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Teaching Hope and Resilience for Students Experiencing Trauma: Creating Safe and Nurturing Classrooms for Learning

reviewed by Hope Schuermann - June 29, 2020

coverTitle: Teaching Hope and Resilience for Students Experiencing Trauma: Creating Safe and Nurturing Classrooms for Learning
Author(s): Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, & Rachelle S. Savitz
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807761982, Pages: 144, Year: 2019
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In a time where we are more aware and informed on the impact of trauma on learning, brain development, and relational implications, a book such as Teaching Hope and Resilience for Students Experiencing Trauma, by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Rachelle S. Savitz, is necessary for instructors at all levels. The content of this book can assist us in building more learner-friendly environments in which students can engage in the material, learn important information, and leave our courses without being re-traumatized. In addition, this book is a timely reminder that many students will be returning to classrooms after experiencing the large collective traumas of COVID-19 and racial injustice movements in America. Thus, a foundational understanding of how trauma impacts learning, and how we as educators can meet the needs of our traumatized students, cannot be more apt.

The introduction of this book covers the concept of Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) and their impact on learning and health over the lifespan. The ACEs scale included is a helpful tool for conceptualization, along with the wise warning that the instrument should not be given without mental health support. In addition, the text not only points out how trauma can negatively impact an individual, but also points to the strengths and resiliency that can be born out of trauma.

In Chapter One, “The Protective Power of Relationship,” a focus is given to the importance and power of forming strong relationships between educators and students, and of students forming strong relationships with each other. The examples given paint a picture of the positive and negative impact an educator can have on a child’s life. This is particularly important in relation to the data on how “troubled” children are approached differently by instructors, often with less relationship-building than with their high performing counterparts, and on how teachers can negatively influence peer relationships. One stand-out example of this touches on the use of sarcasm in the classroom, something educators may use as humor without intending to harm. However, seeing and learning about the harm that can be caused by casual sarcasm is a small but concrete step in relationship-building with our students. In addition, this chapter touches on the biological response to trauma, an essential piece to understanding why students may react certain ways in the classroom, and provides context and direction for how instructors can understand and respond to these biological reactions. The authors provide practical steps to build positive relationships with students.

Chapter Two, “Social and Emotional Learning is Woven into the Curriculum,” tackles the difficult topic of how the environment of the school and the classroom impacts students, particularly traumatized students. The authors discuss positive development of agency and identity within students as building blocks for creating spaces where social and emotional learning can be fostered. This is crucial, as learning promotes self-efficacy and identity formation, however trauma reactions can limit the ability to engage in learning. The chapter covers the five tenets of SEL classrooms, which allow traumatized learners to work through negative identity development and challenge old ways of thinking about the self. In addition, SEL classroom concepts increase learning outcomes and promote a growth-oriented mindset. This chapter also covers important topics such as peer relationships as motivators, tools for building peer relationships, and how to discuss the hard topics that many adults shy away from, such as bullying and suicide. One of my favorite take-aways of this chapter is the emphasis on modeling these behaviors. Modeling is a powerful way to teach SEL skills to students, as it normalizes and offers a template for students for how to build their own skills.

For Chapter Three, “Utilizing Literacies to Maximize Learning,” reading and writing are offered as methods to broach and normalize trauma-related topics that may be relevant to students. The authors purport that well-chosen literature is a developmentally appropriate way to discuss hard topics while also lessening isolation for students who have experienced trauma. In addition, these narratives allow for “a means to rehearse their responses, weigh options, and consider how they might use resources to the affect the outcome” (p. 55).  The authors refer to literature as mirrors and windows; mirrors to help them see themselves and the universality of human experiences, and windows to meet people they otherwise might not encounter in life. Simultaneously, meaning-making through books can assist in identity development and empathy-building. Tools are suggested for educators around choosing literature, leading reading discussions, techniques for further reflection and engagement, empathy-building, reducing the possibility of triggering a student, and broaching difficult topics. In addition, the chapter covers the importance of teacher process and making informed self-disclosures with students. The remainder of the chapter covers writing techniques as a way to self-express, reflect, process, and make meaning. Helpfully, the authors divide up suggestions for using writing with different age groups.

