Trauma and Education:
Addressing the Needs of Struggling Learners in Heterogeneous Environments
I. Art of Peer Pressure
My sister graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia last Saturday. Our entire family was attending, so my brother drove down from his home in Boston to pick me up in Jersey. Steve has always had a strong love of Hip Hop, especially the emcee’s that are associated with the Consciousness movement. We listen to The Roots obsessively, and for years have talked at length about how underrated they are as a group. I remember, vividly, driving through the streets of our childhood town of West Hartford, CT, listening to De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. At that time, in our town, our high school experience was incredibly eclectic, our side of West Hartford boasted a very diverse population, both racially and economically. This diversity exists today, but it also calls into sharp focus the disparities at play between these different groups.
A homogenous experience would have created a myopic blindness around these issues.
In the car, Steve suggested we listen to an artist named Kendrick Lamar. My only experience with him up to that point was an appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show, and some related passing articles by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I knew he was a West Coast rapper, from Compton specifically, and that he was generally considered an up-and-coming artist.
Steve suggested that we listen to his major-label debut, titled “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City: A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar.” He explained that it was a concept album, and we began listening.
Track after track, and skit after skit, I realized that this was an experience as well as a collection of songs. The album chronicles a young Lamar navigating his way around Compton as a 17-year old. Over the course of the story, he details the various pressures and concessions he is forced to endure, often in brutal fashion.
Like the narrator of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” however, Lamar is viewing all of this through a lens of both art, and reflection. The album was released when he was 25, a good 7 years removed from his time on Rosecrans. Breaking out of the bubble allowed Kendrick to view his experiences from outside his singular frame of reference, and turn it into art.
As we drove, admiring the linguistic and sonic intricacies of the album, I felt myself becoming overwhelmed. The album and its atmosphere were creating stress for me. Kendrick’s portrayal of Compton put me in the car with him, driving around in a white Toyota with the constant threat of violence and death surrounding us.
At points, Lamar confronts these feelings directly:
“I suffer a lot, and every day the glass mirror
Gets tougher to watch; I tie my stomach in knots
And I'm not sure why I'm infatuated with death
My imagination is surely an aggravation of threats
That can come about,”
I thought about how suffocating, how madness-inducing that could become, and, as my mind tends to work, began to think about both the educational consequences and implications of that type of upbringing.
A child raised in that environment is almost certainly exposed to enough stress that it could be considered some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but the problem, is that there is no “post” anything, the children are in a constant state of trauma and anguish.
II. Allostatic Load
In his book, “How Children Succeed,” author Paul Tough outlines the ways that neuroscience can help us as educators better understand the human learning experience. One of the topics he discusses at length is the concept of Allostatic Load, and the role of sustained adverse experiences on the developing mind.
Tough uses for a definition and its effect as “...the process of managing stress, which [McEwen] labelled allostasis, …[which is] what creates wear and tear on the body.”
There are consequences to Allostatic Overload. The same process that is designed to help our bodies deal with stress, can eventually turn on people, literally affecting them physically:
“Although the human stress response system is highly complex in design, the practice has all the subtlety of a croquet mallet. Depending on what kind of stress you experience, the ideal response might come from any number of defense mechanisms… But the HPA axis can’t distinguish between different types of threat, so it activates every defense, all at once, in response to any threat” (Tough, 13).
From an evolutionary standpoint, our body’s ability to transfer resources, and allocate oxygen and antibodies to specific areas of our system is important if we are being chased by a Sabretooth tiger. We escape, maybe with a few wounds, but this is followed by down time, a period of safety. During that time, our bodies switch back to a normal state of being. Unfortunately, the body cannot differentiate between threats, and is actually harmed by a state of constant stress.
Consequently, as teachers, we are faced with a system that contains children that are in dire need of intervention, and in a heterogenous environment, where these students may appear as simply “struggling learners”, it is incredibly important to have a way of mitigating the stress of these students.
III. Empathy and Individualization
If anything, the knowledge of neuroscience should at the very least result in a change in our attitudes toward struggling learners. Developing an empathetic view of your students should be a non-negotiable on a personal level, but this must be reflected in our practice as well. Gone are the days of a learning environment that is at best, static, and at worst, comparative in nature.
Looking at the mastery of standards called for in the Common Core, it is the height of oppression to gauge students successes and failures as tied to the achievement of their peers.
When we combine the idea of educational empathy with the movement towards a standards-based approach, a necessary change in both practice and classroom structure becomes paramount.
The only ethical way to mitigate the problems presented by these new understandings is to individualize curriculum at the district and classroom level. The oft-referred to concept of differentiation breaks down under true heterogeneous groupings.
Many of the charter schools that have demonstrated “success” in helping struggling learners have made their hay from moving in the opposite direction. The use of mnemonic devices or songs, strict emphasis on rote memorization, and even the implementation of dress codes and public shamings, seem to work initially due only to the homogenous makeup of said schools. As the data has shown, intervention in this way has only created change at the schools where the students attend, with alarming dropout rates spiking after the student leaves.
A balanced or blended learning environment addresses the needs of individual students within any system, however, this is vital to the success of schools with heterogeneous populations. In schools where the label of “struggling learner” exists due to comparative norms, there must be a system in place that can adapt to student need at the structural level.
By using a mixture of technology, flipped instruction, direct instruction, small group and individual intervention, and a strong screening tool, schools with a wide variety of students can better assist students in taking control of their learning, regardless of their environment.
IV. Good Kids, Mad Cities
The ultimate realization that frees Kendrick from the cycle of violence and fear that surrounds him, is a focus on his art. He uses this skill to escape his toxic environment, and much like the protagonist in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, returns enlightened to shine a light on his experiences. I worry about the students that don’t have the ability to transcend their situations through raw talent and luck.
What are we doing with our systems of education to combat this? How can we better provide access for these students that so often slip through the cracks?
These questions are at the core of not just the problems we face in inner city education, but in the suburbs as well, where a wider variety of learners often reside.
I dove into the album after the car ride, using Rap Genius and other sites to compile as much background as I could on the songs and messages it contained. The cover art is a picture, a purple Dodge Caravan, circa the late 90's. It's the same car I drove around the streets of West Hartford. I know for a fact that the worries and anxieties I felt within that car, were radically different, trivial at best, when compared to the night, one of many, that a young Kendrick experienced in his neighborhoods.
Schools must become outposts on the front line of triage. In order to do this, we must build systems that are able to handle the many issues and traumas facing all of our children.
Lamar, Kendrick, et al. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City [sound Recording]: A Short Film. [Deluxe ed., explicit version]. Santa Monica, Calif.: Aftermath/Interscope, 2013.
Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. New York: Mariner, 2012. Print.