October 2 2019


October 2019 Issue I
Friends refer friends.


Connecting diverse understandings of academic language to practice.

Trauma: A Definition-ish

The word “trauma” seems to be just about everywhere recently: describing everything from student responses to standardized testing to the psychological state of migrant children. And while these traumatic experiences are certainly different, they also give us insight into the challenge of defining trauma.

So, here’s one definition of trauma from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects” (you can take a deep-dive into SAMHSA’s research on trauma here). Our DNP interpretation: trauma refers to those experiences that cause harm and have long-term effects. We’re not trying to throw shade, but this definition feels pretty broad and complicated.

And that’s because there really isn’t one single definition of trauma. Instead, experiences of trauma differ from person to person, based on things like race, class, gender, and even the environment.

Well now I’m even more confused…

Let’s not get bogged down with definitions. As teachers it’s more important to determine how to talk about and respond to trauma. In her work, educational researcher Dr. Elizabeth Dutro introduces the idea of trauma as a circle of testimony and witness. The circle begins when a difficult story is shared in the classroom (this is the testimony part). Those who hear the testimony are then made witnesses who can respond by sharing their own testimonies.

So that’s the general story, but let’s break it down a bit more… What constitutes testimony in the classroom is actually quite broad. Testimonies can be literary (ex: students read about a character who experiences trauma) or real (ex: students listen as a fellow classmate shares their testimony). Either way (fiction or IRL), students are placed into the position of witnesses who can respond by just listening or by sharing their own stories of trauma.

What about the teacher? You’re a witness too, and sometimes you’re gonna just listen to the testimonies of your students.. But you don’t have to remain silent. As teachers, we have our own experiences of trauma, and it’s ok to share our testimonies in the classroom, alongside our students.

Our big take-away from the testimony-witness circle is an emphasis on sharing. The experience of trauma is never solitary, but will and should involve others.

The why’s and how’s

Discussing trauma in the classroom can support students as they work through their own experiences, help students develop empathy for others, and even challenge structural inequities that contribute to different experiences of trauma.

Need some resources to help you get started?

    Reviewing a current topic + offering practical strategies for teaching.

    Trauma: To teach or not to teach?

    As ELA teachers, we spend a lot of time searching for books that (a) our students actually want to read and (b) address relevant and timely topics. [oh, and (c) align with the standards].

    …and our YA authors have really delivered: writing books that courageously take on some of our most pressing social traumas. From race and police brutality to sexual assault to immigration, YA as a genre isn’t shying away from the challenging topics and experiences facing our students on the daily (and neither should we).

    But traumatic experiences, like those in the YA books we teach, aren’t just fictional. And they don’t only exist outside of our classrooms. More and more secondary students have experienced (or are currently experiencing) trauma (check out JAMA’s report for all the deets — the inequitable experiences of trauma by minoritized groups is especially significant). And reading about some of those social issues in the books in those lists can actually induce more trauma (it’s called re-traumatization).

    Not teaching books about trauma: Check.

    Wrong. It’s true that exposure to trauma narratives can have negative effects on students. But!–and this is a big but(t)–this does not excuse us from discussing trauma (and trauma narratives) in our classrooms. As teachers, our goal is not to remove the trauma narratives, but to remove the barriers to learning that could be presented by those narratives.

    Here’s what you need to know: Teaching trauma includes instances where texts are used to indirectly introduce and depict traumatic events [ex: having students read Dear Martin in class). Related (but not tooootally the same), trauma-informed teaching recognizes the risks associated with teaching trauma and prioritizes student emotional safety in learning.

    In short: If you’re gonna incorporate books about trauma into your teaching, then you also need to make all students feel safe so they can learn.

    Yowza-cakes! How do I ensure student safety?

    If you’re a nerd like us, grab your stretchy pants and a snack and settle in with one of Carello and Butler’s articles about trauma-informed teaching.

    No time? Here’s some info to help you get started… [with the caveat that only YOU know your students and your context, and that knowledge should drive your choices in the classroom]
      • Assume that pretty much everybody sitting in your classroom is at risk of (re)traumatization.
      • It could be appropriate to give a trigger warning before introducing material that could shock or disturb students. This is a pretty happening topic at the moment, with folks challenging the term “trigger warning” in light of school shootings and discussing limitations to freedom of speech (blog + twitter chat about these controversies here).
      • Check in with students. A lot. Asking students to share their emotional responses to texts and topics is a great topic for quick writes or exit tickets.
      • Talk to them. Don’t just hand a copy of Dear Martin to students and leave them to figure it out on their own. Try out some strategies for facilitating difficult discussions (we’re loving the “monitor yourself” checklist) and make your classroom an inclusive space for everyone.
      • Differentiate your expectations. Plan for alternate assignments and texts, allow for late turn-ins, and let students participate in ways that are most comfortable for them.
      • Know what supports exist for students in your school and have referrals ready.
      • Teach about self-care and review different ways that students can take care of themselves.

      And no. We didn’t forget the rest of the issue. This month we’re sending you 2 issues of DNP!! 🎉🙌
      Coming up in 2 weeks? We continue to dive into some of the more challenging aspects of teaching ELA in Making Connections and Spotted: While Avoiding Work.

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