Written by: Joy Thomas, Ph.D., and Melissa Brevetti, Ph.D.
“I’m tired of this guilt with diversity.”
“I hate this Critical Race Theory.”
“The world is worse than ever.”
Friends confide, without critically exploring that we all can buy into false ideas more easily than ever with a hyper-media presence and social media. In our daily lives, misinformation is shared frequently as people are not given full pictures nor accurate depictions–in particular, about why our U.S. education system would benefit by addressing unjust, omissive practices in traditional schooling. That being said, if we continue to ban natural discussions about justice, this avoidance and mis-education will cause further harm as educators are forced to leave out complex and important parts of school curricula. In this article, we illuminate the multi-layered aspects of Educational Trauma and the benefits of reframing U.S. curricula.
Diversity and Inclusion: Reframing Curricula with Clear Considerations
In order to improve schools and assess effective practices for diversity and inclusion, we suggest it may be transformative for schools to carefully reframe curricula with accurate and age-appropriate, albeit contentious in all its glory and violence, content. Historically, curricula in many compulsory school subjects have often highlighted information that is misleading. Ethnic studies provide one clear way to increase engagement and attendance (Dee & Penner, 2017), which lead to graduations and employment opportunities. Without diverse curricula, for example, students will continue to study World History or World Literature, but not as a comprehensive, equitable world lens as learners tend to be steered towards a Eurocentric ideology with selected narratives and viewpoints. In many ways, learners want to–and need to–relate to the protagonists who grace their school studies for meaningful learning.
If learners experience a lack of diversity, an implicit bias engenders the idea that certain people are not notable in history, nor worth learning about as we study in the here and now. Furthermore, scholars and advocates must acknowledge that this lack of an inclusive education is not only an urban issue, but a ubiquitous issue, as rural environments are suffering with similar lower educational outcomes (Stokes & Brunzell, 2019). As documented through research, students experience Educational Trauma (Gray, 2019) through harmful–especially, in ways that are exclusive–practices that lead to anxiety, pressure, stress, which also manifests in systematic injustice.
What is Educational Trauma?
Embedded in evidence-based aspects of psychology and history, Educational Trauma exists through the perpetuated, often unintentional, but harmful systematic practices in schools. Some educators may lack the awareness–lapsing in deep understanding of cultural inequity–how certain acts of exclusion or disrespect create a classroom space of their students being uncomfortable. For our marginalized students, they are, moreover, not encouraged to take pride in their diverse ethnic backgrounds and unable to dream of a “safe” future of success for themselves and their families. To clarify, Educational Trauma stems from unrelenting hardships at schools, such as being subjected to bullying or belittling, mishandled incidents, lack of resources for schools in poverty, tragic events, as well as even nonverbal cues of not belonging. Too often, schools and communities can mirror each other by not being spaces of safety and healing.
There are contending definitions for the adverse condition of trauma. For the purposes of this article, we will use the definition presented by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual well-being. (SAMHSA, 2014, p. 7)
Building upon this premise, exclusion can create the false notion that society and the smaller units of society, families, should never talk about contentious matters concerning diversity, which often leads to misinformation, little to no tolerance, and broad assumptions. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), data shows that one of every four children has been exposed to a traumatic event, which will hinder learning. With situations of students who experience trauma, they have higher levels of absenteeism and lower GPAs and, additionally, are more likely to drop out.
As mentioned previously, ethnic studies increase the participation of students, building an inclusive classroom community who find differences to be exciting and engaging. As illustrated in Teaching Tolerance’s “The Fight for Ethnic Studies” by Tina Vasquez (2021), education professionals have “continued disagreement over the proposed model ethnic studies curriculum, which inspired contentious public debate over the framing of history and concerns over who is included and excluded as part of ethnic studies” (para 1). However, from these debates, a growing body of research indicates that trauma-sensitive classrooms and acts of inclusion, in turn, engender academic growth and students’ wellbeing (Jennings, 2019). Many students want to be engaged in curricular topics and be accepted by respected teachers and peers, and that is why inclusive practices hold much value. Belonging matters greatly.
Understanding Situations in Which School Curricula Can Cause Trauma
Our purpose in this article is to ultimately provide understanding that educators can build classroom communities in which diverse learners feel welcomed and inspired in addition to developing students’ skills for autonomy and critical-thinking. In this section, the explorations of why curriculum can cause trauma will be reviewed as we show examples of common trauma-related experiences in schools. Educators should carefully assess why and how they cover (or not) curricula with simulations and experiential learning.
