Normal Is As Normal Does: Writing Through Trauma In The Classroom

By Melissa Bryan

A conversation that keeps coming up in my PLN (Professional Learning Network) and department Zoom chats and group emails and amongst educator friends is: how do we teach in a time of trauma? This has been one of the most meaningful questions I have ever come across as an educator.

Right now, it seems that curriculum is being required despite the fact that students may be (and probably are) grieving the loss of their graduations, their baseball or track seasons, their locker conversations with friends, their consistency, their desire to get dressed in the morning, or their need to see a teacher who makes them laugh. In the case of my children, they may even be grieving that rather impromptu loss of their spring break. Understandably, districts are trying to capitalize on time because there is a lot of uncertainty. How long will social distancing be required? When will re-entry occur? Will it be fast or slow? Will we lose more classroom time to remote-learning next year? Given this ambiguity, allocating time allotted for “break” to continue instruction has some merit, but our children and students have been suffering from some very real and painful changes. My own children cry because, diligent students that they are, they feel irresponsible when they miss a Zoom class that they didn’t see in their Google Stream because the platform is still rather new to them. My daughter screams in fits of frustration because, as a special education student with an IEP in need of several supporting teachers, she is left to her own devices at home to complete her work on a chromebook at seven-years-old while my husband and I jockey between our full-time jobs and supporting our three elementary school children online. These facts are not offered as rare or as complaint; we all are doing what we can, and it is a resilient society. But I feel the need to offer a way that is unsanctioned, unassessed, process-driven, and an avenue toward “doing” and productivity; one that is not merely receptive, assessed, or a continuation of what we left before this distancing occured — at least in some small measure and with the backing of educational institutions.

Asking Questions and Looking for Advice

I have been seeking answers through questioning, reading, and listening to others. Some people are reflective and say, “I have been thinking about this. It is different from past experiences because it is slow and we don’t know how the slowness and illness will impact our students.” I appreciate the meditation, but I can’t shake my sense of urgency. I want a direction. Other more stalwart educators and districts respond with a “business as usual” model. I have heard teachers say: “students need a sense of normalcy,” and supervisors are told to “keep with the curriculum” despite the obvious challenges of what that might look like online, let alone how it obfuscates the duty of teaching to the whole child. I should say, even with the more traditionally committed visions of teaching, I see good intentions in the spectrum of responses, but I don’t personally share their ethos. Still others have been a breath of fresh air for me.

Recently, in a weekly meeting of educators with whom I get together on Zoom to discuss how we are all coping and teaching in this new landscape, I asked educators who taught during 9/11 (and educators who were in school during 9/11) what they did and how they handled the post-9/11 trauma days in school. I was curious how those experiences might inform how I approach my classes at this time. The responses were overwhelmingly empathetic. On a few occasions, educators who were students in 2001 said things like, “definitely don’t” scare the kids. To which I asked, were educators given professional training on how to answer student questions appropriately (so as not to scare them)? The answer was “No.” And, I think that remains largely the case today because I haven’t been offered any particular way to manage the socio-emotional issues that my students face. Indeed, on one occasion, an ELL student of mine who recently migrated to the US wrote something in an email to the effect of, “I am doing okay. My dad won’t let me out of the house, not even for a walk, but I haven’t lost my mind yet!” Her positivity was inspiring, but I was nervous for her. When I asked administrators if there was a protocol in place for those kinds of student admissions in this distance-learning world, I was told “No. Just be aware and listen.” Even counseling departments have appeared limited in their responses over the last several weeks because, as many of us know, the responses and energy are going toward the most severe and immediate cases. Rightly so, but we have a responsibility to all of our students, and every one of them, whether they are seriously struggling or passively accepting this “new normal” needs attention.

So, while I appreciate the advice to just be the “sounding board” — as we all need those in our lives — I still feel like doing something seems better than not. Perhaps many of us have heard Pearl Jam’s new album Gigaton recently, but a line in a new song reminds me that human experience needs action; it doesn’t materialize by mere absorption. In “7 O’Clock,” Eddie Vedder sings, “Freedom is as freedom does, and freedom is a verb.” The context isn’t the same though appropriate to the world today regardless, yet surely offering our students a way of “doing something” or of “verbing” their way through this time and empowering them with a strategy for letting their experience “rest” is better than just being an absorbing sponge at best or a teacher requiring curricular work completion only at worst.

My colleagues who participate in the weekly discussion, and who did teach during 9/11, gave me some of that seasoned veteren teacher advice that I always crave. It is never filled with glamor or show; it is merely sound and sure. They said that they offered students opportunities to write. Writing was natural.

