Trauma in the Classroom

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This blog was originally posted on November 24th, 2015.

Guest blogger Abby Nance has an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University and is an instructor at Gardner-Webb University. This is her seventh year teaching in the first year writing program. Her research explores the relationship between trauma and writing in the college classroom.

Last year at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I spoke about the role of trauma in the writing lives of first-year college students. Whenever I talk about trauma, toxic stress, or mental health with other writing instructors, I feel deeply aware of my own students and the stories of abuse, neglect, violence, and anxiety that they hint at or explore outright in their own writing. If statistics can provide a baseline or a map, then many of our students are entering our classrooms with histories of trauma. Consider the following research:

  • The staggering statistics surrounding sexual assault and rape. Nearly one in 5 women reported experiencing rape at some point in their lives (CDC, 2010). Nineteen percent of female undergraduate students reported experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault (Journal of American College Health 2009). Read more about both studies here.
  • The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (or ACE Study).The ACE Study is an ongoing epidemiological study of more than 17,000 participants by the CDC and Kaiser Permenante, which established an association between traumatic experiences in childhood and physical and emotional health risks in later life. In doing so, it also measured the number of people who experience trauma during childhood. 2/3 of participants reported at least one adverse childhood experience.
  • The percentage of young adults with mental illness. 25% of 18-24 year olds have a diagnosable mental illness (National Alliance on Mental Illness)

If trauma among young adults is as ubiquitous as these statistics and studies seem to indicate, what can instructors do to ameliorate conditions for writers enrolled in our courses? How can we create and sustain safe professional spaces with our students? How do we model empathy and coping in our classrooms? And how do we teach emotionally difficult texts in such a way that students opt in, rather than out?I don’t have answers, but I have a few suggestions:

  • Ask your students.  In the first week of class I ask my students to write a letter (in response to a letter I write them about me). I ask them to address a few questions, including “What behaviors, language or subject matter offends you? What are some of your pet peeves? What content shuts you down?” In the letter I write to the students, I tell a little bit about my own story. It varies what I tell them, but I always write about something that is tender and unresolved. I make an effort to be present with them and to answer the questions that I’ve posed.
  • Introduce students to James Pennebaker’s work. One of the ways we marginalize students who are triggered by literature and art is that we fail to allow them to work through that response for fear that they (or we) are too uncomfortable. I think in the moment, it’s okay to shut down a conversation that is causing extreme discomfort, but I think it is important to ask our students to unpack what happened later— not necessarily in the context of class or for an audience, but because it helps. On the rare occasion that I’ve had a student who seemed overwhelmed or panicked, I’ve privately shared with them some James Pennebaker’s work on writing to heal, which links expressive writing to improved emotional and physical health. This link takes you to a great resource that includes an assignment and some tips for writing to heal.

  • Use your words. If a student has had a panic attack, and if that student later visits your office hours or hovers after class, figure out a way to talk about panic, anxiety, or trauma in a way that is both comfortable to you and personal. If you have experiences that you can share, or if you have a friend or family member who experiences anxiety—describe them. If not, adapt this awesome post about glitter balls from the Momentous Institute’s blog.
  • And your senses. I have a glitter jar on my desk—it’s a great conversation starter for discussions about anxiety. I also keep a few other sensory toys (a stress ball, a smooth rock, and a koosh ball) that students often pick up and play with when they need to keep their hands occupied. Essentially, I created an adult-version of a “calm down basket” when I noticed how many of my students were playing with a smooth glass paperweight during my office hours. To learn more about calm-down baskets, check out this post. Or, if you have a Pinterest account, there are several boards devoted to calm down baskets.
  • Ask your colleagues. Now I want to hear from you. How do you handle trauma in the classroom? What resources have you found to be helpful? What do you say? And what do you do?
About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.