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Trauma-Informed Creative Practices in the Classroom Discussion

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

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MOLLY: Hello and welcome to the podcast where we talk about creating experimental art in trauma-informed and sustainable ways that support artists, our communities, and the organization as a whole. I'm Molly, and you're listening to Any Other Anythings?

So starting with some intros of who you are as an artist and educator. Lauren, would you like to kick us off?

LAUREN: Hello, good evening. I’m Lauren Scott. Pronouns she/her/hers. I am a music educator in the valley. I work with elementary through high school students, and I've been with Grey Box for the long haul, like since before we even started in 2014. And it’s, honestly, one of my favorite places to be and that's about it.

MOLLY: Thanks, Lauren. Lizbett?

LIZBETT: Hi I’m lizbett benge. She/her/hers. I'm teaching in a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, and before this, I was teaching at a large public universe in the valley, and also do work with communities and people of varying ages. Think the medium that I work in most is in theater, and then with that, I'm also teaching like critical, social, and political theory. Thank you.

MOLLY: And Chris!

CHRIS: Hello my name is Chris Weise. I am a theatre and drama instructor here in the valley. I currently teach 6th grade through 12th grade all in one day. Yes, it is madness. And I have been, I’ve done work with Grey Box, various paths similar with Grey Box over the years, many in education, and I’m very happy to be here and I’m looking forward to the discussion.

MOLLY: Cool. Thanks all. And I'll add in that as an artist, I hang out in kind of the interdisciplinary world of performing arts and visual arts. And then as an educator, I'm an adjunct and so I've taught at a variety schools in the valley. This semester, I'm at two schools, in two departments. Primarily teaching dance. At my peak of adjusting it was four schools, seven departments, and I was teaching everything from lecture, professional development-based classes, to theater, interdisciplinary arts, like you name and it. It was a wild semester, and it was the only semester like that. Intentionally so.

So from the three of you, I'd love to start like let's toss out some of the foundational knowledge. Start with some of these basics like how are you defining trauma-informed? How are you defining creative practices? How do you define trauma-informed creative practices? And maybe even how do you define yourself as an educator, and/or a teacher. Whatever hat or role you like to be in. Y'all can unmute whenever you want to chime in.

CHRIS: For me, thinking primarily about the role of teacher and educator. To me, it always comes across, it comes to a space of how do I work collaboratively with the people in space? I do my best to, to share whatever power structures are there and dismantle them, which I think is part of trauma-informed work. And I do that a lot. For me, it’s always about, like how can I create a collaborative space? And like, that is the baseline for any teaching or any education for me. And that is my baseline. That is where I start. And then from there, moving into the other things, with in terms of creative practices, again, it’s based around these collaborations. How to work with the people that I'm there with to help them create something that they, that matters to them, that they care about.

And then moving into the trauma-informed part. The trauma-informed part, for me, is all about breaking down of power, power structures, and really looking at everybody as an individual and just being like, what does it mean to be self-aware? For me to be self-aware as an artist and a teacher in the space? Of the entire...self-awareness of the entire space, and also my own personal self-awareness, and what can I do to create levels of self-awareness amongst the students as well.

LAUREN: Echoing what Chris said about being aware of those power structures in the classroom is really important to me as well. As a music teacher, I try to demonstrate as much as I can, and ask students to demonstrate because that is part of the performing arts. And trying to create a space where no matter what wild sounds we might make, or funny moves, or something silly that might come out of our instrument, knowing that we’re gonna celebrate that. And that, you know, there's always no shame in that. Like part of learning is making all of those mistakes, so when we hear that like kinda interesting noise, we talk about it. Like, “Okay, how did that happen? All right, that happens when we do this. Let’s all make that noise, and now let’s find that adjustment that’s going to make that best quality sound.” So really trying to create an environment of everyone is learning, and I'm learning, and, you know, that goal of being like that learner among learners. Like we're all in different, different zones of what we know, and what we feel comfortable with, and just naming that that's okay, and that everyone is going to need different supports, and different time with each other.

