Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education – Part 1: Preparing to Read

I recently asked on Twitter for advice about how other people engage with professional reading. I got a lot of great advice! To add to my good fortune, a few days later I came across this helpful article (Link) called “How to Remember What You Read” which included even more great advice. So, to put what I’m learning into practice, I’m going to apply it while I read my next book, Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education (Link) by Alex Shevrin Venet.

Today I’m going to prepare to read the book which is something I’ll admit I’ve never done before. From the article I read: “A lot of success in reading boils down to preparation. What you do before you read matters more than you think.” I’m curious to see how I feel about that statement after I’m done preparing to read this book.

The article shares five strategies for this step in the reading process:

  1. Be choosier
  2. Get some context
  3. Know your why
  4. Intelligently skim
  5. Match your book to your environment

I’m going to focus on numbers 2-4 in this post.

Get some context

I actually feel like I’ve already got some context on this book:

  • I’ve followed the author on Twitter (Link) for a while now, which is why this book was on my radar in the first place.
  • Equity has been a theme in my work as a district curriculum coordinator supporting 34 elementary schools serving roughly 20,000 students. And I wasn’t alone! The entire curriculum department made equity a focus of our learning and planning together during the last few years I was in the role.
  • I don’t have a ton of experience with trauma-informed education, but I did learn about trauma-informed care when I was preparing to become a foster parent. I’ll be curious to see what’s the same/different as trauma-informed care applies to education.

Know your why

Why am I reading this book? Now that I’ve moved to New York, I’m hoping to get a position where I work with students and teachers more directly. I learned a lot being a district leader, but I want a job in a school building right now. I’ve already applied to be a substitute teacher while I work on getting my Texas teacher certificate transferred to New York. I’m also interesting in being a classroom teacher again since I haven’t had my own classroom since 2009. Because I want to work more closely with students, I want to ensure I have a solid skill set for building community, engaging with students, providing them the support they need, and being very considerate of their backgrounds and experiences. Out of all the books I could have chosen, I was drawn to this one because I really valued what I learned about trauma-informed care as I was becoming a foster parent. I immediately realized this was knowledge that would have helped me be a better, more compassionate teacher.

Intelligently skim

The article shared ideas for how to do this. I also like the way Dr. Andy Mitchell described his version of it on Twitter:

For my intelligent skim, I’m going to read and reflect on the back of the back, the table of contents, the introduction, and the conclusion.

Back of the Book

Just in case you’re interested in knowing what this book is about, I’ll copy the blurb from the back of the book and then reflect on it.

In this comprehensive guide, Alex Shevrin Venet urges educators to adopt trauma-informed practices as part of a systemic effort to advance social justice rather than as a set of peripheral moves intended to help selected students who are perceived to be in need of rescue. Using a framework of six principles, Venet offers practical action steps that teachers and school leaders can take from any starting point, making shifts in practice, pedagogy, and policy to address underlying inequities that can cause or heighten trauma. Teachers are able to do more than they realize from within their own classrooms to shift equity to the center, and to help prevent the trauma that originates inside schools. This book shows them how.

Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education

I’m definitely interested in the idea of making systemic change. At a district leadership event a couple of years ago, one of the speakers told the story of baking a cake without sugar and trying to make up for it by sprinkling sugar on top. The cake is still going to taste bad! He said we need to view equity the same way. If equity is not baked into our systems of education, but rather sprinkled on, it’s not going to make the system better. The term “equity sprinkles” became a popular phrase in our district after that: Are you intentionally baking equity into your decisions or are you just adding equity sprinkles?

Table of contents

  • Bringing Equity to the Center
    • Chapter 1: Defining Trauma-Informed Education
    • Chapter 2: Defining Equity

I like how the first two chapters are about definitions – what is trauma-informed education and what is equity? Even though I have thoughts about the meanings of those two terms, I look forward to reading the author’s definitions to help us get on the same page before going further.

The book is organized around four shifts in practice:

  • Shift 1: Adopt a Universal Approach
    • Chapter 3: Trauma is More Than a Number
    • Chapter 4: Trauma is a Lens, Not a Label
    • Chapter 5: Four Proactive Priorities for Decision Making
  • Shift 2: Rethink Your Role as an Educator
    • Chapter 6: Build Relationships Rooted in Equity
    • Chapter 7: Cultivate Unconditional Positive Regard
    • Chapter 8: Make Connections, Respect Boundaries

This is intriguing. I’m curious how I’ll view my role differently after reading this section. I might need to reflect on what I think my current role is as an educator before I read this section. At the moment I would say my role is to support my students in knowing more and being able to do more than they could before working with me. I want to help them develop positive identities around learning and doing a wide variety of things. I want to help them feel like they are part of a community where everyone belongs and supports one another. I want to create a space where they feel safe and cared for.

