I’m a bit late to #cyberPD because I’ve been traveling, but I did want to catch up and participate, even if I’m late. #CyberPD is one of my favorite professional development opportunities each year–a virtual summer book study with many of the teacher-bloggers I learn the most from. I was excited when Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension was selected as the 2018 title. This is a book that’s been on my stack for a few months now, and it focuses on something I want to model and teach much more actively next year.
Three important takeaways from early in the book:
Social comprehension starts with our own identities. I was fascinated by Ahmed’s framing of some familiar early school year activities (identity webs, writing about your name, “Where I’m From” poems) as tools to foreground and highlight the identities students have already created and bring to our classrooms. Valuing others’ identities begins with understanding our own and with having our identities validated and valued by others. Ahmed uses these familiar assignments not just to build relationships and get to know her students but to sow the seeds of empathy and compassion for others.
Social comprehension begins with the relationships within our classrooms. I love the emphasis Ahmed places on relationships with our students, which I consider to be the most important work we do as teachers in any discipline. She also emphasizes the relationships among students in our classroom, and I realize that I spend far less time thinking about how to foster those. She has her students share their writing not just to focus on writing craft, as I do, but to build empathy.
We don’t need to be scared of discomfort: not only is it a natural part of this work, the most uncomfortable conversations may bring the most change. I really appreciated the reminder that I don’t have to save every uncomfortable moment, that silence sometimes is the best response in difficult conversations, that students often know what needs to be said to each other. Ahmed provides many helpful tools for teaching students how to listen actively and respectfully to each other and to manage disagreement.
And a concern:
If you teach students who have experienced trauma, please proceed gently and mindfully with this work. When you don’t come from a hard background yourself, it can be very challenging to understand just how painful and triggering some of this work focused on identity and empathy can be for our students who do come from hard backgrounds.
Becoming the mother of a child who experienced significant childhood trauma related to family, identity, and culture has changed my understanding of the personal work we ask our students to do in the classroom. I used to think that my good intentions, strong relationships with students, and respect for students’ boundaries were enough to make personal assignments and identity work a positive experience for all of my students. Now I realize that belief was naive at best and likely created some deeply painful and even re-traumatizing school experiences for some of my students, whose trauma and responses to trauma I simply didn’t comprehend. Trauma-informed education tends to focus on classroom management strategies and emotional regulation, and that’s certainly important. But we need to be mindful of the ways that our content and assignments can also be triggering or even re-traumatizing for our students.
Ahmed alludes to challenges that some of our students may face writing about their names or sharing where they’re from, but she ascribes those feelings to “embarrassment” and equates them to her own embarrassment as a child over how her clothes always smelled like spices and onions. But for students who have experienced childhood trauma that may be related to family, culture, and identity, it’s really not a question of embarrassment. It is not just that they may not know the answers to some of these questions about identity or that they may be uncomfortable sharing. It’s that these kinds of assignments may be direct triggers for their trauma. We need to be aware that good intentions and taking a celebratory stance will not be enough to make this work safe for all of our students.
I’m not sure what the answer is. I do think this work is essential for many of our students to grow and develop, even as I know it isn’t safe for others. Offering alternative assignments is helpful but may not be enough. A child who has experienced significant trauma around identity might be deeply triggered by the work that other students are doing with identity even if he or she has an alternative assignment to, say, create an identity web for a favorite character instead of a personal identity web or to write about a fictional character’s name instead of his or her own name. And despite our good intentions, a child who receives a special alternative assignment is always going to feel singled out, and for some children, that’s not just embarrassing, it’s triggering because it mirrors earlier childhood experiences.
Carol has also shared concerns about identity assignments and trauma in her post about why the names assignment in particular would be hard for her sons. It’s an important read.