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A Healing Curriculum

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Can emotional healing be taught in a classroom setting? Some educators working in New Orleans think it’s an idea worth trying.

Experts in school psychology at Tulane University and Walden University, an online graduate institution, recently helped develop a “healing curriculum” at Lusher Charter School, a K-10, arts-based school that reopened in New Orleans’ diverse Uptown neighborhood in January. The 12-week curriculum is designed to help students cope with trauma and emotional distress in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

To find out more about the curriculum and the role of therapeutic instruction in schools, we recently spoke to Bonnie Nastasi, director of the school psychology program at Walden. Nastasi played a lead role in developing the Lusher curriculum, and this spring will be implementing a similar program in reopened schools in post-tsunami Sri Lanka.

Q: What kinds of problems are the students at Lusher experiencing now, seven months after Hurricane Katrina?

A: Many of the students are still facing unresolved reactions to the immediate effects of Katrina—for example, to having lost their homes and being displaced and separated from their families for a period of time. In addition, they are now adjusting to a life that is profoundly different from what they knew before Katrina. Many have new living situations, and have lost friends who didn’t move back to New Orleans. Some of them are adjusting to a new school or new teachers. My understanding is that a couple of teachers at Lusher died as a result of the storm. So the students are really having to recreate their lives.

Q: What are some of the components of your curriculum? How can it help the students?

A: The curriculum gives the students an opportunity to share their experiences and to try to make sense of them. The materials help them identify and express their feelings. For example, there are activities on developing a vocabulary of feelings, on gauging the level of their emotions toward particular experiences, and on locating where their emotional reactions happen in their bodies. After that, we help them identify situations that create ongoing stress for them and explore and develop positive coping strategies. That means identifying ways to alleviate tension, such as sports, talking with others, reading, helping others—whatever works for the child.

Q: What role do teachers play in the curriculum?

A: The curriculum was developed as an actual lesson plan for the classroom, so the teachers have a key role in delivering it. Lusher has traditionally used a cooperative-learning instructional approach, so the curriculum builds on that. The students do much of the work in small groups, which the teachers facilitate. Currently teachers are giving one 45-minute lesson from the curriculum per week.

One issue this school has been particularly attentive to is that, with this curriculum, teachers are often dealing with psychological issues, and they aren’t always prepared for that. For that reason, we have ongoing support in place from Tulane and Walden faculty. In addition, social workers are available to the teachers to talk about issues that come up and review the curriculum as a way of identifying children who may need more intensive therapy. The school has also set up a support system for the teachers, because the curriculum may raise issues for them as well.

Q: The curriculum is designed to incorporate a variety of subjects. Can you explain how that works?

A: The curriculum can most readily be integrated into language arts and visual arts. The students have opportunities write stories, keep journals, and create artwork about their experiences. Some of the teachers have also incorporated books on topics related to the curriculum, so that it can play a role in the reading program. For example, at the kindergarten-1st grade level, one lesson uses the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst, as a catalyst for discussing emotionally difficult times.

There’s also a social studies angle in terms of looking at the overall impact of Katrina on the city. And toward the end of the curriculum, the students will work on a community-change project. Lastly, there are geography and science lessons in studying the storm itself and its impact.

Q: How have the teachers reacted to the curriculum?

A: They have responded quite positively, and have expressed that they feel like it has been really helpful to the children. They’ve told us that the children actually see themselves as healing as a result of the curriculum.

Q: Speaking more generally, how best do you think teachers can help students cope with trauma? What steps should they take?

A: One way is to use an approach like this from a more preventative standpoint, so that it’s part of the regular school curriculum. In addition to addressing academic learning, we also need to look at students’ emotional and social needs—which of course ultimately impact their academic performance. The other way is for teachers to work with the support networks they have available—school psychologists, social workers, and counselors, as well as agencies in their communities. It’s really important that teachers not try to take it all on themselves. They really do need to try to work collaboratively with mental health professionals.

But teachers today do need to know how address and gauge students’ emotional lives. I think the work going on in New Orleans and other communities where traumatic events have occurred raises strong implications for teacher education. We need to start asking how we can best prepare teachers to address the social and emotional needs of children.

—Anthony Rebora

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