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Inspired Ideas

Turning Crisis into Opportunity: A Trauma-Informed Return to School

By Diane Wolk-Rogers and Jenna Moniz, Educators from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

While I am no stranger to a trauma-informed approach to teaching, I realize this fall many teachers and their students are returning to school without being properly equipped to deal with the anxiety and challenges brought on by COVID 19 and the civil unrest in our nation.

My friend Jenna Moniz, who provides student resiliency support at Atlantic Technical College, explains how and why she successfully created a program that uses brain-based social-emotional learning strategies to provide a welcoming environment for her students. These are all simple strategies that any teacher can use to support their students and be rewarded with a positive and inspiring year despite the uncertainties and added pressures.

This is her story:

I remember being peeled to the news in the minutes, hours, and days after the MSD tragedy. As a childhood friend of the parents of one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting six years before, I could not believe that a tragedy this horrific could hit so close to home . . . again. And yet it had.

And somehow, someway, we adults and educators had to find a way to be strong for our children.

I was supervising alternative high school just a few miles from MSD, and most of our community lived in or near Parkland. That is when I saw Diane on a national stage, standing up to the NRA and even to the sitting president of the United States to say what most would not have found the clarity or the guts to articulate. Her pain was raw, but her questions were honest, fair, and from the heart. She stood up for her children. She stood up for all our children. She was my hero. And we hadn’t even met.

As the months passed after the shooting, we began to see an increase in the number of teenagers leaving local high schools and entering our alternative programs. Our student population was shifting, and we knew we had to respond.

These young students who were finding their way to our programs in alternative education had a major common thread: surviving trauma. The traditional academics-only approach simply would not work for them.

We knew we had to help them move through their healing process in an environment that was safe and supportive. We understood that their pain could be leveraged as a conduit for growth. We knew we had to act fast.

We rallied the support and resources we would need to create a space where learning and post-traumatic growth could happen simultaneously.

Paving the Way for an SEL-Powered, Whole-Student Model

With the support of Broward Technical Colleges and our Superintendent, Robert Runcie, we opened the doors to Aspire Academy in 2019 to serve as a self-contained therapeutic whole-student academic and social-emotional model for teenagers.

Mindfulness practices, positive psychology, meaningful project-based learning, and Multiple Intelligences would become our cornerstone. Our classes would remain small as providing our students with the feel of an extended family was our goal.

Two years later, as fate and fortune would have it, I was invited by Diane Wolk-Rogers to be a participant in one of her Mind-Body Ambassador groups. I would be a student and a mentee. And that is when Diane became much more than a hero to me. She became a friend.

And from Diane, I learned what it sounded like to listen with compassion. To shut your mouth and open your heart; to withhold the urge to console or fix. To just create the safe nonjudgmental space for young people to feel . . . whatever they are feeling. And most times, that is enough.

Trauma-Informed Approaches in the Age of Covid-19

So, as we plan to return to school in this new digital and distanced way, I know that the first thing we will do is exactly what my mentor and friend showed us to do: to listen.

We will create a safe space where our young people are invited in exactly as they are. Where they know that they belong no matter what.

They will likely need to process what they have gone through and continue to go through as the world struggles to figure out a global pandemic and outcries for social equity everywhere.

Our first priority will be creating daily opportunities for our students to develop self-awareness.

A variety of mindfulness activities will be incorporated including a “moment to arrive” where we all practice stillness and leveraging the intelligence of the breath.

They will teach bytes of science that support the practices and demonstrate how such practices decrease stress, support all bodily functions, and when practiced routinely, can help with focus, creativity, and more.

We understand the importance of human connection and the dangers of isolation and loneliness, so we will work as a team — an extended family of sorts — providing students with a consistent place to belong and where their voices and stories matter.

We will encourage the expression of their emotions. We will encourage them to feel their feelings without judgment and to share them in a variety of ways. Verbal expression, written expression, music, and visual arts are a few of the modalities we will encourage to tap into the wells of our students’ thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

We will talk openly about societal topics that are important to students and we will support them through project-based learning that addresses these issues. We know that students need not only to feel valued but also to know that they are adding value.

Working collaboratively to innovate solutions to problems that matter to students become key to our learning model for multiple reasons:

  1. Humans are social beings and we need healthy connections for our overall well-being
  2. Students are more engaged and vested when learning about real-world topics that impact their lives real-time
  3. Problem-solving and innovation are key workforce skills that the 21st Century demands right now.

We see this approach as win-win.

And while the digital format certainly presents its own set of challenges, we will make the best of the circumstances and stretch ourselves outside of our comfort zones — remembering that this too, is another example of how a crisis can become a great opportunity.

Diane Wolk-Rogers began teaching because she was passionate about supporting too-often neglected young people facing challenges and vulnerabilities. Early in her career, she received awards for her work providing special education support to students with learning and emotional disabilities. In 2001 she joined the faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where she taught AP World History. In 2006, Wolk-Rogers became engaged in LGBTQAI activism, and she now serves as the faculty advisor for MSD’s Gay/Straight Alliance. She recently gained national attention for speaking publicly in support of the #neveragain movement led by her students at MSD after the shooting that occurred there on February 14, 2018. Their activism inspires her to fight for a safe learning environment for all. After 35 years of devoted teaching, Diane is now enjoying her much-deserved retirement!

Jenna Moniz is a former Peace Corps volunteer who taught English as a foreign language in several countries abroad. She is Nationally Board Certified in English as a New Language and is the lead author of the ESOL Endorsement courses for Broward County. Her graduate studies are in Brain-based Instruction and she is an avid studier of cognition, the science of thinking. Ms. Moniz served Broward County in various instructional and administrative capacities, K- Adult, and is currently Atlantic Technical College’s Instructional Support person for Student Resiliency, a new position developed to support the retention, program completion, and transition of adolescent students. Atlantic Technical College will implement Positive Psychology coursework this year to help younger students become more mentally and emotionally resilient, and to make more of the choices that increase happiness and real-world readiness.

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