So, for me, as far as creating like that trauma-informed practice in the classroom, really challenging myself to meet students where they’re at. Listening to the music that they listen to even if I don’t like it. And also practicing for myself, not to say, “I don't like this,” but saying, “You know, hey, this isn’t really what I would listen to but it does X, Y, and Z really well and actually that relates to this other music we're going to work on.” So drawing those relevant connections between what’s important to them, and what they might hear in their homes, from their grown ups or their other family, and then drawing it to this like new foreign world of like performing arts and public school. So it’s kind of a goal, I will say, it is tougher in Zoom school, but you know I try to name that like, hey, we’re working on this together, and some days we're not going to feel like it, and that's okay. Like that's normal right now.

LIZBETT: My cat has the kitty jitters right now. So if you hear noises about, like everything is all good. So I’m not going to answer this in a linear fashion cuz, linearity, right? Like straight kind of lines, that’s actually like really an oppressive structure. So here goes this kind of like winding answer.

Yes to what Chris and Lauren have just said. And I think for me, givin my own background and training, I as an educator am interested in offering different lenses to understand the world that we're living in, right? And so I have a PhD in Gender Studies which is fundamentally, right, the study of relations of power. And we understand power through different categories such as race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability. These are all kinds of, of like I said manifestations of powers. And so, yeah, what are the varying frames that we understand that power? And what are the different reference points for people? Because we are all differentially situated in those systems of power, and so as I’m thinking about what being trauma-informed means like, yo, we are all works in progress, all of the time. Both understanding the systems that we live in, and like on larger kinds of scales, right? And I’m thinking about, like how the everyday is impacted by that, and then how we in turn are shaping those things, you know. So really I'm interested in, if I think about the like creative practices part of that, yo, what are the tools that we possess that are more creative than the systems that oppress us? Because they’re there. They exist, right? Like we are honoring ourselves in the everyday ways that we just like show up, right, and there is creativity in that. Maybe even down to the way that you’re even breathing, right, and how you hold space. Like, in all of that, there’s creativity.

So I’m just interested in, you now, the different ways that we come together. I'm thinking about this like spacetimebodyminds. So this like term that I started to use because when we talk about the body, that feels really incomplete to me. And like bodymind kind of exist together, but then we're located in particular space and time. So all of that, together, is really how I’m thinking about trauma-informed creative practices and education together, and how that comes together, right? So thinking about trauma. I think a lot of the discussions that I'm privy to, right, there's like an emphasis on the body, but then that's completely divorced from how the body relates to both space and time right? The way that you think. We are not...we don't have bodies. Like we are bodies, and a body is more than just this thing. So like a complete like unpacking of that, in some really cool and interesting ways that like, let’s ask questions. Let's make these like weird connections among things, right? And they're actually like not so weird cuz everything is connected, but let's figure out what those things are. And as Chris has said, right? And like how is that all situated in power? Because power can be progressive and it can also be really regressive. So, what do we do with that?

MOLLY: So thank you all for like, right? Need a minute to recover from that, Lizbett. Thank you. And, and I'm going to borrow, and credit, with proper citation, spacetimebodymind. And yes, I see that in the chat as well. I love that all three of you brought up power like right away, and I think when we think about classrooms, and when we think about maybe...actually, let’s go with this. In your own education as teachers, what were the conversations that were happening around power, or about trauma, or any of that existing in your classrooms in the future?

CHRIS: There weren't any.

LAUREN: Yeah I want to jump in on that one so fast. Oh my goodness. In undergrad, it just didn't happen. We had a whole single day in practicum where we’re like today's Diversity Day, and we're going to have those big tough conversations. And I’m like, “Okay, I'll take it, a day. It should be every day but that's okay. I'll take the one day.” And the whole thing of it was like, “Did you know that maybe, some of your students might not be the same as you?” And I was like, “Wow... okay. Not helpful.” But I appreciated that they were trying based on the education that they had and then moving forward. Like, you get out of college, and your world changes; and what do you do with that once you’re already doing things the way you've been doing them. Not everyone adapts as easily as, you know, maybe we do, and that's okay. Like everyone moves at their own pace.

