December 12 — 1:50 pm, 2018

Poetry helps teacher recognize, respond to trauma

The writing process, one instructor says, can lead to some profound personal exploration for both the student and the teacher.

Sydney Coffin

Sydney Coffin. Photo by Bill Hangley

To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost: “The only way around it is through it.”

Jamar Alphonzo Lake Robinson, my former student who produced the accompanying narrative, represents one of the more dramatic examples of that roughest of paths: that of the student who is first removed from school to protect us from danger, and then returned to school to be rehabilitated. It’s a risky process, but one that can unfold in surprising ways. I first worked at University City High School as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, after a semester of teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages at Edison High in North Philadelphia. I returned to UCHS, or “Uni,” in 2006 as a paid teacher after two genuinely horrible years teaching in suburban Philadelphia – a misguided attempt to “escape” the city where I had been raised.

Alphonzo arrived in my classroom around 2011 after a stint at Community Education Partners, or CEP, an alternative juvenile detention school not far away. He’d been injured playing football and if I recall correctly, the roster chair rightly presumed that by scheduling him with me, he could remain safely out of harm’s way for three periods in a row – transitioning from Senior English to SAT Prep to Poetry class without having to leave the room at all.

Alphonzo was kind of cocky and a bit of a wise-ass, but I liked him immediately, and over the year, he helped me to look forward to each day’s progress. He also participated in our Poetry Slam team as one of the hour-long after school enrichments paid for by the Promise Academy model – the reform of the moment in Philadelphia. He loved the stage (then and now) and had a spontaneous sense of humor that left almost all of his teachers laughing and earned him a lot of attention from young women, poets or otherwise.

I had no knowledge of the challenges Alphonzo faced before he entered my classroom. No one told me. And that should have been no surprise. At each of the four schools in which I’ve taught, far too few people have been tasked with helping students like Alphonzo. Our counselors are almost always excellent – trauma-informed and conscientious – but there’s still usually just one for every 500 students, all with needs to prioritize.

But thousands of kids cycle through the foster care and juvenile justice system every year. They need compassionate counseling and great teachers. They need adept, flexible people who can inspire them, honor their experiences, and help them develop their innate curiosity and love of learning.

And in particular, Alphonzo and my other students who return from residential treatment and other facilities need trauma-informed instruction. Teaching them to write poetry falls into this category, helping them begin the process of healing immediately and directly.

Most teachers spend most of their energy trying to teach a particular subject and make the knowledge stick. In theory, this lays a foundation upon which future teachers can build – an accumulation of knowledge and skills that can eventually help kids make important decisions for themselves. Poetry class is different. Students produce the content themselves. They draw on their own memories and present experimental work in class, all in preparation for addressing future life with a poetic sensibility. They learn that everything can make a good story.

My colleagues who teach math, social studies, and other such subjects inform their methods with no less of an awareness of their students’ humanity. But the content of these classes does not generally open doors and hearts quite the way that the creative arts can.

Poetry creates space for students to begin profoundly personal exploration. Teachers must be mindful to be effective in cultivating a creative climate. Typical teaching methods often do not serve my students’ needs; we need to be healers as well, aware that trauma sometimes must rise to the very surface of a page before it can be excised.

Such agony manifests at unique and unpredictable moments, and teachers must be ready. We are role models, both at our best and at our worst – ambassadors of our schools and of our employers and of learning as a philosophy of life. We could know everything in the world, but if our students learn nothing from us, we have truly failed.

All students deserve creative classes like poetry and art, places where they can work through their own experiences in their own terms. That’s especially true for students like Alphonzo who’ve taken that rough road through trauma, institutionalization, and rehabilitation.

But those students need more than poetry. They need professional counseling and great teaching from, trauma informed instructors.

And teachers need more than the best intentions. They need things like quality training and small class sizes. If we really want meaningful change, we as a society must be prepared to pay for it.

In and out of the classroom, I believe, we can help our students. Despite the obstacles and challenges all of us encounter in the larger society, we can all coexist more happily if we all work together aware that coexistence is the goal and the process. As my students at Edison say to me “Juntos somos mas fuertes,” or “We are stronger together.”

Sydney Coffin has taught English in the School District of Philadelphia for 18 years. Currently on sabbatical, he plans to return to Edison High School in North Philadelphia next fall.

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