OUR ANSWER TO CONFRONTING OUR STUDENTS' PASTS BY CREATING A SAFE SPACE FOR HEALING THROUGH WRITING? STORYTELLING.
"People who don’t like cats can’t be trusted.” A bold, debatable statement, and oh so funny -- written on the very first day of FORA's storytelling initiative.
Many of our students and their parents, as former refugees, were subject to extreme government oppression (and, often, worse) and so understandably suffer from primary or secondary trauma. As a result, recounting nonfiction stories about the past is often avoided, while stories about the future almost immediately end in violence or tragic endings. Of course, this can have great negative consequences on a child's social-emotional health. It also has similar consequences on our children's willingness to write. For almost all children, initial forays into both drawing and writing are usually about stories of place and people -- of grandparents, parents, siblings, pets and friends and their homes, and parties and playtime. Many children who we serve, however, are afraid to pick up the crayon or pencil for fear of what thoughts and feelings might burst out of them . School teachers, meanwhile, are, wisely, also cautious about encouraging the children to write stories because the teachers do not feel qualified to properly process trauma. And in addition to these issues, grammatically correct writing is very difficult for our children and they are afraid of being ridiculed for their low grammar skills. It is no wonder that our FORA children are trailing in writing even as their reading and math skills are skyrocketing.
We at FORA spent a year talking with experts and scouring the educational landscape to find replicable programs that help traumatized children learn how to slowly, healthfully begin to story-tell in a supportive environment supported by professionals. We found the perfect program -- run by a group out of Portland, Maine. The group, called The Telling Room (tellingroom.org), is a non-profit literary arts organization that runs writing workshops for kids and teens, including for immigrants and refugees. Backed by the National Endowment for the Arts (with a recent surprise visit from former President Obama!), The Telling Room focuses on creating safe spaces for storytelling and providing lots of positive feedback and emotional support. The Telling Room gave three days of training to eight FORA staff and volunteers -- including social workers, family counselors and psychologists -- who were handpicked for their professional backgrounds and social-emotional expertise.
In the wake of such training, we at FORA are now running a twelve-week trial program with our students, in which Telling Room professionals are supervising (via zoom) the in-person interactions between our trained tutors and FORA students to ensure best practices. Over time, we will phase out Telling Room support, while maintaining the professional rubric.
We have been so pleased with this effort. For our students, we have seen, right from the first session, that writing their own stories brings about powerful healing, allowing them to develop perspective to integrate their families' pasts into a future in which these children have agency. For example, when given the prompt entitled “inside/outside,” students wrote about: how their peers perceived them differently from the outside than how they felt on the inside; feeling afraid to participate in class discussions; and their mixed feelings regarding growing up.
Of course, they also wrote about house cats, chocolate pie, and how it feels to be warm and cozy when it rains outside -- the ordinary things of daily life that we Americans take for granted but that these children see as fascinating.