Happening Today: Education Week Leadership Symposium. Learn more and register.
Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

A Classroom Strategy for Improving Student Mental Health

May 31, 2018 4 min read

Earlier this month, my 11th grade students hosted a storytelling showcase in conjunction with Story District, a local non-profit that “turns good stories into great performances.” As we molded our personal stories into shape and rehearsed them in front of each other for the umpteenth time, my students started noticing something disturbing.

Many of the stories my students chose to tell about themselves were about misbehavior...and the subsequent consequences which invariably involved physical punishment. So many of the stories involved physical punishment, in fact, students started to become self-conscious about the issue. A few of them changed their stories before the showcase, others changed their focus away from violence when they spotted the trend. The showcase was great and our stories really did become great performances. But the idea of the prevalence of corporal punishment in many of my students’ lives was out in the open, a topic ready to be discussed.

May is National Mental Health Awareness month. That got me thinking about Richard Wright, the author of the book Black Boy, the last book we read together in my 11th grade English class. In it, Wright chronicles the abuse and trauma he suffers throughout his childhood and into adulthood in the Jim Crow South. Students love reading this book, and often end up “confessing” that they actually enjoy it (a win for an English teacher!).

Because of the discussion on physical punishment that came up in our storytelling showcase, we decided to look a little deeper as a class into the psychological and psychosocial dynamics of Wright’s development. We read about Erik Erikson’s “ages and stages“as well as Bruce Perry and John Marcellus’ groundbreaking work about the effect of trauma on a developing brain. We talked about ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores, and even took the quiz as if we were Richard Wright. Finally, we discussed protective factors and what might have helped mitigate Wright’s childhood trauma. Later this week, my students will be writing clinical evaluations about Wright and making predictions about his behavior as if they were professional psychologists.

Somewhere between the greatness of Wright’s story and the engagement of learning about developing healthy minds, students started talking about their own development and mental health. Some experimented with the ACE quiz to find their personal score. A debate started about the cycle of violence caused by abuse. Students were astounded to discover that a young woman who scores a 4 or above (we determined Wright to be in the 5-6 range) on the ACE quiz has a 40% chance of becoming pregnant as a teen!

Discoveries like these became a real world hook into Black Boy. I asked students if they thought a book written nearly 75 years ago (a millenia in teen years) was still relevant today. You can guess their response. To a person, students wrote that the physical, mental, and emotional abuse Wright received as a child is still every bit as applicable today as it was in the Jim Crow South. Our personal stories from before we started Black Boy seem to corroborate the book’s relevance as well.

One of the many reasons I love reading and discussing books is that they keep us healthy. Reading about other experiences, fiction or nonfiction, enables us to examine ourselves indirectly. Black Boy, for instance, engenders conversations about race and race relations in present day Washington, DC, the city where I teach. Wright has started the conversation, and we feel compelled to continue it.

These conversations may not make the segregation of our neighborhoods and schools easier to handle, they may not take away the violence we see in our neighborhoods, but they go a long way to making us healthier. They make us aware of the collective impact these issues have on us as developing individuals. And awareness is a first step toward healing.

May is Mental Health Awareness month. What better way to contribute to our cultural Mental Health than by picking up a book and discussing it together. This is one step we can take--in and out of the classroom--to ensure our minds are healthy both intellectually and psychologically throughout our lives. We will never stop the destructive cycle of trauma and abuse until we take that first step.

Topher Kandik is the 2016 Teacher of the Year from the District of Columbia, a National Network of State Teacher of the Year member, and a 2013 recipient of the Mayor’s Arts Award for Teaching English. He teaches High School English and Creative Writing at SEED PCS of Washington, DC. He is Nationally Board Certified and holds an M.Ed from George Washington University with dual certification in English and Special Education. Topher loves books and is looking forward to summer so he can read some more of them.

Photo courtesy of Christopher and Creative Commons.

The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Whitepaper
The Complete Guide to SEL
This guide illustrates why SEL is more important now and what you should look for when implementing a social-emotional curriculum.
Content provided by Navigate360
Student Well-Being How Educators Are Approaching Summer Learning This Year
After a difficult year, schools adjust what's best for students as they customize summer learning, enrichment, and play opportunities.
9 min read
Image of kids with backpacks running outdoors.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Cardona Releases First Wave of Aid to Help Schools Identify, Assist Homeless Students
Citing the urgency of identifying homeless students, the Education Department will release some relief aid targeted at their needs.
3 min read
Rycc Smith welcomes Montello Elementary School students as they board his bus outside the Lewiston, Maine school after the first day back in nearly a month on Jan. 21, 2021. The entire school district switched to all remote learning after an uptick in COVID-19 cases last month.
Elementary school students board a bus in Lewiston, Maine, after their first day back to in-person school in nearly a month on Jan. 21. Advocates say it has been more difficult to identify homelessness during remote learning, in part because they can't track changes in students' use of school transportation.
Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP
Student Well-Being Spotlight Spotlight on Post-Pandemic Communications
In this Spotlight, review lessons from other leaders, evaluate what can be done to address the situations experienced and more.