Trauma-Informed Writing Pedagogy: Ways to Support Student Writers Affected by Trauma and Traumatic Stress

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This is an excerpt from Melissa Tayles’s article in the March 2020 issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College. 

This article argues that two principles of a trauma-informed writing pedagogy grounded in clinical scholarship—instructor as buffering role model and psychologically safer classroom spaces—can support students affected by trauma and traumatic stress. Moreover, when these principles are embedded in course structures using concepts central to universal design, they can support all community college writing students facing adversity.

As community college writing instructors, we see glimpses of our students’ personal lives as we guide them through the writing process and hold regular one-on-one conferences. We listen as some of our students disclose distressing accounts of overwhelming stress, abuse, suicide, neglect, poverty, racism, homelessness, and war. We also listen as students detail how they have overcome such adversities with resilience and perseverance in order to attend college and pursue their academic goals while struggling and succeeding to manage the demands of being adult learners, employees, caregivers, and parents.

Certainly, not all community college students are affected by these stressors and adversities, but the COVID-19 pandemic and recent efforts to address the systemic racism in our society have affected a majority of our students.

As a result, trauma, which was once a topic discussed only in isolated pockets of our culture and viewed as consisting only of individual and extraordinary experiences, is now addressed more openly in terms of collective experiences as the world attempts to cope with the challenges of living through the economic, physical, and emotional ramifications of the pandemic and persistent racial inequities.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, writing instructors were seeking pedagogical resources—such as those found in a trauma-informed writing pedagogy (TIWP)—to allow them to channel their compassion and empathy in a productive and professional manner.

Daniel Gutierrez and Andrea Gutierrez confirmed the need for essential trauma awareness by noting that “students come from all walks of life and bring with them a wide array of personal experiences, some of which may be rooted in traumatic experiences before entering college or experiencing trauma during their college experience” (11).

Both collective and individual traumas that affect our students continue to motivate college writing instructors to build a trauma-informed lens and discover a TIWP that will help us support students so they may thrive in academic settings.

Anecdotally, community college writing instructors assume that trauma is prevalent among their students based on students’ confessions and disclosures. Research on the prevalence of exposure to potentially traumatic experiences in undergraduate populations confirms these suspicions as the majority of studies find that more than half of study participants report exposure to at least one potentially traumatic experience across a lifetime (Anders et al.).

More specifically, Anders et al. found that 99 percent of participants had experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime and that 70 percent had experienced a traumatic event within a two-month period during the study (453). Most distressing for community college instructors is this study’s finding that community college students reported higher percentages of exposure to potentially traumatic events, worse health outcomes as a result of the traumatic events, and lower life satisfaction in response to these exposures to trauma.

As noted by Anders et al., “the biggest difference was in terms of being psychologically or emotionally mistreated (74% of the community college sample and 54% of the university sample)” (453). This study confirms the anecdotal evidence and compels us to recognize the pressing need to adopt a TIWP to accommodate the ways in which trauma affects our students.

Read the full article, “Trauma-Informed Writing Pedagogy: Ways to Support Student Writers Affected by Trauma and Traumatic Stress.”  

Melissa Tayles is a full-time English faculty member at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska, and a doctoral student in composition and rhetoric at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

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