I will say, in my graduate schooling, same university, it has been such a beautiful, and wholehearted reflection on what it means to be a culturally responsive teacher, and to validate students and their experiences, and try to give voice to the people in your classroom, and like help them use their worlds, and you know, help them understand that their story is just as full, and beautiful, and worthy as anyone else in that room, or this planet of earth. So it's been a really, really fantastic experience, and we’ve talked about power and what does it mean to be a direct teacher versus handing things over to the students in a way that helps them feel successful, and helps them deal with failures. And so I just want to give a shout out to the college experience because it really has improved. And these are the same professors as before like growing, and helping us grow, and it’s just been really nourishing this whole time.

CHRIS: Fantastic. I’d love to jump in with some of that like, I didn't really have even, even as a student, right? Nothing ever was really brought up about any sort of trauma-related stuff, power structures. There’s an understanding of teacher power, I don't have power, I’m the student, great. And the thing that I always come up against, that I really didn’t like was always the reasoning of it, because I said so, because I’m the teacher. Which I’ve always hated it. I deeply hate that. Like I hate it with all of my soul. And undergrad, I didn't do any sort of traditional like education for teaching. I didn’t really... So like undergrad, those weren’t things I was thinking about, not until I got to grad school, where again, it was incredibly, I think, trauma-informed without really saying those words. But really going through that, looking at culturally responsive teaching, and artistry, and all that. But like, the things that, this idea of how to create a space in which these young people...In which their voices can be elevated, right? And talking about like, you know, and that to me, is like a really big thing. Like, what does that look like?

And I had students, I have students ask me questions all the time; and there are a couple that never stop. And that's okay. I encourage it, actually. I encourage it all the time because I think it's important that the questions are asked. That I don't want them to feel bad for asking questions, and I think that’s an important thing to do. And we had a discussion about like, I will always, regardless of how I’m stressed I am during the day, or how, how, how frustrated I might be answering the same, the same question like the 30th time, I will always try to give them a full, honest, direct answer because I don’t believe in just using my place of power as the answer. Cuz I think that is used all the time and I refuse to do that. And it's something that I think, I have gotten a lot of mileage out of it and I think the students respond to that very, very well. That’s just, I think, a very important practice that is exhausting but ultimately, I think, incredibly helpful, and really goes a long way, in my experience.

LIZBETT: You know, in listening to your two speak and reflecting on my own experience, somehow have gone through like 11 years of higher ed without ever having to take a course on pedagogy; without having to take anything, right, about like these foundational things. So I’m like, how did I, how did I learn this? You know, and it's like, well dang, I did have a kind of a crappy life growing up, and so that like, cultivated some compassion in me. And really, it was about making a lot of mistakes and having to just, like sometime, you know, they all hit differently. Sometimes, I can actually realize, like, “Oh I made a mistake.” And other times, it's far beyond that point where I realized like, “Oh actually that didn't work.” And I probably caused some harm there, you know? And it's also been just going to a lot of things. Going to a lot of workshops, going to a lot of different lectures, seeing different shows. Just being involved in the community in different ways, where I get to see other people facilitate. And also taking note of like, how am I feeling about this?

I went to a training through like opportunities for youth, and it was about trauma-informed care, and like how to provide it as a direct kind of practitioner. So it was a lot of social workers in the room with me. And they kept showing these really traumatic kinds of videos about people just disclosing all sorts of things. And they’re like, “Oh, well, when this happens, you know, let’s role play. What are you gonna ask the person?” I was like, I am so activated right now. Like why isn't this session being led in a trauma-informed way for us? Like what? You know? And so, I would just have to say, that a lot of it is drawn from personal experience for me, and like, “Okay, what I’ve done?” Which has been to like, use art to kind of work through these things, and to give myself an aesthetic distance from my own trauma. And then to just be critical and reflexive about what it is that I am kind of in relationships to and with. And that’s where like, the critical theory kind of background has helped me come to, what maybe, some practice-based things might have in another realm.

