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Reading for Relationship Building: Texts that Transcend Trauma

Author // Emily Rozmus Wednesday, 04 April 2018

Trauma is Epidemic

Divorce. Emotional abuse. Neglect. Natural disasters. Poverty. Separation. Violence. There are many causes of trauma. According to Dr. Becky Bailey in her webinar series from Conscious Discipline, trauma can be defined as experiences or a series of events when emotions overwhelm us and become part of the history stored in our autonomic nervous system. This is the same system in our body which allows us to breathe and digest food with no thought. Like these automatic actions, the effects of trauma are unconscious and involuntary. Most teachers will agree that they encounter students who display the behaviors caused by severe trauma in their classrooms. These students may be anxious, have negative attitudes, be easily distracted, or even cause themselves harm. Excessive exposure to trauma can lead to even greater problems for young people, and without learning resilience and self-regulation, they are at risk of dropping out of school, becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, and harming others. Twenty percent of those who experience trauma will go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder (Bailey).

Trauma is epidemic. Schools across the country recognize that the children and young adults they have been charged with educating and preparing for academic and vocational success arrive to class with more than just books in their backpacks. Some come with no lunch, while others bring tear tracks from the fight with mom. Memories of the fight mom and her boyfriend had last night or the fire that destroyed a home are also part of the baggage these students carry with them. In order to meet outcomes, show progress, and pass tests, teachers must help the learner engage with content. But before they can do that, it is important that teachers connect with the student and encourage them to engage with not only them, but also with their peers. Relationships are often the source of trauma, but they are also the way to treat it (Bailey).

Books Build Connections

One way that teachers can build relationships with students is through books, stories, and essays. Text that is carefully and intentionally chosen by teachers to meet the emotional needs of students is a powerful tool for making connections, not only for a teacher to student, but also with student to self, or student to peer. "What they bring to a book shapes what they take from it," according to Nancy Johnson, Melanie Koss, and Miriam Martinez in the March/April issue of The Reading Teacher. In the article Through the Sliding Glass Door: #Empower the Reader, the authors explore how books and other texts can provide important perspectives to a student's world view using the 1990 Perspective's article Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors by Rudine Sims Bishop:

  • Books can be a mirror for students as they see some facet of themselves reflected back.
  • Books can be a window that reveals people, experiences, or worlds that are different from what the students know.
  • Books can be a sliding glass door when they change students' world view and inspire them to take action.

Use INFOhio's Digital Instructional Content to Build Bridges

INFOhio's digital resources and databases offer text that can help teachers connect with students - most burdened with unwanted baggage - and find their own reflection or new understanding about the world. Here is a list of resources with titles that can be used in the classroom to build relationship, and help students take the lead in exploring their experience as well as others.

BookFlix—While this collection of 131 pairs of fiction/nonfiction titles is for PreK-3, students, picture books are also a powerful teaching tool for older students as well. Try out these titles that have resilient characters who overcome hardships:

Rosa by Nikki Giovanni - Use this title as a sliding glass door for students who have faced trauma such as emotional abuse.  Rosa Parks took action and led others to work toward equality and respect for all people. Share this with students who need a role model and want to make a difference.

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman - Children who have experienced acute trauma that has kept them from achieving a goal will find a mirror reflection in Grace. In this book, Grace must overcome the decisions made by other people about what she can and can't do. This story will inspire those who face physical or mental challenges.

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson - Poverty can be a contributor to trauma. The story of Maya and Chloe, two girls with different socio-economic backgrounds, can be a window for students as well as a sliding glass door with a powerful message of how one act of kindness can send ripples into the world around us. 

Shrinking Violet by Giselle Potter - A student who experiences the effects of trauma may withdraw or become numb in certain situations.  Use this book as a window to help students understand why some peers may be shy or unable to participate in popular classroom activities.

Bink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo - When children experience trauma in the home, it is difficult for them to build relationships in other settings. This story of two sisters is a reflection for relationship-reluctant students. Sisters Bink and Gollie are great examples of cooperation for win/win outcomes - one element of a positive relationship.

Jackie Robinson by Colleen Sexton - Baseball player Jackie Robinson experienced emotional abuse and violence growing up as an African American in the United States. This role model did not let traumatic experiences hold him back. Use this book to help students who are struggling with negative self image as a mirror where they will see similarities between themselves and the national hero.

Storia—INFOhio offers more than 300 titles for Ohio's 4th and 5th grade students. There are many biographies that tell the story of people who faced obstacles in life, but were able to go on to accomplish great things:

Louis Braille: The Boy Who Invented Books for the Blind by Margaret Davidson - As a blind child in the 19th century, Louis Braille did not have many options as people who were blind were neglected and forgotten.  Louis Braille did not let trauma stop him from developing a relationship with his teacher that led him to create the Braille system for the blind. Work with students who have experienced neglect and abuse, and help them see themselves reflected in the story.

I am Roberto Clemente by Jim Gigliotti - The story of Roberto Clemente mirrors Jackie Robinson's story in many ways - emotional abuse and violence were obstacles the baseball player had to overcome. Eventually, he went on to become the first Latino superstar in American baseball. Children who have experienced trauma can find a mirror and a sliding glass door in Roberto's story of courage.

Helen Keller: Girl of Courage by Francene Sabin - Due to a childhood illness, Keller was deaf and blind. Despite the trauma she experienced, Keller went on to learn to read and communicate with others because of a strong relationship with her teacher. Let this title be a window for students who struggle to communicate because of trauma or who have difficulty connecting to others.

Teen Ink—This magazine contains writing by teens for teens. All issues are available from EBSCO's MAS Ultra School Edition database. Follow these steps to access this publication:

  1. Go to www.infohio.org and click the View All Resources button.
  2. In the list of databases, find MAS Ultra - School Edition.
  3. In the database, click the Title List.
  4. In the search box, type Teen Ink.
  5. Click the link to browse each edition on the right side of the screen OR use the top search box to search teen ink and another key word (teen ink and friendship or teen ink and resiliency) to find specific articles. 
  6. Read the articles as a group and talk about the ways other teens are dealing with trauma, sadness, or unsafe situations.

The article below is a memoir written by a teen whose parents have divorced. Divorce and separation are two causes of trauma. Share the article with students who struggle with this loss. When teens understand that they are not alone by seeing a reflection of themselves in writing, they will be able to develop coping mechanisms and self-worth through the power of connection.

Providing text for our students that is relevant and timely is important in building relationships with students. When teachers reveal their own connections to text, they can help students understand the purpose for reading and that their response to text is not just academic, but also emotional (Rosenblatt). Be intentional in text choice, keeping in mind the trauma our students have experienced. When educators reach out to these children and young adults with books, the possibility for relationships improves. Share your story via social media or at support.infohio.org to let us know how #INFOhioWorks to build bridges in your classroom. 

About the Author

Posted by: Emily Rozmus

Emily Rozmus is an INFOhio Instructional Team Specialist.  She has worked in education for 24 years, first as a secondary English teacher, and then as a district librarian. Emily has developed district growth plans, integrated technology, created instruction for information literacy, fostered teacher development, and worked on teams to implement curriculum. At INFOhio, she focuses on helping educators use INFOhio resources to improve early learning. She also works to share research and best practices for helping students be better readers of INFOhio's digital text. In her free time, she reads, enjoys time with her family, and plans for her next big adventure in life.

Emily Rozmus
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