Chapter Four, “Teaching for Empowerment,” challenges the curricula of the past in which students’ tasks are to listen and memorize content. The authors state that empowered curricula include interaction, critical thinking and problem-solving, the ability to relate the material to their lives, and personal meaning-making. Empowered learning asks students to be a part of their learning journey and is linked to agency and motivation. A particularly beneficial part of the chapter is the table entitled “When Students Feel Engaged and Empowered” (p. 78), which lists student perceptions of task, what the task offers the learner, and how the task empowers the learner. The chapter goes on to cover the importance of empowered teachers, stating, “Empowered teachers are themselves a conduit for empowering learners” (p. 78). A strong sense of self-efficacy in teaching leads students to have higher internal motivation and empowerment, thus the importance of modeling is again at the forefront of the authors’ suggestions. A strong relationship with the instructor leads to a more empowering environment of trust, respect, and genuineness with students. In addition, resources and support for teachers from the school and school district support the teachers who are doing this work for their students. The Learner Empowerment Scale is included as a helpful tool for assessing the classroom environment.

The last section of this chapter focuses on how to enact an empowered classroom. The authors include the Steps for Inquiry Based Learning, how to apply inquiry-based learning to content-heavy classrooms, formats for debating difficult topics, and a creative activities list on page 91 entitled, “Ways to Promote Thinking about Controversial Issues”. Finally, the authors discuss action-oriented civics activities to build a sense of community and ownership, including service learning, reflection prompts, and action civics, in which students can study a topic, then present their findings and suggestions for improvement on a larger scale.

Chapter 5, “School Communities as Agents of Change,” is the last chapter of the book and ties together the ideas of the book into a narrative focused on school-level change to support teachers who are serving traumatized students. The authors acknowledge that students are living in communities outside of school, and in environments that may impede or even harm them. Complex trauma calls for varied approaches to supporting students, and the school community can be one of those resources. At the same time, the authors remind us that teachers are not mental health professionals, so expectations must be limited to realistic interventions and approaches that serve all students within a learning context. The suggestion of implementing “trauma-sensitive” schools focuses on learning for all students and the idea that teachers cannot be the sole source of mental health assistance. The six principles of trauma-sensitive schools, a useful logic model on page 105, and resources for schools endeavoring to be trauma-sensitive are provided. I enjoyed this chapter and the model the authors propose, as it an important step in acknowledging the traumatized students that walk into our classrooms every day. I do wish, however, that more information was provided about connecting with mental health professionals outside of the school environment and possible collaboration between mental health professionals and the school community.

Each chapter of Teaching Hope and Resilience for Students Experiencing Trauma contains anecdotes, research studies, practical tips for implementing the suggested strategies, and reflection questions for the reader. As a whole, the book is a necessity for educators in a time where childhood trauma is largely considered an epidemic of its own. Educators varying from student teachers to seasoned administrators will benefit from reading and implementing the content of this important book.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 29, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23345, Date Accessed: 7/11/2020 4:32:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Hope Schuermann
    University of Florida
    E-mail Author
    HOPE SCHUERMANN, Ph.D., is a Clinical Assistant Professor and the Program Coordinator for the Counselor Education program at the University of Florida. Recent publications include coauthoring Chapter 6: Fundamental Theories and Skills for Trauma Counseling with Dr. Allison Pow, In Crisis and Trauma Counseling: Strategies for Effective Practice, edited by Thelma Duffey & Shane Haberstroh, and coauthor of the peer reviewed article "A Phenomenological investigation of doctoral studentsí gatekeeping experiences" in Teaching and Supervision in Counseling. Recent projects include a phenomenological investigation of counselors experiences of treating survivors of mass gun violence and mindfulness for combatting anxiety in counselors in training.
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