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Responding to Trauma and Tragedy

My first writing assignment of the year in all of my classes, regardless of the subject of the class, is a personal narrative. I do this for several reasons. I do it because personal narrative is the perfect playground for students to learn key writing and grammar lessons. When they are telling their story, students tend to get more interested in doing it right. I also do it because it introduces me to the kids and helps me start to build my theory of mind (if you don’t know what that is, look into a wonderful book called The Teaching Brain; in short, it is our ability to understand others). But lastly I do it because many of the students will tell me what they are grappling with, which is incredibly valuable when it comes to informing my interactions with them, but sometimes they are wrestling with demons that I can’t even begin to understand. Every year, I get more than a handful of students who tell me about the death of a parent or friend, an assault they had to endure, a suicide attempt, or some other tragedy or trauma, and even now I struggle with how to respond to those.

On the one hand, the narratives are assignments for class that are supposed to be judged on grammar, organization, and turns of phrase. On the other hand, when someone spills his/her/their darkest secrets, it feels pretty callous to mention comma splices.

While I don’t have any silver bullets, I have responded to enough students who have told me about trauma and watched their responses to me to have some general guidelines for how to respond to difficult subject matter.

Whenever I come across a difficult paper, I start by thanking the student for sharing with me. Sharing truths is hard at any age, but it is especially hard for adolescents and even harder when it is with a teacher. With that in mind, I want to honor the bravery of the students and the trust they’ve placed in me.

Next, I tend to offer my support and potentially address the subject matter head on. If they were willing to share it with me, I think it is important to not brush past it. If students talk about abuse, I discuss their resilience. If they talk about death, I talk about how the piece is a testament to their loved one.