Let us provide the example that in many Oklahoma schools, where we grew up, students were required to re-enact the Oklahoma Land Runs. Teachers taught without much acknowledgement of the earlier context that these Land Runs were taking away the American Indian Territory, which had been assigned during the devastating Trail of Tears relocations of a variety of tribes, including the Commanche, Apache, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw. As recorded in history, President Andrew Jackson had not given much of a choice in these relocations for the Trail of Tears, as he stated, “Should you…refuse to move, I have then directed the Commanding officer to remove you by force (Library of Congress, 1835). Then later in 1889, President Benjamin Harrison made authorizations to permit the white settlers to systematically take control of the previously-designated Indian Territory. Indeed this Oklahoma history simulation exercise was designed to be engaging and well-intended as students participated in staking their claims; however, the restorative justice practices, analysis of criminal activity with the allotment policies, and tough conversations pertaining to fair land rights and ownership rarely happened.
The Tulsa Race Massacre is another example of omitted history and language manipulations in Oklahoma. This act of terror on American soil was omitted in the Oklahoma History curricula, which was a core requirement for high school graduations. Indeed, in previous years before this year’s Centennial Commemoration, if you had heard whisperings of the event, it was incorrectly labeled as the “Tulsa Race Riot.” During this tragic event, approximately 10,000 Black people lost homes and businesses, placing loss estimates at the equivalent of $32.65 million dollars in modern-day equivalence. It is estimated that as many as 300 people were murdered. This massacre was kept out of local, state, and national histories, even as far as historical newspapers disappearing. Only in the past ten years through Senate Bill 1381, history curricula must include the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in Oklahoma high school courses, and, furthermore, only in 2019, in-depth lessons on the Tulsa Race Massacre were required as official state academic standards. As actor Tom Hanks (2021) famously wrote: You Should Learn the Truth About the Tulsa Race Massacre. Educational Trauma is caused when the history of diverse people–including one of the deadliest events in U.S. history of domestic racial violence in Tulsa– is systematically ignored, manipulated, and silenced.
These real examples of “educative curricula” are misleading to students. How can we, as community leaders, recognize inaccurate information, keep glorifying history and gloss over causes of Educational Trauma?
Often childhood trauma stems from issues concerning a lack of safety. Educators must consider how re-enactments could cause further trauma. Compassionate teaching is a way to show students that their concerns matter. Educators can recognize the age-appropriate skills to help students develop empathy and resiliency in order to foster critical thinking with possibly contentious material. We hope that you will see why educators must consider the backgrounds of students and take responsibility to maintain that learning spaces are safe for all types of learners. Moreover, it takes work to get to know your students, which becomes key to planning meaningful activities in the classroom. We have to re-imagine an inclusive curriculum so that we embrace compassionate ways of thinking and being.
Another instance of Educational Trauma is slave auctions for which students are allowed to purchase classmates for mundane tasks as a fundraiser. A co-worker described how the event at the co-worker’s child’s rural school district was a highly anticipated event. The co-worker’s child bought the classmate to perform work around their farm. The goal of a learning environment should be nurturing, safe, and inclusive. The Educational Trauma has long lasting effects, even if it is unintentional.
This type of thinking also appears in the workplace. A fundraiser at a social service agency included a silent auction where the custodian, an African American man, was on the auction list for bidders to purchase him for services such as yard work or car repairs. Unsettling as this may be, some of the bidders were also African American. These types of fundraisers are culturally insensitive and offensive no matter who is conducting it. The practice of trivializing dehumanization is wrong. We can deny participation in our own oppression.
The state of public education is at a crossroads. With the advent of major backlash against teaching America’s history, in all its glory and violence (Ibram, 2016), subjugation and liberation (Freire, 1992); freedoms and democracy (Alexander, 2010); the idea of reflecting on the past in order to equitably move education forward is standing at the precipice of revisionist teachings.
Banning Critical Race Theory and More Misunderstandings
The notion of Educational Trauma takes many forms within schooling. As a middle school English Language Arts teacher, tasked with the job of sorting out how the new educational legislation will impact teaching, and how to navigate the nuances from classroom discussion brimming with anticipation as the subject of Black Lives Matter or police brutality intersects with students experiencing similar injustices in their own personal lives, the concept of educational trauma is on full display.
In statehouses around the nation, the banning of teaching critical race theory and the paranoia, hysteria and massive misinformation surrounding it, has made it illegal to have these conversations. On June 15, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 3979 (2021) which considerably changes the social studies course components and civics directives in public schools in Texas. The bill states, among other things, that educators cannot teach students that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Oklahoma Governor, Kevin Stitt signed House Bill 1775 (2021) which prohibits instructors from teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another,” and that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.” It would explicitly forbid critical race theory, which examines the way race and racism influence American politics, legal systems and society.
This is not just a Texas and Oklahoma problem.
