The Writing Minefield: Trauma
The matter of trauma, and secondary traumatic stress, resonates with me tonight. My niece is in a summer program, and today, another student in the group drowned while swimming at a national park. Without any interaction with this child or knowledge of the details even, my heart still aches.
The reach of trauma is arbitrarily terrible, striking unevenly and powerfully.
As a teacher, heart break comes with the territory, and this year, my state has invested in regular professional development about trauma awareness. And moments like this exact one - where I am unable to sleep - are proof of its value. Seemingly small things to unimaginable horrors can have unexpected effects, some far beyond what seems “normal” or reasonable.
Student trauma reveals itself in many ways, but for English teachers, it seems to manifest in writing most frequently. Any form of free writing is a virtual minefield – the threat of dangerous triggers constant.
Even in writing as high pressure and formal as an AP exam, students write about trauma. While I read essays last week for AP Language, I read essays about loss, change, and heartbreak in regards to the unknown, but my own reading was just the tip of the ice burg. Our question leader shared an impressive essay which illustrated the current trauma faced by children of those facing deportation and the trauma associated with systematic racism and police brutality.
In my experience, given the chance to speak, students are willing. Some are even eager to offer up their own trauma. Not all – but many share their own battles with mental illness, death, and abandonment freely.
What this creates is that metaphoric minefield for their teacher – a frightening dive into their trauma. As our understanding of secondary traumatic stress suggests, this takes a toll, creating impressions of the students’ trauma on the teacher’s heart.
BUT (and there’s always a “but”…) we all have to acknowledge the value of writing about difficult subject matter. Avoidance is a disservice. How do we teach students to confront these difficult stories and situations? How can we reveal the psychological benefits of writing about trauma while protecting our own mental health?
So I dug in a bit, and found some advice from the many experts – people much smarter than me – on how to respond to student writing about traumatic events. From them, I’ve pulled a few takeaways that really shape how I react.
Responding to trauma in writing
Empathize (Duh) – but also, value their story.
It seems so obvious to be empathetic when students talk about trauma, but it often feels in conflict with what the assigned task is. For instance, if I ask for an essay defining “hope,” I have certain criteria for their writing that I use to assess their work. However, when they bring trauma into their definition, it can feel impossible to correct things like sentence structure and grammar. John MacDevitt, a psychologist and composition instructor, published an article, “Responding to Student Traumatic Writing: A Psychologist’s View,” which suggests using “I Statements” to shape your feedback. An example from the article is below:
Darrell Fike illustrates the value of empathy as a response to a student’s writing by relating the story of one student who had written an essay about domestic violence for her capstone course. This essay included a courtroom scene where her grandmother was on trial for the murder of her abusive husband (this was fact), and addressed her stirring remarks to the student (who was not yet conceived). The student had failed the capstone course previously because of disagreements with faculty readers and the earlier instructor. Fike suggested the student cut the courtroom scene, which did not seem to fit in the piece, a moment before he realized that this scene was more important to her than was passing the course. Then he said, “I can tell your grandmother is very important to you. You must love her very much.” The student teared up and began to talk, while Fike listened. “After we established her emotional investment in the essay, I suggested that doing the tedious work of incorporating technical revisions to improve the readability of the piece would help a reader understand her grandmother’s story better and ultimately would help Janet honor this remarkable woman” (n. pag.). Ultimately, the student revised her piece, it passed muster with both Fike and the readers, and she graduated. Being received and understood can allow a student to go on to do what needs to be done.
Acknowledge the offering.
It isn’t easy to share our trauma with others, so when students do choose to share traumatic experiences with us, that generosity should be acknowledged. As a creative writing teacher, I found this to be essential in building a culture of mutual respect and trust. Every semester, I would have a couple students who were considerably insecure about sharing any personal writing. Despite how much I wanted to force a little “healthy discomfort,” I learned to recognize the value in small acts of gratitude (positive comments, notes on their writing, etc). If students with the courage to share personal experience aren’t praised, or at least acknowledged, they tend to revert to only fictional, fantastic writing. Both types of writing have value, certainly, but my best student growth appeared in those students who worked toward deeply honest, personal writing – or rather, found a unique writer’s voice. To get them there, it took intentional gratitude and praise.
Don’t shy away but be prepared.
Sometimes my reaction to writing about trauma is to dismiss it with a note and assume that if they are writing to me, someone else must know. My next inclination is to modify the assignment to avoid any triggers that might result in further trauma. This simply cannot be the response.
First, we can never assume that student trauma has been addressed in a healthy way. There are too many cautionary tales about undiagnosed mental illness and concerns that go unchecked to risk the same. Therefore, to minimize a lot of my own secondary stress, I keep the mindset that I’d rather be safe than sorry. A quick email to a counselor or check in with the student can protect your piece of mind - which is important in preserving your own mental health.
Second, backing away from such assignments is dangerous in its own way. I appreciate how Deborah Kellner explained it in her article “Confronting the Trauma-Sensitive Writing of Students.” Kellner states that “When their story is told, it may encourage healing to begin.” In other words, the potential for healing and personal insight that accompanies emotional writing cannot be surrendered for the sake of avoiding student trauma. I, for one, recognize this in myself. Writing about personal struggles guides me to healthy resolutions and peace with my decisions. The value in this experience should not be ignored in a composition course where we can teach students to find that same peace. We just need to be prepared for the process.
