LeGeros. Some great questions were asked and I hope I shared some helpful answers!

Social-Emotional Support in the New World of Distance Learning

I wrote this piece for SLJ on social-emotional support in distance learning. Spoiler alert: it starts with taking care of yourself.

 

 

Some thoughts on pushing back and speaking up

Deep gratitude to Dulce-Marie Flecha, Christie Nold and lizzie fortin for being thinking partners on this piece.

Over the past week, I facilitated four online workshops on trauma-informed practices  for hundreds of caring educators. I’ve also been talking to many more teachers on Twitter and in my messages, and texting with educator friends. I keep hearing over and over: “I want to focus on relationships, but I am getting mandates about academics from my principal.” “I want to slow down and take care of myself and my family, but the pace of work is unsustainable.” I’ve also heard from friends of mine who are parents about the unrealistic academic expectations sent home by teachers. 

We are in a crisis. Nothing is normal right now. It’s been about three weeks that we’ve all been at home so some things may start to feel routine, but routine does not mean normalcy. And we’re also only at the beginning of this crisis. More people are going to get sick. You will know people who will be hospitalized. You will probably know someone who dies. This will continue to be a crisis. 

In a crisis, we need to focus on community care. I know that teachers and school leaders are getting pressure to “keep teaching” right now. But the reality is that everyone is making things up as we go. State leaders, district leaders, and school leaders are making decisions with very limited time and limited information and resources. As Chris Lehmann writes so clearly, this means we need to just focus on making the least bad decisions. I said on Twitter recently that people feel like they aren’t doing things right or they aren’t doing enough. The truth is that right now there is no “right.” There is no “enough.” 

So how do we navigate this incredibly messy situation? What do we do when the mandates that come from above seem to be harmful and not helpful? 

Here’s what I want to say to all of us right now (and I’m saying this for myself to hear, too): speak up. 

Policies and procedures made in a crisis aren’t meant to last. But the practices that are being put into place for educators right now will last if we comply with them silently. If you don’t tell your principal or administrator that the policy isn’t working, they won’t know. If it seems to be “working,” it will stick. 

We know that learners need timely and relevant feedback on their work. School leaders are learners right now as they try to navigate this mess. You, as teachers and as parents, are the ones who need to provide the feedback. I know that a culture has developed in some schools where it’s not OK to give feedback to the top. Let go of that for now. Your leaders need to hear from you. 

The other thing I’d encourage folks to consider is to just…not participate in policies you know are harmful. John Warner wrote about this in his piece If It Doesn’t Make Sense, Refuse. Warner is writing from a higher ed perspective where the dynamics can be a little different, and I also acknowledge that power dynamics make the threat of job loss very real especially for teachers of color.

Beyond the immediate threat of losing your job, there’s also your emotional and spiritual energy to consider. Many teachers of color have carried the burden of providing feedback on equity for years. It must feel exhausting to face this situation and consider whether you can emotionally manage the toll of this, yet again. Your safety comes first and you know best whether you are in a position to make waves. 

With that in mind, I’d encourage people to consider, really consider, whether you’re letting yourself off the hook when you say “I can’t do anything about this mandate.” Are there are ways for you to be “creatively non-compliant” and push back? Is there collective action you can take with colleagues or other parents? If you’re in a union, unions were created for exactly situations like this. Use your collective power and refuse to do what’s harmful to your students.

If we don’t speak up and if we don’t push back, we pass along the harm to our students. For example, some are being asked to continue to give letter grades to their students right now. I don’t believe in letter grades anyway, but in the current situation it’s very clear that what you are grading is not academic achievement or effort, but access to resources and support, which kids have no control over. If we comply with a directive to give letter grades, we are directly harming kids by putting permanent marks into their transcripts that reflect nothing about them as a learner. Even if you didn’t come up with the directive, you are responsible for that.

If you are in a position to speak up

Compliance isn’t your only option. You can be creatively non-compliant in a way that Warner suggests by simply giving every student an A. If your school refuses to implement pass/fail grading, just do it yourself and give every student an A. You can refuse and just not enter grades – even better if you do this in coordination with colleagues and take it on as a collective action. And you can push back and send your school’s leaders feedback that helps them understand why the directive needs to change.