  • Shift 3: Move from Mindset to Systems Change
    • Chapter 9: Support Teacher Wellness
    • Chapter 10: Foster Professional Growth
    • Chapter 11: Work Toward Policy Change

I’m looking forward to this section! Many of the issues we have with racism and white supremacy in our country are rooted in systems that have been in place for a long time. I look forward to learning what advice she has for how educators can help to change these systems.

  • Shift 4: Change the World from Inside Your Classroom
    • Chapter 12: Examine the Curriculum, Disrupt Harmful Narratives
    • Chapter 13: Get to Work: Activism and Action as Healing

As a former curriculum coordinator, I understand how important it is to examine the curriculum. In mathematics, some of the harmful narratives have to do with who does math? I found it interesting in Texas that there are state science standards that require teachers to teach about scientists:

  • 1st Grade Science TEKS – Describe what scientists do
  • 2nd Grade Science TEKS – Identify what a scientist is and explore what different scientists do
  • 3rd05th Grade Science TEKS – Connect grade-level appropriate science concepts with the history of science, science careers, and contributions of scientists

But there are no comparable math standards, at least not at the elementary level. It’s almost like the people involved in mathematics are erased. Rather than being a living, breathing subject that people study and use in careers today*, it’s just a collection of knowledge and skills everyone has to learn.

* There’s one math standard that lightly touches on this: “Apply mathematics to problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace,” but it’s about applying mathematics rather than learning about the history of math, math careers, and contributions of mathematicians.

Introduction

  • Page xiii – Appearances can be deceiving. – We can’t know how our students are doing just by looking at them. We don’t know what’s happening at home or elsewhere in school or how they’re feeling.
  • Page xiv – Childhood trauma does not guarantee a life of failure and struggle. – But it does impact who children become as adults.
  • Trauma matters
    • Page xiv – Prevailing view in the past “Kids are resilient. They’ll get over it.” – Kids are resilient, but “They’ll get over it” isn’t the right attitude.
    • Page xiv – About half of all children in the US will experience at least one potentially traumatic event before age 18. Because so many students are possibly exposed to trauma, I wonder if this is why we want to make trauma-informed education a central part of our work because we never know when it’s happening or to whom, but we can agree it’s not some rare event that only inflicts a special few.
    • Page xiv – Child trauma is hard to measure because of where it happens (behind closed doors) and inability/unwillingness to talk about it. It also doesn’t only happen at home.

[Internal monologue: I’m not liking this approach to skimming. It doesn’t feel like skimming at all. I feel like I’m stopping constantly and writing down way too much. I’m going to try reading each section and then summarize it for myself and see if that feels better. I also need to find a balance between marking in the book and recording in my blog post. I don’t necessarily need to transcribe everything into my blog post so long as I can refer to the book later.]

Take 2: I continued reading this section and focused on jotting in my book rather than coming back to the blog post to capture my ideas. Here’s what I took away as I skimmed the rest of this section:

  • Not every student is hurt long-term by trauma, most likely because they have systems of care including family, community, and access to resources.
  • Other students do have trauma which the author describes as “enduring negative psychological, physical, and spiritual harm.’
  • A person can’t just “push through trauma.” Rather there are several factors involved in healing from trauma:
    • A feeling of safety, emotional and psychological
    • Building relationships with trusted people
    • A feeling of unconditional acceptance
    • Therapy can be helpful but is not enough on its own, we also need a community that cares about us
  • Trauma can happen in and out of school – Schools can be places of trauma for some students.
  • The author shared her personal experience working at an alternative school that redesigned things from the ground up. They had a mission “grounded in unconditional care” for their students that guided all of their decision making. However, outside of this context, she realized there are many of the same old attitudes and beliefs out there that result in trauma not being identified or addressed, often because teachers don’t feel equipped to do anything about it.
  • What the author has learned over time:
    • School can be a site of growth and support for students surviving the most challenging circumstances
    • School can be structured in intentional ways to promote this growth
    • Together, educators can advocate for systems change that addresses and prevents trauma

[Internal monologue: This went much smoother. I was able to focus on reading and then when I was done it was really easy to capture the key points in the blog post. Let’s stick with that!]

