“Is the pandemic a teachable moment?” asks Alex Shevrin Venet, an education professor who focuses on trauma-informed practices, in a post on her site Unconditional Learning. It’s a vexing question that doesn’t have a simple, straightforward answer, but Venet shares a framework for thinking through how to find a balance between ignoring trauma entirely and focusing on it in a harmful way.
“Ignoring hard topics and pretending they do not belong in the classroom is to ignore our students’ (and our) life experiences,” she writes. Venet offers four guiding questions teachers can use to navigate the decision making process.
1. “Is this lesson/activity/unit appropriate if one of my students, students’ family members, or colleagues dies from Covid-19?” When considering this question, Venet says, remember that the pandemic is not yet over. Acknowledge students’ justified fears by rejecting activities that do not recognize “the emotional gravity of the situation.” She cites the example of a journaling project entitled “I survived the pandemic” as one that would be traumatizing for a student who has lost a family member to the coronavirus. When planning lessons, assess how students who have experienced loss might respond.
2. “Am I asking students to opt out or opt in?” Venet says well-intentioned educators may decide to offer pandemic-related academic content with the caveat that any student who feels uncomfortable can opt out, but that puts the burden on the student. Some students may feel too shy, vulnerable, or intimidated to ask for an alternative option. Instead, Venet suggests providing a choice between two appealing options. She quotes literacy education professor Elizabeth Dutro’s advice that “making intentional space for stories of trauma is always posed as invitation, never as requirement.” Posing opportunities to engage with the pandemic as invitations rather than demands empowers students who have experienced trauma.
3. “What’s the balance?” Processing the grief and trauma caused by the pandemic will take time, Venet says, but that doesn’t mean teachers should ignore what students are presently experiencing. Opportunities for sharing such as a rose and thorn activity or a community circle help students feel less isolated in their challenges as they gather support from their school community. And “make room for joy, fun, and silliness” during class, she says—they can provide a much-needed escape from the difficulties of daily life in the pandemic. “The key here is balance,” she adds.
4. “What do my students say they need?” It’s not possible to “avoid every single potential trauma trigger in the classroom,” Venet says, but don’t get thrown off-course if you make a mistake. Allow decisions to be guided by the information you have—primarily information provided by students and their families. Ask for feedback through individual conferences, simple surveys, or emails, Venet suggests. “Ask about how things are going, what feels good about class, what feels challenging, what students and their families need from you,” she says. “Adjust your practice based on what you learn.” While there are no simple solutions to the complexities of teaching in these circumstances, let students’ needs guide the instruction.