Here are some conversation openers you might use in offering pushback, where X is the harmful or unjust policy or practice:

  • “I was surprised to see the email about X. It surprised me because I know that our school really values Y, and X policy doesn’t really align with that. Can you explain a little more of your thinking with this?”
  • “I’m writing about X. I’m very concerned about how this is going to impact our students, particularly those without internet access or a safe place to do work at home. I think that for these students X could be harmful.”
  • “Could we discuss X as a faculty? I know that the intent behind X was to promote Y and Z, but I thought you’d want to know that for me as a teacher, it feels unsustainable. I am worried about our ability to care for ourselves and our families if X continues.” 
  • “I am writing to let you know that I cannot do X and in coordination with my grade-level team, we are going to do Y instead. Here’s why, and I would encourage a faculty-wide discussion about whether it makes sense for anyone to be doing X right now.” 

Also remember the humanity of the people to whom you’re giving feedback. Leaders are overwhelmed right now and doing their best to survive under immense pressure. We need each other’s grace and flexibility right now.

If you are in a position of leadership

I know you are doing the best you can. I know you are making the “least bad” decisions you can make right now. Let one of those decisions be to prioritize caring for your staff and listening to their feedback. I know from my own experience that as a school leader, you often hold context and information that leads you to decisions and it’s sometimes hard or impossible to fully communicate this context to your staff. You are under so much pressure and facing public critique for every move you make. It probably feels impossible.

At the same time, recognize that you have an incredible resource in your teachers. Help them step up and help you. Share with them the parameters of the problems you face and invite their problem solving. Be vulnerable about your uncertainties while you’re also being clear about your expectations. Here’s how that might look:

  • “I am currently considering how to approach X and could use all of your input and help. The parameters I have gotten from the state include Y and Z. I’m also thinking about our budget and considering Q, R, and S.  Please let me know if you have creative ideas about X. I need to make a final decision by end of day tomorrow.”
  • “For right now, we need to all be on the same page about X so I am asking all of you to do X. I know that this is problematic for Y and Z reasons. The reason I made this decision is that I need to prioritize Q and R in the next 3 days, but I promise to revisit X on Monday. Join me on a call at 2 on Monday and we’ll revisit X.”
  • “Just a heads up that right now we have no policy for X but I know we need one. I am gathering examples to bring to the leadership team. If anyone has seen examples from other schools on social media of how they are approaching X, please drop them in this shared folder.”

When you invite feedback, remember that you need to be open to the responses. Thank your team for their ideas and suggestions, recognizing the potential risk that teachers are taking on by speaking up. If you feel reactive in the moment, remember to pause and not pass that reactivity along. Examine your own responses and ask yourself whether you see patterns in your responses to teachers based on racial identity or gender identity. Do your best to lift up the voices of marginalized people within your community, and prioritize the needs of your most vulnerable students and community members.

I also invite you to give yourself permission to slow down where you can. I know that in a crisis everything feels urgent. Use your team to help check yourself on whether there are things that can wait, priorities that can be revisited later, and opportunities to pause. Take breaks so that you can hear the feedback. I see you and I appreciate you. Keep fighting the good fight.

For everyone

There are two things that are both true right now. 

One: The most important thing is to take care of yourself and keep yourself safe and healthy. 

Two: The most important thing is to take care of one another and keep each other safe and healthy. 

These two truths come into conflict when taking care of others means draining ourselves. For teachers and parents (and really, everyone) who are running on fumes while trying to care for children, it can feel like way too much to then also think about creating conflict in your workplace. But if we hold both truths together, this conflict is part of how we demonstrate our care for students. Using our positions of power and influence in service of those more vulnerable is the ultimate act of community care.

I don’t pretend to know the answers to any of this, and like most of you, I am struggling to do what’s right by my students while also taking care of myself while also navigating the institutions I’m connected to. All I can say in closing is to repeat that there is no “right” and there is no “enough,” except that you, as a person, are enough. It’s okay to just focus on what you need to do to survive. Wishing you strength and with you in solidarity.

