Using Collaborative Poetry to Heal Shared Trauma
SCARSDALE, NY - He could tell it was time. An opportunity had presented itself, so Trent DeBerry decided to depart from his planned lesson and do something a little different. Instead, his class worked together to write a poem.
“The kids chose the topic and decided which prompts they wanted to choose, and then we simply wrote it,” DeBerry said. “It was really a process for them, and it was telling to see how they’re making sense of things in different ways.”
Trent DeBerry is the sixth grade English teacher in Popham House at Scarsdale Middle School. Recently, he’s been studying Trauma-Informed Education, as a way to better help the children he’s teaching. After over a year of teaching in a pandemic, he recognized that many of his students had endured traumatic experiences. He wanted to help.
Trauma-informed education isn’t about replacing therapists with educators. Rather, it’s about creating and reinforcing strong, stable and nurturing relationships with students so the classroom can become another conduit for healing, instilling confidence and building resilience. Rebuilding and reinforcing relationships with teachers and other adults can help create a sense of predictability and dependability that can be especially important for trauma-impacted children.
Dr. Peter Faustino is a licensed psychologist who serves in executive roles in the New York Association of School Psychologists and National Association of School Psychologists, and has been interviewed on MSNBC, Psychology Today, and The Wall Street Journal. He’s also one of the Scarsdale Schools Psychologists.
“The most basic premise of trauma-informed schooling is that adults should tune into and be aware of possible trauma in a student’s life,” Dr. Faustino said. “Responding in intentional ways can help reduce or mitigate the impact. At the core of trauma-informed schools (and the research supports this) is that strong, stable, and nurturing relationships can foster a feeling of belonging that is essential for all students who are healing after experiencing trauma. In other words, students often take their cues from the trusted adults in their lives.”
Through his studies, DeBerry knew that speeding through activities can be a trauma response, and the rigorous academic and time pressures of a typical middle school day can inadvertently support such a response.
“I wanted to be able to take a few moments to slow down and realize that we need a healing process ourselves,” DeBerry said. “If we are always rushing, we don’t always have an opportunity to breathe and feel.”
So when DeBerry got an email seeking submissions for National Poetry Month, he decided to slow down and focus on poetry that day.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be a sixth grader going through this—and the students, they’re just figuring it out,” DeBerry said. “This allowed them to find common ground where they didn’t realize it existed. I heard a lot of, ‘I didn’t know you felt that way too,’ that day.”
Taking the time to write and then discuss their experiences allowed children to process some of what they’ve experienced during the pandemic.
“For a lot of our kids, it’s the most time they’ve ever spent with their families. To be home for this much time, they’ve realized things about their families, about themselves, about their friends. It was powerful, as they shared their experiences, to realize they weren't alone in some of those scenarios,” DeBerry said. “When they were done, there was a renewed sense of community and feeling connected.”
One child wrote that before the pandemic, she didn’t know what it was like to lose someone. The other children immediately recognized the significance of such a statement, even though some of them were unaware of her loss. Children experienced moments of healing both in the moments when their shared experiences were validated, as well as in asking questions to learn more about experiences they were less familiar with.
“They began by recognizing that people have different feelings, and you may not understand what someone is feeling, but you can honor it,” DeBerry said. “There was community, empathy, sympathy. That we can come together and have a collaborative experience, and have our voices honored was tremendous.”
Faustino said that is the most critical part of trauma-informed education.
“A community of children and adults who can honor and respect each other’s experiences is one in which real healing can take place,” Faustino said. “We need to listen to understand, not solve the problem.”
Faustino said sometimes students need to be reminded that it’s ok to be human, and acknowledge their feelings.
“We should normalize the feelings of being overwhelmed or dealing with loss and constant change. Many students are suffering in silence until they break or shut down,” Faustino said. “Often they are reporting as if they had to manage alone or couldn't ask for help for fear of not looking exceptional or perfect. Let's remind them that being vulnerable is different than being perceived as weak.”
A key part of trauma-informed education is helping students develop a sense of agency and foster a feeling of self-worth, competence, and responsibility for oneself, Faustino said.
“This sense of agency can help students maintain a feeling of control in situations where they might otherwise feel overwhelmed. Providing an opportunity for choice, flexibility, and decision making can help students learn to overcome challenges instead of avoiding them,” Faustino said. “Something as simple as providing an opportunity to turn in work before a deadline can help foster this sense of agency.”
And as DeBerry experienced, it can impact an entire classroom—and their teacher.
“Sometimes we just really need to take the opportunity to slow down, to collaborate, to hear each other, to come together to understand what this experience is, “ DeBerry said. “To listen to the kids, to really understand what their fears have been, what made them anxious, joyful, what was inspiring, what was new, what they wouldn’t have learned about themselves otherwise, has been eye-opening. We are ALL teachers and learners in this moment.”
DeBerry said his improved understanding of how his students have experienced the pandemic is helpful as he refines his planning for the next area of the curriculum, the fantasy genre.
“It makes me realize that as we move into our next unit, there are so many things we live through, and to be able to discuss and name these feelings has been powerful,” DeBerry said. “Now that speaking about these experiences has been welcomed and honored, students can have that perspective as they read books with similar scenarios.”
DeBerry said he’s glad he took the time to have the powerful conversations in his class that day.
“Although there is a strong push to keep up with the curriculum and keep moving forward, it’s important to recognize that there is a whole child in front of each teacher, and non-academic needs have to be addressed as well,” he said. “What began as a simple exercise became a community of empathy, sympathy, and understanding that, really, we can come together through a collaborative experience and have our voices honored—honored in a way that none of us imagined. It was eye-opening."