The story of twenty-first-century education is surely still to be written. It could be a story of struggle between what we say we want and what we as a nation are willing to provide. It could be a tale of horror revealing the harm we do by being harsh instead of helping to students in need. It could be a dystopian narrative contrasting opportunities dreamt of under the umbrella of John Dewey with ravages brought by the storms of testing and inequity. Or it could be a mystery about whether, in our busy, preoccupied lives, we will honor the sacredness of our own children.
Let’s write the next part of this story together. Let’s blink back our hurt, wherever it comes from, and bring our deepest impulse of kindness to the table. Let’s offer students scaffolding instead of judgment. Let’s look at the world’s past intolerance of difference and respond with nurturing for all learners, who may grow mercy for others in our future. Let’s write this story of twenty-first-century education together, and let’s make it the story of our perseverance and love.
Where do we start? We can start by putting necessary things first. Mindful teaching begins with noticing the needs of learners. As a forest ranger’s son, I spent much of my childhood with woods and wildlife. I saw that creatures as different as the deer and wolf share similar struggles—for safety and nourishment. These are fundamental human needs as well. I believe learners will invariably rise to learning when it is offered in a safe environment that nourishes.
I am excited to offer you the writing workshop lessons contained in this book. I have used them with large numbers of students at various levels over a number of years. I have taught them to large numbers of teachers for use in their own classrooms.
With these approaches, I see previously passive or distracted students become engaged, increase their effort, deepen their resilience, and soon raise the quality of their writing. I see previously worried teachers become eager to get back to their students to offer the lessons I have demonstrated. Later, I hear those same teachers’ expressions of pleasure and satisfaction when their students respond with energy and a striving toward new skills. The craft lessons you will receive here can, when applied in your classroom, both ignite students’ energy and also help them achieve higher quality writing performance.
However, there are two fundamental challenges facing writing workshop teachers today that have little to do with the quality of craft lessons available. And this book will help you with those challenges also. The first can be stated in relation to our students. In short, these are not your mother or father’s classrooms of learners. They are not inferior to former students—as is so often believed. They are not disinterested in learning, as may seem to be the case at certain classroom moments. Rather, the difference between past and present most acutely is that these students are growing up in the age of stress and trauma. And this has changed them.
So many students have been harmed by traumatic events at early ages or by the time they reach adolescence. So many students lead lives of sustained trauma—abuse or neglect in the home, danger and violence in the neighborhood, bullying at school, homelessness, food insecurity, and more. Parents living in poverty often cannot provide for their children in the ways they might deeply wish to.
The second related problem is how schools are not connecting to the needs of this new group of students. Given the age of stress and trauma that the students are coming from, it is all the more disturbing that we, as a society, have chosen this moment in learning history to inappropriately provide, through high-stakes testing and the test prep that accompanies it, what could be called a meaningless, high-stress curriculum. The test-prep, high-anxiety school has no actual life meaning for students. It does not make students feel safe. It does not nourish. And it does not connect to their desire to learn.
Further, many students living in this age of trauma have been impacted so that they respond to these meaningless, high-pressure situations with the characteristic trauma responses—fight, flight, or freeze. When a student, seemingly for small reasons, lashes out with anger at a teacher or peer, when a student engages in high rates of absenteeism (or emotional distraction), and when a student sits passively and unresponsively in relation to classroom demands, these are most often not truly signs that the student does not desire to learn. Rather, these are signs of a student responding emotionally, not intellectually, to an environment that, on some level, replicates other trauma in their lives. These are responses born of fear.
In the article “Why Schools Need to Be Trauma Informed,” Barbara Oehlberg explains: “Although schools are not mental health facilities and teachers are not therapists, teaching today’s students requires alternative strategies and skills compared to what worked a generation ago” (2008, 1).
Educators have often lived in denial of the role of student trauma in their classroom world (Craig, 2016). As I will explain in a moment, there are abundant statistics showing the prevalence of trauma experience in students’ lives. However, I think most educators would believe—on the face of it—that children today often lead tough lives, with significant trauma included. So, why the absence in school of a response to trauma?
I believe this absence has been due to three reasons. First, as I suggested above, the school environment—or context—for the past twenty years has been one of growing emphasis on high-pressure testing companioned with fewer and fewer funds and resources being directed to schools. This has created such a traumatic environment for teachers that it has left them scrambling—and scrambling toward the wrong goals at that, toward implementing test prep rather than best practices for learning, and toward pressuring students to “achieve” narrowly as test takers rather than meeting students’ overall needs as learners.