Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s 2021 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to address a fundamental and challenging question: “How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?” Click here to learn more.
The idea I bring to the table isn’t an add-on to the academic day. It is an academic subject that is full of potential for human connection and has been used as a vehicle for healing in mental health for many years. That subject is writing.
Maybe the “missing R” (as it has been called for lack of attention in schools), is an important key to healing isolation, trauma, anxiety, and grief.
Writing stands out from the other two “R”’s (Reading and ‘Rithmatic) because it is also an art form and a powerful form of communication. When we read, we take in ideas, information, world views, and artistic expression of others. When we write, we can bring others into our world.
In traditional learning, writing is done for the teacher and for a grade. It often becomes an isolating activity rather than a connecting one. In my view, writing (regardless of the subject area) offers a fantastic opportunity to break through isolation. When four conditions are present, writing can lead to connection and healing. These conditions are: safety, meaningful content to respond to, skills to succeed in writing, and positive feedback and connection with peers.
Chimere Hackney, a friend of mine who teaches high school English in Tacoma, Washington, fostered these conditions for her tenth grade students in collaboration with a school counselor. Several years ago, they designed a poetry unit called “The Power of Words” that would both raise students’ awareness of cultural biases and increase reading and writing skills. This project, highlighted in the following sections, demonstrates how writing can be harnessed as a tool to build empathy, self-awareness, and resilience.
As we return to school after the Covid experience, these four conditions and a project like this could be instrumental in healing and connection.
A safe climate is the foundation for mental health in any school. It’s not only about what we say (e.g., “Everyone is welcome here”) but about the actions in a school or classroom that create safety. Because written expression leaves us vulnerable to criticism, it’s essential for students to feel they can express themselves in a respectful environment.
Chimere starts the year with a presentation on “who I am, where I’m from, my trials and traumas, my champions, where I went to school, my resilience, my faith, the fact that I’m queer, and what I’m trying to get better at.” She goes on to have students list “what they need to thrive in a learning community.” She takes her time at the beginning of the year to help students look in depth at the list, what might be hard about it, and what they will do if it is difficult. The result is the beginning of a class community.
Powerful writing is born from new, exciting, and interesting experiences. I love this quote attributed to author Justine Musk: “Reading is the inhale; writing is the exhale.” If the inhale is stale or boring (e.g., a history textbook), the exhale will be short and without substance. If the inhale is exciting and relevant, (e.g., a class visitor who fought in Vietnam, stories about the effect on his life, along with statistics about the war) the exhale will more likely be robust.
Chimere, along with Mary Graham, the counselor, provided real frameworks about how oppression works and how it becomes internalized. They included studies, models, and real-life examples. Students analyzed the words in popular music and spoken-word performances.
What new information do students need to learn about their mental health, post-Covid? Through collaboration with a mental health practitioner, teachers can supply information to students on the topics of: (1) understanding normal responses to extended isolation, (2) the grieving process, and (3) common and normal causes of anxiety. Students need age-appropriate information about all of these things, as well as other topics that a counselor might be able to provide.
Students who aren’t taught basic skills will remember writing in school as embarrassing and traumatic. Teaching writing skills will open a world of possibilities to students—academically and creatively.
In recent years, explicit instruction programs such as Judith Hochman’s Writing Revolution have gained popularity and highlighted the need for better writing instruction. My own program, Growing Writers, fills the need for explicit writing instruction in grades K–2.
Chimere taught many reading and writing skills during her project. Students learned to analyze poems for eighteen different poetic devices. Students did close reading, learning the definitions of words they didn’t know. She taught lessons on sixteen different Common Core standards during the unit. She did a pre- and post-assessment of figurative language tools (such as simile, allusion, metaphor, pun, etc.) and saw huge growth.
A meaningful post-Covid writing project can potentially include huge gains in reading and writing. Readings could include the history of past pandemics, novels with the themes of love and loss, and real-life stories of hardship and endurance, such as young people who survived harrowing experiences. Still, the objective here is to go beyond the typical personal narrative (e.g., responding to a prompt such as “How the pandemic affected me”). The objective would be to use the pandemic experience and relevant class reading to deepen understanding. Perhaps there could be an online site where teachers contribute in-depth lesson plans and ideas for stories for various grade levels.
Positive feedback and connection with peers
The healing effects of writing become most apparent at this stage, when students can share honest, heartfelt, well-written pieces they are proud of and that reflect their learning. This is where silence is broken through, students understand each other better, and the feeling of loneliness is alleviated. This is where our common humanity becomes the healer.
Chimere recalls: “Students were very willing to share some deep stuff. They cared about it. Usually it’s hard to get students to do editing and revising, but this time they all wanted me to look at their work. There was a strong community feeling and everyone wanted to share. Some kids wanted to write another poem. One of my white boys who thought he never experienced any bias realized that he was judged for the clothing he chose and certain things about his family. One girl wrote about the trauma she had endured about being molested. For her to share that with the whole class made me amazed at what we had built together.”
It’s not just counselors and mental health providers that can help students heal post-Covid. It is students themselves, and teachers who can powerfully connect them with the words they need.
In closing, I want to add that teachers who don’t feel skilled enough to do a big writing project can still use writing as a tool to stay in touch with their students. They can create a class community by sharing authentically who they are and helping every student feel accepted. Then they can allow for opportunities for students to write them a note (even just three minutes once a week at the end of a lesson works). The note can be about something a student wants you to know about their life, feedback about your teaching, or a thank you to a classmate, which you will pass along. This simple invitation to write a note can help to identify students in crisis who may be invisible.
Here’s to the power of writing!
More details on Chimere and Mary’s project “The Power of Words” is available on www.growingwriters.org under the blog post “The Power of Words.”