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Exploring Trauma-Informed Practice in the Language Arts Classroom

Exploring Trauma-Informed Practice in the Language Arts Classroom

Photo Credit: Feliphe Schiarolli

By Nicole Stellon O’Donnell

Once in a long while a parent will call our school’s office and ask, “How do I enroll my kid at your school?”

Most likely they looked online at a cheesy website that aggregates school data. They saw our low student-teacher ratio and made assumptions. Oh my, what low class sizes. Or perhaps they noticed that online we appear to be a public all-boys school and they thought, What a great fit for my son. We even have a charter-style name that ends with “Academy.” People respond positively to “Academy.” It sounds so much more academic.

Our secretary politely tells the parent that we’re the school housed within the local youth facility and that we only serve students who are in the juvenile justice system. At lunch she laughs and says she wishes she could say, “Well, maybe have them commit a felony.”

We are a public school. We’re housed inside the facility, but we’re part of the larger school district where I’ve been teaching for eighteen years. The truth about our program is that our ratio isn’t as low as it seems. Our student population is highly mobile[1] and fluctuates widely, and the state measures enrollment on a head count taken on a single day in October. We’re not an all-boys’ school, but almost. The only girls we have are ones awaiting adjudication in our short-term program, and boys wind up referred to the juvenile justice system at a rate more than double that of girls. As for “Academy,” we do have a fancy name because a diploma that said “Fairbanks Youth Facility School” would violate our students’ rights to keep their juvenile arrest records private once they’re out of the system.

For the previous fourteen years, I taught at a large, traditionally structured high school. Imagine any high school in this country with 1,000–1,300 students. That school seemed eerily similar to the suburban high school I attended more than thirty years ago—pep rallies, sports, dances, tracked classes (whether the district would use that word or not), bells schedules, and arguments over dress code. The language arts classes I taught called for teaching the very same books I read in high school.

When I worked there, sometimes a student would disappear from my class. Sometimes there’d be a homework request, sometimes not. Mostly they were students who weren’t attending regularly, so I didn’t know them beyond their name on the attendance list. I’ll admit, a small part of these disappearances registered as relief simply because class sizes of thirty-five overwhelm a teacher’s capacity for compassion so much that one less student can, for a fraction of a second, feel like a significant improvement in working conditions.

Before I worked inside a juvenile detention facility, I was aware of the statistics demonstrating the institutional racism of our criminal justice system, of the fact that foster children are more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system, of the impact that trauma, both generational and individual, has on student and family relationships with school, and of adverse childhood experiences and how they impact children physically, mentally, and academically. I was aware addiction and mental health weren’t being treated adequately in our community. My “awareness” did nothing to stop students from disappearing from my class.

Where I work now, students don’t disappear from my classroom. They disappear into it.

It’s time for me to be more than “aware.” And I’ll start with this: my classroom doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to my students, who are trying to be students while experiencing the ongoing trauma of being institutionalized. To be their teacher, I need to transform my classroom practice.

That’s what led me to apply for a Heinemann Fellowship. As a fellow, my action research question is: In what ways can trauma-informed care principles be adapted and utilized to restructure a 9–12 English / language arts classroom to increase engagement for students with high adverse childhood experiences (ACE) scores?

I spent fall semester reading, researching, and reaching out to experienced trauma-informed educators. That’s how I came upon the work of Dulce-Marie Flecha (@DulceFlecha) and Alex Shervin Venet (@AlexSVenet). I connected with local educators and learned about the Alaska Resilience Initiative. And I read. A lot. About trauma, adverse childhood experiences, language arts pedagogy, and engagement.