Colleagues continued sagaciously with, “Don’t underestimate the wisdom from youth.” How that resonated with me! I have been on a quest to offer my students agency all year, but when they need agency, ownership, and opportunities to tell me and others what they know and understand about the world today, I was heartbreakingly assigning them prefab assignments and responding to them about their analytical abilities. I see myself now writing time and again some pedantic line like, “I really wish you explored the meaning of this hyperbole.” It seems pathetic drivel in a time when they and we all should be exploring our own ideas and voices in a frayed society unblanketed by a ravaging pandemic, necessary isolations, and ubiquitous social ills.

Acting Is The Answer

I know I want to read or hear what wisdoms my students have to share, but if they are bogged down by daily Zoom meetings, educational website practice, and videos created pre-pandemic which are now irrelevant to the world today; or they are learning about perpendicular lines without attention drawn to the changes to their lives, are they processing content in a real-world context? What sense can be made from blocking out reality to study obscure curricular topics? Even in a generally healthy environment, the skill of eschewing outside factors to delve into content study with focus is hard, though admittedly an important skill. Brain studies discuss this very point, and on this I have had ample district-level training. Namely, that the way the brain works is that only some things get to long-term memory. From Brain Whys, authors Moretz, Sears, and Levy write of stress, “Worries and anxieties can fill you with toxins and block the brain from functioning efficiently. Excess of stress can profoundly affect memory in a negative way” (87). What is this if not a stressful time? Are my kids retaining what homonyms are right now? Do my students really care what Maupassant has to say about the subtleties of love in “Was it a dream?” I don’t know. I want them to, but I can’t say they are or that I even value that knowledge now as much as I did or might have pre-pandemic.

Knowing that writing helps me, knowing that teachers from the 9/11 era offered writing and empowered their students with voice, and knowing that stress limits long-term memory, I looked online for prompts on how to use writing as an entry point for coping with social distancing. At the time, I was surprised to find some limited options in those early searches. About two weeks into the seclusion, the conversations weren’t hitting the digital waves like they had been in my personal world. On 4/1, however, — the day that marks the start of National Poetry Month — two wonderful emails appeared in my inbox and reminded me of an essential practice that has governed and seen me through every hard and happy time. First, I got a “chain letter,” and though I haven’t engaged in the “chain letter” writing phenomenon since I was about nine, I found the prospect of sending an inspirational poem, quotation, or note to anonymous others a fun way to share in words the things I felt. Additionally, colleagues in various realms of my working world were sending poems out to honor the month, and maybe to let some personal thoughts rest via poet proxy. In fact, throughout distance learning, I shared daily quotations with my students from and by Hemingway on writing, the Tao of Pooh, Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King Jr., and more. I merely encouraged them to reflect. It was a very low-stakes activity, but it resonated. In one low point of some serious feelings of disconnection, I got an email from a student who wrote, “I really appreciate you doing your daily quotes, I feel like it’s bringing the class together and it’s very comforting.” Words matter. They do, for all of us.

Some great ways to offer writing in a time of trauma that I have practiced or heard others do include:

  • Have them write a letter to someone about this experience.

I don’t want to be dismissive of the people who hope for “normalcy” or who think journaling is not what students need right now, but rather that they need consistency and school work to make them feel “normal.” Afterall, a fair point is that writing might be too hard right now. A beautiful piece I read a few months ago in said, “Doing nothing is writing” and “We come to the page when, turning back to face the mountain, we are far enough that we can finally discern the shape of it that was ungraspable from the peak. Then you can breathe and rest; then you can appreciate the loveliness of the moon, the syllable.” To this point, I agree, but not all writing has to distill the grief and trauma even as it aims to ease it; it can also be about what inspires you during this time, it can also be about what you appreciate or are proud of now, it can also be about where you find hope in your days now, or it can be about what you imagine for your future. To not write about what they are experiencing right now under the misapprehension that diverting attention away from those very changes helps them retain “normalcy” is flawed logic. We know that learning skills through eliciting student experience is the way to increase engagement and attention. We know this, and yet we are avoiding it. If it is our own fear of doing wrong, I feel it, too. I would prefer training to know how to handle this time of trauma well with my students, but in the absence of that, I, too, like those teachers who taught before me said, naturally go toward writing. It isn’t a cure-all, but it is a space to put some thoughts to rest.

Suggested Readings

The Atlantic: Radical Acceptance is the Path to Change

CNN: I’m Out of Quarantine. But, ‘Normal’ isn’t ‘Normal’ in China Anymore

The Point: “It’s All Just Beginning”

Melissa Bryan is a high school English and ESL teacher in New Jersey. She has an MA in Teaching English from Montclair State University, an ESL certification from Rowan University, and she is earning an MA in Creative Writing and Literature from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She also is an adjunct professor at Union County College and at Drew University, and she is a teacher consultant with the National Writing Project at the Drew Writing Project/Digital Literacies Collaborative in Madison, NJ.