Resource Round-Up: Mindfulness in Schools

Are you thinking of implementing mindfulness, breathing, yoga or other wellness-focused social-emotional learning in your classroom? These practices can be powerful ways to develop self-awareness and wellness tools for life, but beware: these practices can also be unhelpful or even harmful, too. As with any new practice, we educators should think critically about mindfulness, breathing, yoga, or wellness practices before implementing them. Here are some of my favorite resources to help with this critical analysis:

First, read Paul Gorski’s piece on Equity Detours and check that you’re not using social-emotional learning as a racial equity detour.

Next, Christina Torres on how mindfulness won’t save us, but fixing the system will. We need to balance supporting kids to cope with addressing the conditions that require them to cope in the first place.

When offering students wellness strategies, we need to make sure we’re not just forcing students to use strategies that work for us. Here’s a piece from me on self-determination and SEL.

Turning to mindfulness specifically, it’s important to understand that mindfulness activities can actually be triggering for trauma-affected students. Read more from Katrina Schwartz here.

Speaking of which, this is a fascinating piece on why “take a deep breath” isn’t always good advice.

We should also consider the question “who gets to be well?,” posed by Dr. Angela Rose Black. She created Mindfulness for the People to center the voices and experiences of People of Color in the mindfulness movement and this interview with her is a great read.

If you have additional resources or insights to share, please leave a comment!

This post is a write-up of a Twitter thread – you can find the original here.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Spring graduate course: registration open

Registration is open for my spring online graduate course: Beyond the Buzzword: Deepening Knowledge & Practice of Trauma-Informed Education.

This class is designed for educators who already have a “trauma 101” level of understanding. Maybe you’ve been to a workshop, read a book, or browsed a few articles about trauma-informed education. This class is designed to help you dig deeper, both in understanding the research and concepts of trauma-informed practices as well as their practical application in your setting.

We’re going to dig into questions like…

  • How do we balance individual interventions with systemic change?
  • What can educators learn from the clinical research about trauma?
  • What school structures and systems should we reconsider through a trauma-informed lens?
  • How can we combat racism and other forms of oppression that cause trauma?
  • What changes can I start making, today, in my role?

…and much, much more.

I offer this class 100% online on Canvas, with three Zoom video calls so we can make connections in real time. You can earn 3 graduate credits from Castleton University.

Please reach out if you have any questions, or follow the link above to register! We get started on February 3.

Recommended Reading: “No one noticed, no one heard”

While doing research for my book, I came across this report from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (in the UK): No one noticed, no one heard: a study of disclosures of childhood abuse. [Content note: the report contains discussion of multiple types of abuse and the impact of abuse on children and families.]

I have SO many swirling thoughts after finishing my reading of this report. If you work with children, take the time to read this. Here are some of my initial thoughts, but I know I’ll be processing this study for a long time.

This study looked at the experiences of young people (ages 18 to 24) reflecting on their disclosures of childhood abuse prior to age 18. Of the 60 young people interviewed by Debbie Allnock and Pam Miller, most (80%) told someone or tried to tell someone of the abuse they endured. Yet 90% of those who disclosed had a negative experience in their disclosure journey: they weren’t believed. They were ignored. They were spoken down to, or left out of the process. Sometimes disclosure made things worse, as when a teacher reported a child’s disclosure to her parents (who were the perpetrators of the abuse).

There were also moments of success and support, many involving disclosure to peers and friends. This made me think of how we talk to all students about supporting one another through hard times. Are we so focused on helping teachers become trauma-informed that we overlook one of the biggest resources our students have – one another?

Here are some of the big takeaways for me from this report:

  1. Believe kids when they disclose abuse. No matter what.
  2. Schools need to get crystal clear on the process of support and communication after student disclosure. It’s not just about complying with mandated reporting law. How are we communicating with students about the process in a way that empowers them? How are we explaining the process in a developmentally appropriate way? How are students supported after the legal boxes are ticked?
  3. Get to know your students. So many of the young people in this study wished that their teachers and other adults asked what was wrong. You can’t notice that something is wrong if you don’t know your students in the first place.