  • Trauma-Informed Education: A Healing Force or a Buzzword?
    • There’s a lot more awareness of trauma and trauma-informed practices in our culture today, but we run the risk of it becoming a buzzword without meaning, or worse, causing harm for students because it results in a deficit model where the “trauma kids” are treated differently than the other kids in the school. Also, there’s a lot of trauma caused by the inequalities in our systems, and if we don’t link trauma-informed care with equity and social justice, then we may do more harm than good.
    • One problem the author notes is that there are individual teachers and programs that have been studied, but not enough work has been done to identify what’s working at a whole-school or -district level. These approaches seem to work for some but not others. We need to understand why so that these practices aren’t abandoned because we just assume they don’t work or aren’t worth the time.
  • Book Overview
    • Goal of the book: My hope for you as the reader is that you will finish this book with a more complex understanding of trauma-informed education and a drive to bring your own trauma-informed work to the next level, with equity at the center.
    • This book is not “Trauma 101.” The author is assuming you have some understanding of trauma and trauma-informed care before reading since her focus is instead on the work of connecting these practices to equity work. She also makes it clear that she’s coming at this from the lens of an educator, not a clinician, though she recommends partnering with school and community mental health experts in this work.
    • The book is a mix of education research, philosophy, and rubber-meets-the-road strategies. She makes it clear that some ideas she hopes you can take away and apply immediately while others will take time and effort, but hopefully you’ll be inspired to start the work by the time you’re done reading.
    • The focus is on the adults in a school building, not the students. What work do we need to do as adults to create an equity-centered trauma-informed environment for our students?
    • Chapter 1: Expanded definition of trauma-informed practices
    • Chapter 2: Two big ideas (1) inequity causes trauma and (2) School isn’t equitable for trauma-affected students
    • Chapter 3: Diving deeper into the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) framework
    • Chapter 4: Making sure universal interventions are helpful not harmful
    • Chapter 5: Four priorities for infusing an understanding of trauma into our decision making
    • Chapters 6-8: Unconditional positive regard – Making sure we don’t position ourselves as saviors
    • Chapters 9-11: Focus on school leadership and policies
    • Chapters 12-13: Focus on classroom pedagogy

Conclusion

It’s funny. When I read research articles, I almost always skip down to the discussion and conclusion sections to hear what the researchers found out and what they recommend. I’ve never done this with a nonfiction book before though. Now that I’ve read the table of contents and introduction, I’m kind of interested to read her concluding thoughts before diving into the chapters in between.

To be trauma informed is to be committed to the end of the conditions that cause trauma. Venet’s concluding chapter is a rallying cry to get started on the work. No single one of us is going to solve all the problems our students face or fix all the systems that create and perpetuate trauma, but that shouldn’t stop us from beginning the work and doing our part to help move toward the kind of world our students deserve.

She’s clear that she has no easy answer for the reader, and definitely no checklists! Rather, she provides a list of questions to get the reader wondering, planning, and dreaming about what is possible.

An important point in the last chapter is standing in solidarity with our students. Letting them know, “I am with you and I will fight for you.” Some specific areas where we can make a stand are demanding the removal of police from our schools, fully funding counselors and mental health support, and ending token economy behavior systems such as PBIS. She acknowledges there’s risk in standing up for our students and demanding change, and we have to reflect on how much risk we’re willing to shoulder for our students and then whatever amount that is we have to be willing to take it on.

Ready to Read!

That was an experience. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time before preparing to read a book. It definitely felt different. I’ll be the first to admit it’s time consuming, but at the same time I feel way more engaged with the book than if I’d just cracked it open and started in on chapter 1. I feel like I’ve seen the big picture and now I can dive in and look more closely at the details with a greater appreciation for what they mean.

I’m not sure I would do this for every book I read, but another piece of advice from the article I read is that we really should be much choosier, not just about which books we read but about which books we finish.

“Life is much too short to finish a bad book. You need to be ruthless and heartless. Don’t let sunk costs guilt you into wasting your time.”

So far I’m excited by Venet’s book and I look forward to diving into the remaining chapters. As she says in the concluding chapter, this is urgent work, and I am definitely ready to learn and get started.

4 thoughts on “Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education – Part 1: Preparing to Read

  1. Pingback: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Chapter 1 | Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

  2. Pingback: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Chapter 2 | Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

  3. Pingback: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Chapter 3 | Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

  4. Pingback: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Chapter 4 | Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

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