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.

 

 

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

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

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!

I have some questions

Things That Make You Go Hmmm... | Teacher quotes, School quotes ...

I keep seeing this image, or versions of it, pop up on Twitter and Facebook, especially in trauma-informed education circles. “Students who are loved come to school to learn, and students who aren’t, come to school to be loved.”

I know it’s “just a quote.” I know it’s well-intentioned. But I have some questions.

  • Don’t all students want to learn? Aren’t all kids naturally curious?
  • Don’t all kids (and people, really) want to be loved?
  • Does this quote suggest that a teacher’s love and a parent’s love are the same thing?
  • Do kids have a choice about why (or whether) they come to school?
  • Are there really a whole lot of parents who don’t love their kids?
  • What effect does it have on my teaching practice if I believe my students’ parents don’t love them?
  • How does one tell the difference between a parent who doesn’t love their kids and a parent who loves their kid, but is overwhelmed or under-resourced and struggles to effectively parent?
  • How does one tell the difference between a kid who is loved at home and who isn’t?
  • Do loved kids always want to learn?
  • Should I lower my academic expectations for “unloved” kids because they’re just here to be loved?
  • Does trauma only happen to kids in “unloving” households?
  • Does being loved at home affect motivation for learning?
  • What am I, a teacher, supposed to do with this frame of understanding? How does it impact my practice?
  • What would my students’ parents think if they saw me tweet or post this quote?
  • Does this quote foster empathy or pity?

I hope you have some questions, too.

It’s “just a quote” but when we see enough of these quotes, they shape our worldview. Just like we teach our students: be critical. Ask questions. Don’t fall for pleasing sentence construction and confuse it with truth.

On moral neutrality

As teachers, we are told not to push our politics on students, and not to use our classrooms to further our own agendas. Be neutral. We are told to be role models, to stay positive. Don’t focus on the negative.

We are told: Spread love, but don’t talk too much about hate. Embrace diversity, but don’t talk too much about racism. Be resilient, but don’t talk too much about trauma. 

In reading Dr. Judith Herman’s classic text, Trauma and Recovery, I reflected on the parallels between therapists and teachers in taking a neutral stance. Dr. Herman writes:

 “‘Neutral’ means that the therapist does not take sides in the patient’s inner conflicts or try to direct the patient’s life decisions. Constantly reminding herself that the patient is in charge of her own life, the therapist refrains from advancing a personal agenda.”

I’m sure this approach resonates with many teachers: we want to provide students all of the relevant information and skills to think critically, and not simply impose our own opinions. We support students’ autonomy and power when we remain “neutral” in this sense.

But there are areas where we cannot, and should not, be neutral. Herman continues:

“The technical neutrality of the therapist is not the same as moral neutrality. Working with victimized people requires a committed moral stance. The therapist is called upon to bear witness to a crime. She must affirm a position of solidarity with the victim.”

For which crimes do your students call you to bear witness, through their words or their actions?

Do you bear witness to the crimes of racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious discrimination? Do you bear witness to the injust systems that create generational poverty? Do you bear witness to the pain of sexual and gender-based violence, to child abuse?

Do you bear witness to the crimes committed through inequity in your own school, in your own classroom? By your colleagues? By yourself?

When you bear witness, do you affirm your solidarity? Clearly, unequivocally, firmly positioning yourself alongside your students, together with them in their pain, always in their corner?

Or do you remain “morally neutral?” Do you say, “there are two sides to every story?” Do you ask, “well, what did you do to bring this on yourself?” Do you wonder, “did that really happen?”

Herman further explains:

“This does not mean a simplistic notion that the victim can do no wrong; rather, it involves an understanding of the fundamental injustice of the traumatic experience and the need for a resolution that restores some sense of justice.This affirmation expresses itself in the therapists’ daily practice, in her language, and above all in her moral commitment to truth-telling without evasion or disguise.”

Educators cannot say we are trauma-informed and also remain silent on the injust systems and conditions that cause trauma. We need to be truth-tellers, “without evasion or disguise,” when it comes to addressing injustice.

Teaching is political. As Shana White puts it, “Our words, curriculum decisions, who we advocate for and why, disciplining, opportunities we provide, and our pedagogy [are political]. Working with and facilitating learning for other human beings will always be political.” Jose Vilson says, “we are agents of the state, so in fact, we are political even if we’re not partisan.”

Whether we like it or not, teachers are the face of institutions, and with that institutional position comes great power. We can use our power to position ourselves in solidarity with our students, or we can hide our fear and indifference behind a mask of “neutrality.” In remaining morally neutral, we abandon our students at the time they most need us, and we ensure that trauma will continue to perpetuate through generations.

But if we choose to bear witness, to act in solidarity, we empower ourselves and our students. We say, “It is so wrong that this happened to you.” We say, “I believe you.” We say, “I’m here for you, and I will fight for you.” And we go beyond saying these things and put our power into action: teaching the truth about injustices in history and in our time, challenging unjust policies, advocating against unjust laws, working to dismantle the systems that harm our students and our community. We can take the first step toward creating a more just world.

So: what will you choose?

An Essential Read for Trauma-Informed Educators

Paul Gorski has a new article out called Avoiding Racial Equity Detours. If you are interested in trauma-informed education or consider yourself a trauma-informed teacher, this is a must-read. Trauma is not the focus of the article as a whole, but he touches on trauma-informed education in his discussion of the “Deficit Ideology Detour.” Shawn Ginwright’s piece on Healing-Centered Engagement is an excellent paired text to Gorski’s work. I highly recommend reading both pieces and considering what they mean for your work, and how we might all work together to ensure a trauma-informed lens isn’t just another deficit-based buzzword.