As I read, I also couldn’t help but think about the recent trend of schools asking students to fill out ACEs checklists. In Allnock and Miller’s study, young people shared the pain of disclosing their abuse only to have it ignored or minimized, or for there to be no meaningful follow-up. For those children who told someone about abuse while it was happening, fewer than half said that their disclosure led to the abuse actually stopping. Fewer than half. Youth in the study also shared that sometimes they weren’t ready to disclose to authority figures, choosing to talk to friends instead. I wonder about the experience of students prompted to fill out an ACE checklist, and whether there is meaningful follow-through on these disclosures. Why ask if we aren’t ready to truly hear, and to act? We need to take great caution as a field when considering the dynamics of disclosure as it connects to ACEs. Children wanted to be noticed and asked personally by a trusted adult if something was wrong. Schools need to carefully consider what all of this means in the context ofboundaries and role clarity.

These are just some of my initial thoughts, but I hope you can see what a powerful resource this is for anyone working with children. I encourage you to read the whole report for more recommendations and action steps from the authors.  The report contains the words of the young people themselves and there is nothing more powerful than listening to their voices. 

 

Image credit: Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

Winter news & updates!

The snow is coming down outside in Vermont so I guess it’s officially winter! You may have noticed it’s been a little quiet on the blog lately. Here’s why: I’m currently working on my first book! I’m under contract with the fine folks at W.W. Norton and my book will be part of Paul Gorski’s Equity & Justice series. Due out in spring 2021, my book will focus on trauma-informed education through an equity lens. I am so excited about what I’m working on and can’t wait to share it with you all!

As you can imagine, I’m spending most of my writing energy on this project, so you can expect fewer blog posts over the next couple of months. That said, please stay in touch with me on Twitter @AlexSVenet as I’m doing plenty of tweeting in between writing sessions 🙂

I will also be reposting and sometimes expanding some work from the archies of my blog over the next couple of months. To start with, check out this 2016 piece on Rethinking Holidays in Schools. It’s a list of questions that would make a great discussion guide at your next faculty meeting to spark some critical thinking as we approach “holiday season.”

Be well and stay tuned for news and updates about the book, my spring online graduate course, and more! Thanks to everyone for your support!

Interview: Evolution of a Trauma-Informed School

In the past few years, there has been an explosion of schools starting to implement trauma-informed educational practices. Public schools across the country are learning about how trauma impacts kids and their learning, and adjusting their classroom practices and school policy to be responsive.

But what does it look like to sustain this work over the years? How does a school go beyond “trauma-informed 101” and build the core concepts into the fabric of their community?

Over the past year I’ve gotten to know Mathew Portell, principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville. Mathew is the real deal: fully committed to transforming his school so that all kids can succeed. At the Trauma Informed Educators Network conference this summer, Mathew shared the video from the Edutopia profile of his school, filmed over two years ago. He made a passing comment about how some of the things in the video aren’t quite accurate anymore, because trauma-informed education is a journey, not a checklist.

Having been a leader of a trauma-informed school myself, that rang true. The journey includes a constant revisiting of our core values, aligning our practice with those values, and always asking: is this working? Is this helping? If not, how can we as the adults change and grow?

I wanted to know more about how Mathew and his school are navigating this journey. You can read the full interview on Edutopia. Thanks to Mathew for this great conversation!

If you are also part of a school that is moving past “getting started with trauma-informed” and into “sustaining our trauma-informed work,” I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment or send me an email at Alex@UnconditionalLearning.org 

Learn with me this fall: graduate course registration open

registration open!

Registration is open for my fall graduate course: “Supporting Challenging Students: Strengths-Based & Trauma-Informed Approaches.” Click here for more details and registration link! 

I love teaching this class. It’s designed around a reflective practice, case-study model. Teachers choose one student and work on building relationship with and better understanding that student, asking: “What can this student teach me about my teaching?”

We also dig in to two of my favorite texts: Fostering Resilient Learners and Lost at School. I pair these readings with other texts and concepts to help participants think about their practice in new ways.

This class is hybrid online and face-to-face. The two in-person meetings are in Montpelier, VT (exact location coming as soon as I confirm it). I hope you can join us!