Why We Should Help Children Lean On Writing in Hard Times
Written by Rasha Hamid and Kelsey Corter
February 28, 2019, Brooklyn, NYC:
The Beech Class is walking down the path along Fort Greene Park as we do every week. We are on our way to visit the beech tree — our beech tree, our namesake. We will giggle while we echo Madeleine, “Hello beech tree! It’s good to see you! We missed you! You seem to be missing your leaves!” We will eat our snack, like we do every week, across the path from the beech tree. We will play, as we always do, around the beech tree…noticing animal homes, touching the tree’s rough bark and crunchy, fallen leaves. We will try to climb the trunk that is so wide, we can barely grasp it.
But when we arrive, there are gasps and shouts and tears. The beech tree is gone. The tree that the Beech Class has visited every week for four years – since the very first week of the very first Beech Class – is gone. In its place is a wide stump with a hollow middle, a pile of wood chips, and sawdust.
We regroup and march up to the park rangers’ station. Some children are shouting at the park rangers: “Why did you cut down the beech tree?! Why?! That’s so mean!” Other children are clinging to each other, sobbing inconsolably. Some children are stunned into silence. Madeleine and Rasha try to calm them enough to hear the rangers explain that the tree was sick, hollow on the inside, unsafe. The children aren’t ready to hear any of these logical explanations. They just want their tree back.
Facing Hard Times
Though the experience that the Beech Class encountered is highly unique, enduring difficult moments — as an educator, student, or community — is not. Perhaps a class pet has died, a beloved student has moved away, or a natural disaster has affected the community. Maybe a child has been separated from a loved one, has become homeless, or has witnessed or experienced violence. Students are bound to encounter hard times in a school year. Whether those big moments are experienced by individual students or shared, like the loss of the beech tree, we can guide children with navigating their reactions and responses through writing.
Why Lean on Writing in Hard Times?
- Writing can make us feel better. Strategies for emotional regulation benefit children across the school day and beyond the classroom. Writing can be a productive way to channel one’s energy and emotion. Expressive writing has been shown to have a number of positive effects including improving immune function and reducing health complaints. (Pennebaker, 2010)
- Using genuine moments as inspiration can help foster lifelong writing. When it is meaningful, writing can become a tool that will serve many purposes in children’s lives inside and outside of school. We can offer writing as a the solution to challenges children encounter, individually, or collectively. We can guide them with choosing the genre that serves their purpose: journaling helps us process thoughts and emotions, narrative writing allows us to connect with others, persuasive writing can lead to action, procedural writing can help with composing plans, informative writing can bring awareness, and poetry and song can inspire.
- It can strengthen bonds in a community. Experiencing shared events strengthens bonds in a community. After children experience a problem together, we can deepen that experience by writing together. Creating a shared piece or collection of writing allows children to take pride in their contribution to a meaningful piece of work. The writing will then allow the community to return to a moment of supporting each other and being together through a hard time.
- It can help children connect to others who have experienced similar challenges. Going through a hard time can feel very lonely. A child experiencing a hardship can write to share about it with community members (though sharing should always be a child’s choice, especially when a child has experienced trauma), allowing those community members to find connections and grow their knowledge about the writer. Community members can write cards, letters of support, or letters to advocate for a peer going through a hard time.
- It is actionable. Writing leads to real change in the world, changing minds and even laws. When we help children see writing as a solution to a problem, no matter the size, we empower and equip them to overcome obstacles. We give them the tools to be lifelong activists and advocates.
- It can create mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors (Bishop, 1990) We can’t always find texts that address the hardships our students endure, but we can help them create their own. What better reflection of ourselves can we find in a text than in one we create ourselves? Not only are these texts mirrors for some children, but also windows for others who may benefit and learn from reading about unfamiliar experiences.
- It illustrates how something negative can turn into something beautiful. Powerful poetry, stories, letters, signs, or songs can emerge from moments of utter heartbreak. Some of the most stunning and evocative compositions were inspired by tragic, horrifying events.
Leaning on Writing: The Beech Tree
When we returned from the park, we immediately gave children the option to write and explore different genres. Some children journaled or wrote stories about what had happened. Others wrote poems and recorded fond memories. Letters were drafted to park rangers and family members.
Over the next few months, we continued to draw inspiration from the loss of the beech tree. As a community, we drafted commemoration plans. Writing was essential for many of the ideas (pictured below). The idea which required the most elaborate plans was to raise money for the park to plant a new beech tree. Children collaborated to plan for a fundraiser, in which they created invitations and lists of needed items.
Students wrote letters to families, park rangers, and members of the school community. Children worked to create signs advertising the Beech Tree Fundraiser. They wrote lyrics to a new song that would be performed for the fundraiser. They listed ingredients for baked goods and made signs advertising their art, food, drinks, and busking. When tasked with creating a banner representing the class, children created a picture of the beech tree and the class collaborated to write a poem during shared writing.
Their hard work was worthwhile and impactful. In October of 2019, a new beech tree was planted (with help from former and present Beech students) near the stump of the old beech tree, purchased with the funds children raised. It now stands in Fort Greene Park, protected by a fence, decorated with drawings by the new Beech kindergarteners and the mural and poem created by the former Beech class. The beech tree stump remains a favorite place for kindergartners to gather, play, and explore.
After teaching for 22 years in East Harlem, Washington Heights, Sudan, and Fort Greene, Rasha Hamid works to make the world a better place by collaborating with teachers of young children. You can follow her on Instagram at @teach_the_world_better and @swirlz1.
James W. Pennebaker, Independent Practitioner, Expressive Writing in a Clinical Setting, (2010)
Rudine Sims Bishop, Perspectives, Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, Vol 6, No. 3, (1990)
For Supporting Students Who Have Experienced Trauma
- How Trauma Affects Kids in School, Child Mind Institute
- Trauma Guides, Child Mind Institute
- Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, by Kristin Souers with Pete Hall
- Follow Dulce-Marie Flecha (@DulceFlecha) on Twitter for more on trauma-responsive teaching