When she was 16 years old, Elizabeth Dutro’s younger brother and only sibling at the time was killed suddenly. In a freak accident, a boulder fell from the hillside next to the stream where he was playing. His death shocked the family; he was Dutro’s “closest person in the world.” When she returned to school soon after, she felt like her traumatic experience and pain were invisible. Only two adults in the school — the principal and a teacher — acknowledged she had gone through something inexplicably difficult.
As a teacher in her 20s, Dutro found herself on the other end of the conversation, listening as her students confided their own struggles and traumas.
“The stories that would come up so often would be about loss, longing for things, the hard things that happen in their lives,” Dutro said. “I found myself really connecting and sharing my own story, and seeing how more stories would fill the space once children had the sense that they could talk about it.”
Dutro, a professor of literary studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, decided just over a decade ago to center her research around trauma. Her new book, “The Vulnerable Heart of Literacy: Centering Trauma as Powerful Pedagogy,” puts that focus into print. The text provides a new framework for helping teachers talk productively in the classroom about traumatic experiences, countering the traditional approach of simply not acknowledging them at all.
The book’s focus around pedagogy is intended for educators, specifically those in the elementary school-age block. However, Dutro says many of its ideas can be applied for any grade level, and even parents can benefit from reading it.
There are three main tenets to pedagogy around trauma, according to Dutro. One is that teachers have to model healthy vulnerability, showing students it’s OK to share about difficult life experiences.
Another tenet focuses on educators recognizing both how humans can deeply connect, as well as how historical structural inequities have meant that care has not always been equally and sufficiently distributed. Teachers need to advocate for students and challenge negative connotations that are often attached to those who have experienced trauma, Dutro said.
“No one gets through life unscathed,” Dutro said. “You can be deeply connected with others while having distance to recognize that not all hard experiences are the same, and injustice is often at the root of how they’re different.”
The final tenet integrates these approaches to trauma throughout the classroom setting. Dutro said trauma can potentially emerge at any time, and teachers have the opportunity to interweave their addressing of trauma throughout instruction. This is more beneficial, as it creates a space where students feel comfortable opening up, whether it’s about trauma or not, she said.
In Boulder Valley School District, some schools are already taking a similar approach. Fairview High School is in its third year participating in the Resiliency In Schools and Educators, or RISE, program, with about 40 teachers opting into the training. Much like Dutro’s book, the program doesn’t directly work with students. Rather, it provides teachers, as well as administrators, paraprofessionals and other adults in the school with tools to develop classrooms and spaces that are compassionate to kids’ traumas.
Sarah DiGiacomo, Fairview’s assistant principal, has already seen the difference the program has made in the school, both in situations unique to each student, as well as handling larger shared experiences. She worked at Fairview as a teacher during the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. In looking back on that era, she says so much was ignored or suppressed, usually to the detriment of the school’s community.
“I’ll tell students on days with lockdown drills that I’m anxious,” DiGiacomo said. “It’s not that we shouldn’t do them; we have to. But students and even teachers are allowed to have feelings about them, and there’s a space where students can go to unpack how they’re feeling, instead of sitting in class feeling nervous all day.”
With her book, Dutro said she hopes these sorts of techniques can help classrooms become a place to process difficult experiences like gun violence, and potentially even end the carryover of trauma that can happen between generations.
“Children can use their hardest life experiences to connect with learning, and teachers can bring stories of difficult experiences and lead the way in demonstrating to kids that the things that matter most to us in life are sources of knowledge,” Dutro said.