Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

To teach students who've experienced trauma, first make them feel safe

Julio Alicea uses the poetry of rap music and 'classroom constitutions' to build relationships with the teens he teaches in Rhode Island. Individualized attention and nurturing are key to their growth, he suggests.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Students arrive for the day at Gilbert Stuart Middle School, in Providence, R.I., in June of 2016. The school has piloted a program that includes having mentors embedded to support consistent attendance. Relationship-building is a key factor in helping all students succeed – but it is especially important for children who've experienced trauma, say educators who've worked with them.

Every year in my history class I teach the poem, “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” by the late rapper Tupac Shakur, and every year its many themes resonate with my students, who are predominantly low-income and of color. In the poem, Tupac makes a call to celebrate the rose’s tenacity for successfully blooming in unforgiving concrete – a metaphor for urban poverty – rather than obsessing over its damaged petals.

The first year I taught the poem, I had a student, Jorge, who had come to my school with a history of trauma. He had witnessed extreme gun violence firsthand and he came to us emotionally calloused, hardened by consistent exposure to the “concrete” on the South Side of Providence.

For much of his first year, Jorge struggled to adjust to a personalized environment in which our students address all staff by their first names and gather daily in small, four-year advisory cohorts. He grappled, also, with the level of encouraged connectedness with adults as well as the amount of attention he received for his academic potential. A budding social critic, Jorge regularly impressed his history and English teachers (myself included) with the depths of his thinking on a wide range of contemporary issues.

Jorge’s interest peaked during the fourth quarter when we began our interdisciplinary exploration of race across our biology, English, and history classes. Included among the many complex texts we read were Tupac’s poem and a related public health article that utilized a garden metaphor to explain the three levels of racism: institutionalized, personally mediated, and internalized.

Throughout these lessons, I made sure my students knew what I expected of them: a willingness to be vulnerable and make a personal connection to a controversial topic. After all, a core element of trauma-informed teaching is creating a safe space for students to discuss their experiences in a supportive environment.

To facilitate the creation of a safe space, I employed another trauma-informed strategy: restorative justice. In my classes, students create “classroom constitutions” that guide our interactions. I follow up with meetings, either during lunch or after school, so that my students can reflect on both the causes and the consequences of them violating the constitution.

Oftentimes, trauma can manifest itself in students acting out in class so it is important to see behaviors in the larger context of each student’s lived experiences. I saw this early and often with Jorge because he would react strongly to any perceived negative attention from his teachers. Once I learned this about Jorge, I personalized my interactions with him in order to build trust. In doing so, we talked often about our unique lived experiences as Latinos in addition to our mutual enjoyment of hip hop. As our relationship grew over the course of the year, he became more ready and willing to receive my feedback and support.

Jorge, who has trauma-related anxiety, had struggled all year with blurting out answers. Rather than punish him for doing so, I celebrated his perceptive insights while gently reminding him that he needed to wait to be called upon before speaking. During the lesson on Tupac’s poem, Jorge excitedly raised his hand and said to me, “Mister, that’s you! You are the rose that grew from concrete!” I replied, “You too, are a rose and so many of us in here are.” In that powerful moment, I saw what a trauma-informed approach could do for a student like Jorge. Not only did Jorge gain a critical understanding of his experience, but he was also able to develop a positive relationship with an adult who embraced his damaged petals.

Remembering that moment, I framed the teaching of the poem slightly differently this past year. I asked my students why Tupac chose a rose as his metaphorical flower. After receiving many responses about the iconic nature of the rose in popular culture, I said, “I think he chose roses because roses are meant to be admired. And I admire each and every one of you. You all face struggles that make it harder for you to wake up in the morning, harder to make it to school on time or at all. But you all do it, most of the time at least, and for those reasons I admire you.” At the end of the class Tyler, a poor white student who had been quiet for much of the year, approached me.

Tyler told me about an incarcerated family member who was facing deportation. He hadn’t shared much of this with our school so I brought it to the attention of his adviser. Afterward, we were able to make sure that Tyler had access to the socio-emotional support he needed, including one-on-one meetings with a certified counselor, a series of follow up exchanges with his mother, and individual check-ins from some members of his team of ninth grade teachers. Tyler, feeling validated by my lesson and cared for by his larger school family, went on to have his best quarter academically.

Sometimes a trauma-informed compliment can reach a student more deeply than one might intend. In many ways, support and encouragement act as the water and sunlight needed to aid roses growing in the concrete. Let’s do that for more students like Jorge and Tyler. Let’s put the “person” back in personalized learning.

Julio Alicea teaches at Blackstone Academy Charter School in Pawtucket, R.I. He is a Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Fellow.

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