Turning Grief Into Growth: Returning to School After Trauma

By Diane Wolk-Rogers, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

In my last blog I wrote about my plans to return to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High equipped with the tools I will need to bring a year of healing, learning, and love to my students. I am thrilled to report that thanks to a generous grant from the Chan Zuckerberg initiative, Dr. Jim Gordon’s Center for Mind Body Medicine (CMBM.org) in partnership with Broward County Public Schools, continues to support me, as I successfully integrate trauma relief methods into my classroom. After eight days of intense training and continued consultation, I have managed to turn my own grief, depression and anxiety into post traumatic growth and am using the same techniques with my student survivors to help them move forward. These CMBM tools are easy to use and should be incorporated into any classroom to help honor students’ strength and resiliency.

My students this year have some unique challenges. Some of my students are recovering from gunshot wounds, saw their best friends shot to death right before their eyes, and lost their siblings during the February 14th massacre. Yet despite their trauma, they show up each day in my classroom eager to learn and move past the trauma of that day. The first thing I was taught to do was to calm the students’ sympathetic nervous system and engage the parasympathetic system which will allow the students to quiet their anxiety and engage the part of the brain that allows focus and control. We begin each class with a soft-belly breathing meditation followed by a check-in. A check in is just a simple way for me to ask students how they are feeling and make sure they are in the present before I begin the day’s lesson. The soft belly breathing technique has been a hit after only three weeks because last Friday I forgot to start a class with the exercise and I was quickly corrected by a chorus of students reminding me with, “Ms. Wolk-Rogers what about the soft-belly meditation?”

The CMBM also taught me the importance of groups and connections. My class is arranged in six groups of six desks. I have strategically left one desk open in each group to allow me to sit down with the groups and check in with them during our 90-minute block period. In the past I would circulate around the room during group activities to monitor their work, but I would rarely take the time to sit down with my groups. Now, sitting down, meeting my students at eye level, leaning in and listening shows my students I really care about their feelings and builds trust. I continue to receive positive feedback and have had a parent tell me her son feels the safest in my room.

In the back of the classroom, I created a “Silly Corner” for students who have moments of panic, anxiety, or difficulty self-regulating. The corner is filled with coloring books, squishy toys, putty, and other fun manipulatives. Sometimes students just get up and walk over to play for a few minutes and then after they have regulated themselves they rejoin their groups and the day’s lesson. I have not had to call for therapist to handle a student’s panic attack yet, and I hope my students continue to learn how to identify and manage their triggers through this action of self-care.

Self-care has been perhaps the most transformative tools I learned at the CMBM training. Prior to the workshop simple things like going to work, being with others, or just grocery shopping seemed like an exhausting endeavor. Now, with meditation, dancing, and other exercise techniques like shaking to rhythmic drum beats and taking time for myself, I once again enjoy living in the present and see for myself and my students a successful tomorrow.

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 teaches 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, and she is now the advisor of a new club called the National Association of Students Against Gun Violence.

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