During the spring semester, I restructured the language arts program in the school with a focus on the eight principles of trauma-informed care outlined in Steele and Malchiodi’s Trauma-Informed Practices with Children and Adolescents (2012):

  1. Understanding trauma and its impact
  2. Promoting safety
  3. Ensuring cultural competence
  4. Supporting consumer control, choice, and autonomy
  5. Sharing power and governance
  6. Integrating care
  7. Healing happens in relationships
  8. Recovery is possible

With a focus on principles 4 and 5, “supporting consumer control, choice, and autonomy” and “sharing power and governance,” I created individualized class checklists that allow students choice in what books they read, which assignments they are required to do, the order in which they’ll start them, and the format in which they’ll complete them. A few students realized that depending on what they chose to do in their rooms outside class time, they might be able to earn credits toward graduation more quickly.

With consideration for trauma-informed care principles 3 and 7, “ensuring cultural competence” and “healing happens in relationships,” I’m continuing to work to create connections between my students and community members and outside organizations. This is the biggest challenge, but I’m becoming more inventive. While the requirements for visitors to the school are strict and have been an ongoing challenge, I got approval for individual students to conduct phone interviews with community members as part of their research projects.

I also built in elements of principle 2, “promoting safety.” Steele and Malchiodi explain that in a trauma-informed environment, it’s important that “routines, schedules, structure, and rules remain predictable.” With input from students, I’ve created a new classroom routine that allows for choice and self-determination built within a predictable pattern.

Every Monday we worked together on “Film Club,” for which I built a lesson around a New York Times op-docs post[2]. While the rest of the week was full of more choice and self-determination, our regular Monday routine has become a favorite. The fact that they can predict the way in which we started the week helped relax the classroom climate. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, students completed the class assignments they had chosen individually. On Friday, they chose between a creative writing option or continuing making progress on their current individual assignment.

I was surprised to see changes in my classroom so quickly. Students are more confident in their progress knowing how far they’ve come on their checklist since the beginning of the semester. On Mondays, while they watch the film for our discussion, I’m able to circulate and have a brief planning conference for the week. Looking at their checklist, they measure their own progress, and I see that it’s offered them more agency. One student who didn’t read much outside class last semester finished a whole outside reading assignment the first week of the semester. Because the coursework is so clearly defined and he had choice in how it was structured, he managed to compile his required course before the semester ended. Because of the new structure, I was able offer him the checklist for his next required course, and he’s chosen ­­­­­­­how he can best approach it.

As for me, in a twist of professional fate, where I work next isn’t going to be where I work now.

In August, I’m going to begin working as a district-wide instructional coach for language arts and social studies secondary teachers. A new language arts teacher will be taking over my classes at the jail. She’s planning to continue the restructuring I began in January and we’re going to be working together closely as she transitions into the position.

After four years at the facility, I didn’t anticipate leaving. In some ways, I feel like I’m the one disappearing this time. But I’m thrilled we were able to hire an excellent and experienced teacher who’s committed to continuing the work.

I don’t know exactly how my research will change in response to my changed position, but I do know that what I learned in the past school year about implementing trauma-informed care practices will play a big part as I work with teachers on their own practice in the next year.

[1] So grateful to Dulce-Marie Flecha for sharing her work with highly mobile students with other teachers online. Here’s some of her work that has been informing my teaching:

[2] Gratitude to Heinemann Fellow Julie Jee (@mrsjjee) for introducing me to this excellent secondary language arts resource.


Works Cited

Steele, William, and Cathy A. Malchiodi. 2012. Trauma-Informed Practices with Children and Adolescents. New York: Routledge.

image of Nicole Stellon O'DonnellNicole Stellon O'Donnell currently teaches English and serves as Head Teacher at Golden Academy, a school housed within a state juvenile detention facility in Fairbanks, AK. In her teaching there, she strives to keep her students at the center of her practice by honoring and fostering their engagement. She believes in the power of being an active literary citizen to shape strong leadership and teaching. She has led by example in publishing poems, articles, essays, and is the author of two forthcoming books. She has received numerous awards and honors, most recently her book Steam Laundry was the 2018 statewide Alaska Reads Selection. Follow her on twitter at @SteamLaundry








Topics: Heinemann Fellows, Nicole Stellon O'Donnell

Date Published: 07/30/19

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