MOLLY: Thanks all. I know it was like kind of a tangent on a left field. But I was just wondering, cuz I feel like there's been such a taboo for so long on talking about trauma. Like it’s the big T, we don’t talk about the thing. But it's like, we're in the middle of a pandemic, and I think the trauma-informed pedagogy, or culturally responsive, or decolonizing our curriculum, like that was kind of underground a few years ago; and now it’s becoming more, and more common to talk about, or the taboo’s going away or something. There's been a real change. And I think it's been accelerated in the past six months. So I was just wondering if that was something that, that had happened before for all of you. And Lizbett, similarly, lots of, lots of time in higher ed and very little, very, very little work around pedagogy. So I do feel that this is something where, right? I feel like it’s something where, where like we’re like drawn towards this work, and we just kind of followed it on our own, and sought it out in various ways. And going back to where I was before I pivoted, power, and the discussion around power. And as educators, traditionally, that is the power position, right? You’re at the front of the classroom. So what are some of the things that you're thinking about in that role? And to work with, through power in the systems that we are existing in right now?

CHRIS: I try to, like, use the physical environment to remove power, or at the very least demonstrate a physical structure where power is minimized. That is something I try to do. It’s very difficult right now. My place of employment just started hybrid learning. For example, one class, I have three students in... physically in the class. The rest of them are on, you know, on the computer and their voices are piped in through the speaker. So normally, I would have everybody sit on the floor in a circle. I, sometimes, will walk around, and I’m like, “I’m walking around. I’m taller than everybody. I’m using my power, I gotta stop that.” And then I’m like, “I don’t wanna sit on the floor. My knees hurt.” You know. But thinking of things like that of just like, what how like... comfort doesn’t matter in that way, and make sure I’m demonstrating this with them, and holding that space with them. Of like, the first thing I always go to is always how can I physically do that? And how do you do that when you don't have a physical space? I don't know. I’m trying to figure that out. But yeah that's, that's immediately where my brain goes.

LIZBETT: I’ve started doing my syllabi a lot differently. So generally, there's a very regimented kind of rigid structure of like, here is your course description, here’s where we meet, these are my office hours, what we will do, here is your schedule. I’ve instead started making, you know, and we’ll see how this lands with people but it’s what feels right to me for now. I’ve started making these like, long kind of narrative syllabi where I talk about, “Hey, this is how I came to teach this. This is why we’re learning these things. This is why I have curated this term in this particular way. I read this book four years ago and this chapter changed my life. So I thought, cool, let’s see how it works in this context.” So I’m just am attempting to be more transparent about things, to like throw away structures that just don't work for me. And I'm not going to care. I'm going to take that risk. Like if someone wants to tell me this makes no sense, okay that’s fine. It makes sense to me. I’m sure it makes sense to other people too. You know, and like finding like, okay if it doesn’t make sense, I’m not gonna wholesale write that off, right? I can still present things in a different manner for folks but really, yeah what are we doing? Why? And how? I'm just trying to offer that as up front to people in as many different ways as I can, and as I know how.