According to Mary Retta (Teen Vogue, 2021), In the past few months, 21 states have introduced legislation or outright bans educators in public schools, some charter schools, and universities from teaching the history of race and racism and its modern implications. In Arkansas, House Bill 1218 bans any public school courses, classes, or events that promote “division between, resentment of, or social justice for” specific races, genders, political affiliations, social classes or “particular classes of people.” In Georgia, the State Board of Education passed a resolution stating that “the United States of America is not a racist country, and that the state of Georgia is not a racist state.” Retta (2021) continued, several other states, including Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, and West Virginia, have also passed or are attempting to pass similar bills.
Banning will perpetuate the harm of misinformation.
Recently, A social media post by the Texas Policy Foundation, (2021) which describes its organization as a non-profit, non-partisan research institute dedicated to liberty, free enterprise, and personal responsibility, posted a question on their Twitter page asking their followers if they are wondering if Critical Race Theory is being taught in their child’s schools, and to stay on the look for “buzzworthy” names and language. Making Critical Race Theory the stand-in for all vocabularies of justice, critique, and liberation, while at the same time, create a moral panic. Some of the words on the list instructing parents to be on aware of includes:
- culturally responsive teaching
- equity, diversity, and inclusion
- cultural/multi-cultural competence
- implicit/unconscious/internalized bias
- disparate outcomes or inequity
- white privilege/fragility/culture/prejudice
- ally or allyship
- social justice and restorative justice
Banning and prohibiting deeper and richer educational classroom discussions, guided by trained teachers on how slavery, oppression, and racism played a role in the historical context of the United States, results in educational trauma to students in that it will have lasting effects on students.
Concluding Thoughts: Building Students’ Positive Emotions with Restorative Justice Practices
Perhaps the difficult take-away in this article is that there are no black-and-white answers on teaching the hard and painful history of our beloved, not to mention messy and complicated, nation. Nonetheless, we must teach our hard curricula with diverse, truthful stories and clear understandings to combat Educational Trauma. Otherwise, we lack teachable moments to develop students’ empathy and compassion. These are essential traits that societies need to implement in the schooling of our children. Educators can show that, moreover, all students need critical-thinking skills of how to suspend judgments and read through an array of resources to problem-solve where they stand on issues. This evaluation is what makes informed future U.S. citizens. Furthermore, when we care, learning about restorative justice is one clear answer amidst the shades of gray.
Our students long for real-life experiences to discover and to learn with positive emotions. With diverse curricula, educators will find ways to be reflective on what to share with students so that they understand the importance of restorative justice practices, to be culturally competent while acknowledging a student’s “cultural wealth,” and to have a teacher care ethic to enhance student-teacher relationships. After all, cultural wealth from all types of groups can help us come together, to appreciate and admire our differences and similarities. Cultural food and music are fun; nonetheless, educators can share art, dance, literature, language, architecture, traditions, and more. Educators are leaders who help our children to understand the dimensions of positive emotions that we can cultivate for students, as we experience key traits about restorative relationships:
- We can recognize and be proactive as exclusion is happening.
- We can create places of safety and well-being.
- We can discern compassionate ways for building relationships of trust.
- We can evaluate that restoration is not about guilt or money–but resiliency and
To conclude, yes, U.S. curricula have many complexities in how to include multiple, diverse perspectives in academic requirements and standards. But guess what? Life has complexities and layers. And we need to teach the truth.
Dee, T., & Penner, E. (2017). The Causal Effects of Cultural Relevance: Evidence from an Ethnic Studies Curriculum. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1), 127-166.
Gray, L. (2019). Educational Trauma: Examples from Testing to the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jennings, P. (2019). The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom: Building Resilience with Compassionate Teachings. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Stokes. H., & Brunzell, T. (2019). Professional Learning in Trauma Informed Positive Education: Moving School Communities from Trauma Affected to Trauma Aware, School Leadership Review, 14(2), Article 6.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2014). SAMHSA’s Concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. Retrieved from https://store.samhsa.gov/product/SAMHSA-s-Concept-of-Trauma-and-Guidance-for-a-Trauma-Informed-Approach/SMA14-4884
House Bill 3979, Texas Legislative Session 87(R). 2021 https://capitol.texas.gov/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=87R&Bill=HB3979
House Bill 1775, Oklahoma State Legislature. 2021 https://oklegislature.gov/BillInfo.aspx?Bill=HB1775
Kendi, I.X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in america. New York: Bold Type Books.
Freire, P. (1992). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Alexander, M. (2010). The new jim crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Retta, M. (2021, June 25). Critical race theory bans are political ploys, students and teachers say. Teen Vogue. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/critical-race-theory-bans-states
Vasquez, T. (2021, Spring). The fight for ethnic studies. Learning for Justice, (66). https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/spring-2021/the-fight-for-ethnic-studies
Texas Public Policy Foundation [TPPF]. (2021, June 29). Are you wondering if critical race theory is being taught in your child’s school? Stay on the lookout for some of CRT’s less “buzzworthy” names and language #BanCRT [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/TPPF/status/1412439259546624001?s=09