Managing Secondary Traumatic Stress
And for some teachers, like myself, writing is the best way to manage the secondary traumatic stress that comes along with teaching. As of late, however, further information about managing stress from student trauma has come with the Trauma-Sensitive Schools initiative. Treatment and Services Adaptation Center, or TSA, suggests self care via exercise, healthy diet, sleep, meditation or yoga, hobbies, and time with loved ones. For me, the support of my colleagues and their friendship helps me most.
As with most things, self care is determined by the person and their preference, but universally, being aware of the effects of trauma has to become part of your professional practice. Modelling healthy treatment of stress is necessary for your survival as a teacher, but even further, it is what students need as they confront their own trauma.
It’s a heavy burden – one they don’t mention in Intro to Teaching – but in acknowledging the weight of this stress, we become healthier and better.
Dear AP teachers,
If you teach AP Language and Composition, like I do. You are at the halfway point – half way between test day and score release day. Bless up. We’re almost there.
This year, however, I have embarked on a new adventure to fill the time: the AP reading.
After reading approximately 2068 essays this school year (not including rewrites and revisions), the last thing I want to do is sit for SEVEN days and read… essays. All on the same topic. BUT, I would say that my area of least confidence is scoring, so what better way to confront that?
And I have.
Most importantly, I have a list of information to bring back to my kids – which is really the goal, isn’t it? To translate it to the kids’ success.
Which is what I’m also going to share it with you. My fellow AP-ers!
AP Reader wisdom: Question 3 (argument)
Readers are supportive.
I think the most overwhelming takeaway from the AP reading is that the readers want the kids to be as successful as you do. They aren’t getting hung up on grammar and silly mistakes. They know they’re kids and bend over backwards to get the most out of each essay. Even if it means using a magnifying glass to read terrible handwriting.
Mistakes are “lapses.”
One of my students asked me a question just before the test: "If we're not 100% sure on a fact, should we use it?" And its a valid question, especially when you're on a time crunch.
Those silly mistakes and grammatical errors are considered “lapses” on the scoring guide. That means that they can be overlooked to a certain extent. If you look at the guide, even high scoring essays might have lapses or “aren’t necessarily flawless.” Now, a pack of lapses adds up to a low score, but to lessen kids’ anxiety, assure them that a small error will never “ruin” their essay.
...Because I read a quotation attributed to at least six different people over the course of this reading, and I didn't hold it against anyone.
Literary examples are fine…
One thing that I do is steer my kids away from literary examples on the AP Lang exam – just because I worry about fiction proving anything against concrete arguments. As a reader, however, literary examples are perfectly appropriate.
But I will add one caveat: Using the one historical example, one literary example, and one personal example format can backfire… easily. For Question 3, choosing the best evidence is a lot of the battle, and often times, the literary examples feel forces. For instance, I think it hard to argue that Gatsby’s life was enriched by being reunited with Daisy (unless you acknowledge it was short lived, maybe). On the other hand, I read some beautiful literary examples that worked well. Don't force them. Use them when they fit!
…but personal examples RARELY work.
On the topic of evidence, actually, I have a more important note. Personal examples – the third piece of that overused format (history-lit-personal) – do not read well in most cases. There are always exceptions – either incredibly rare and unique experience that happens to align to the prompt OR artfully narrated anecdotes – but in general, they largely come off as shallow.
And it’s not on the kids, here. Experiences that are deeply moving at age 17 are less meaningful when read by a 29 year old reader. In fact, I would say that I have probably seen less than 5 effective personal experiences (and this is Day 6).
Anyone can write or be taught a 7.
This feels like a harsh reality, but I think it is important to be internalized by AP teachers. In one year, I have seen kids do incredible thing, but what I’ve seen from the variation in the anchor samples is a seven is a thorough, “more complete” 6, and since a 6 is formulaic (which is more easily taught), a seven is just asking students to go a little further with either more evidence or analysis. To get those elusive 8s and 9s, a student needs to come to your class with the reading and writing background and general knowledge to set them apart. Its more of a systematic issue.
Nonetheless, I know my students see those 8s and 9s as the end goal. That thinking is so discouraging, especially for the student who will work their but off to get up to a 5. So what does that mean for your class?
Of course, I am not advocating you tell kids they can never get a 9 (because some of them definitely can!). Rather, I think it plays into your grading. 8s and 9s are amazing and challenging, and well above mastery in my opinion. Therefore, your scoring needs to reflect that. A 7 should not be a 90%, just because it’s the third down on the scale. I currently have mine at 98%, but I might even adapt that to a curve methodology. A 7 is an exceptional essay. 8s and 9s are well beyond a typical college freshman, so a 5 or 6 is more aligned to proficiency.
I have a handful of kids that always struggle with the time component – which sucks. I know what they can do, and I wish I could give them all the time they need, but we’re working with a standardized assessment. Practicing the timing is a necessary evil. These same kids are the ones that need test strategies for when (not even if) they run low on time. Here are my biggest suggestions now that I’ve scored essays.
Above all, I found it so reassuring to see how supportive my fellow readers are and that I wasn't far off when I was scoring on my own. I also value the chance to take some #realtalk back to the kids in terms of what the expectations are (and more likely, defend my scoring to mommies).
If you get the chance, brave the Reading. (More #realtalk, it's HARD). The benefits of seeing the scoring in action are worth the struggle.
This is NOT an official AP reader's report, just reflections from my own reading of Question 3. For official remarks and analysis, check out the College Board website in the coming weeks.