LAUREN: Lizbett, I just want to name that I really wish I could take one of your classes. It just sounds like such a supportive experience for the student and I think that’s really beautiful. With power, I, I’m working on my graduate degree in my Masters in Music Education right now, while teaching full time, and my students know I go to school at night and then will ask me like, “Ms. Scott! What are you doing in class?” Cuz I ask them what they do in their other classes. It’s just kind of my way to kind of keep tabs on, “Oh you have two big projects in your other class. I better not put my test this week.” And try to be like respectful of like the other stuff they have going on, like I’m not the only class they go to in a day. And so, when, we just finished reading like a big set of chapters on like power and democracy in the classroom; and one of the ideas was that teaching in inherently oppressive because we’re just spitting out all of this information, and they’re taking it all in, and they have all of these rules to follow at school, and the bell rings, and you get up, and you go into another room. Like you’re always doing what you’re told to do and not being told. And I was trying to explain this to one of my classes, and they’re looking at me like, “Well, Ms Scott, you’re not oppressing us.” And I’m like, “Well, but really, believe me, I am.” And they’re like, “No, Ms Scott. Theatre is fun.” And I’m like, “No, really!” And they’re like, “Mm mm. Theatre is fun. This is not oppressive.” So it’s interesting just to see like, they’re perspective on it and, you know, getting to check in with each of my classes. We meet via Zoom right now. And everyday I ask them a kid-friendly would you rather, or one of those medium, tough questions of like where would you go back in time and why? And stuff like that. And they, I find that they log in early because they want to know what the question is. And I just...they have such wonderful responses. Like today, I was kind of surveying some students via Google Form on like, “Okay. How is the Coronavirus pandemic affecting teen health?” Because we had an article we were reading for our AVID work, and so many of the students said things like, “Oh. Well, it’s weird because it’s different, but I found out how funny my dad is.” Or like, “My family started going for walks together.” Or like, “Honestly, I miss school but this is nice because I don’t have to deal with the drama.” Or like, “I made better friends online than in person because I’m really shy .” Stuff like that that I was just, is so, like I had the goosebumps on my arms because of how resilient and wonderful these humans are. And I just think, what an honor to have them in my life because everything they do, I want to do to support them.

CHRIS: Yeah, I wanted to jump off some of what you’re both saying. This idea of transparency. I have always noticed, I always notice I am super transparent with my students. Sometimes stupidly so. And like, I’m like, in the like of ridiculously transparent, I feel like I’m betraying other adults by being so transparent. By like, I say, “I don’t have all the answers and I never will.” You know? And they’re like, “Really?” And I’m like, “Yeah of course. I’m more interested in what you think, and why you think it, and how we can work together on stuff. And you know, a lot of adults don’t know this either. Don’t tell them I told you that.” You know, just blatantly having... trying to have just very honest interactions, and discussions, and experiences about, in just being like, “ Yeah. I don’t know this and I mess up too and that’s okay.” And normalizing, trying to normalize not being perfect, in a culture that least the culture I’m in, I’m in a very high pressure school, where that if kids get below like, a 95, they freak out. That’s just the culture. And so, really, I try to do what I can to normalize, you know, being a human being as much as possible.

MOLLY: Yeah. Thank you all. Apologies to K through 12 teachers, but I definitely have been supporting some unlearning in, with the high schoolers that I work with. And we were going through like there are multiple ways to do research. and sharing some more efficient ways. And they’re like, “My teacher didn’t tell me about this.” Well, it, it exists. There are other ways, and there's more than, there's more than one way to do something. And like discovering what every body of students that I work with each semester, like what are they bringing in? And I'm definitely having to work with them. The perfectionism is another one that I get a lot. And holding that like perfectionism can be a trauma response. So I try really hard to, and also like as someone who's, that’s definitely one of mine, I try really hard to also make sure that I'm holding that space of like, “It's okay to be perfect, and it's okay to earn an A.” Cuz I do some self grading stuff. And you can say you deserve an A because you did your best. And maybe your best this week looked different than last week, and that's also okay. And so kind of, like with that, like the creating these spaces, creating these learning environments that y'all are in. What are some of the tools? What are some of the practices or approaches that you’re using to create those spaces?

LIZBETT: One of the things that, one of the assignments that I’m doing in all of my classes is just an assignment about something you love. You know? Like I just want people to hold on to something. I'm asking that it could be one sentence from 60 pages of reading. Like whatever. It could be, you know, the outfit that someone wore in the YouTube video we watched. It doesn’t matter. I want people to latch on to something they love, and then I just asked them to explore it. Where does it show up in other places? How? How do you see this connecting to other things? You know, if it is that outfit, did you see someone else wear it? Who’s it designed by? Wher