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Rediscovering the Lessons from Progressive Education to Create Trauma-Informed Schools for All

“In this bright future you can't forget your past.” -Bob Marley

What if the roots of public education in this country provided us with a vision for creating trauma-responsive environments for all students? Lately I have been reflecting on why the principles and practices of creating trauma-informed/trauma-responsive environments in school settings connected with me deep down in my bones. It was a visceral feeling, a sense of validation and resonance in both my head and my heart. The science of ACEs and the effects of trauma on the brain and learning, this concept of becoming ‘trauma-informed’ in our organizations was new to me, that illuminating ‘aha’ moment many have experienced. But the ‘what to do about it’ felt natural, known, understood instantly. Why? What had I experienced in my life that gave me a great sense of clarity and purpose, a clear vision of the way forward?

I believe it was my own roots in the progressive education movement, my experience in what many called an ‘alternative’ education setting both as a student and then as a teacher. By the time I had finished 8th grade I was no longer interested in attending school, traumatic experiences both in school and in my life had left me jaded, angry, disconnected, and engaged in risky behaviors. I was a hot mess. School was unsafe physically and psychologically, the learning felt irrelevant, and I was unwilling to put myself inside another traumatizing institution without a fight. Fortunately, a peer (because I certainly wouldn’t have listed to an adult) suggested that I check out the alternative high school in my city. For four years I had the opportunity to attend Malcom Shabazz City High, started in 1972 as an experimental partnership between the UW-Madison, the Ford Foundation, and the school district. A small radical public high school, founded by teachers and the community, and built on the ideals of the progressive education movement. In short, the environment was safe, relevant, and empowering. Everything was rooted in relationships first as the primary driver. We were most accountable for how we treated others in our community. We had no grades, every course required self-evaluation and an evaluation of the class. The teachers practiced a power with rather than power over approach. I felt a deep sense of connection, belonging, part of a family. In fact, I am still friends with many of my teachers almost 30 years later. These desired outcomes sound familiar? I often joke that my school was trauma-informed before it was a thing, but maybe there is something to that.

That experience was transformational for me in so many ways but most relevant to this conversation, it shaped my values, ideals, and practices around the purpose of education and what it should look. I knew deep down that what I had experienced would benefit all students, not just those of us on the fringe. I left high school passionate, idealistic, and determined to change public education for all. Ah to be young with fire in the belly.

I became a teacher because of my teachers. I wanted to have that same influence on a young person’s life as they had on mine, to make a difference. To do things differently. To engage in radical revolutionary teaching. I knew school could be different, I had seen it, experienced it, felt it. I started teaching at an alternative high school in Western Washington, a school of choice for over age/under credit youth, parenting teens, those that simply didn’t ‘fit’ at the traditional school. At first, I tried to apply what I had been taught in my pre-service teacher education. It failed utterly. After about 3 months of what felt like total chaos and failure on my part I had to step back. I chucked out most of what I had been taught in college and went to my roots, I realized I already knew what to do- I had just lost my way for a bit. We spent the first 2-3 weeks of each semester focused on community building, not academics. We had to go slow to go fast. We did team building exercises and low-ropes challenges, culminating in a high ropes course. We got to really know our students and let them know us. We threw out the packets and started the curriculum from scratch, building in experiential learning experiences out in the community, and authentic project-based learning in the classroom. We created safety, relevance, relationships, community, a family. As a result, for the most part, our students thrived. These values in our practice sound familiar?

Using my history teacher lens, and through my own experiences, it has become clear to me that the principles and practices of creating trauma-responsive environments share ideas rooted in the progressive education movement. The progressive movement gained momentum in the US during the late 1800’s through the early and mid 20th century. Bringing societal reforms to many areas of public life including women’s rights, social welfare, and labor. This influenced the world of education as well. In education this translated into beliefs such as a focus on educating the whole child, ‘learning by doing’ or experiential education rather than rote memorization, empowered rather than passive students, high levels of collaboration, building in opportunities for self-direction, learning based on interest and internal motivation, an emphasis on building community, a high value placed on critical thinking and deep learning, and more. Many of us are familiar with names like John Dewey and Maria Montessori, both deeply influential during this time. One of my favorites is Francis Parker, superintendent of Quincy MA and later Boston Public Schools. He got rid of harsh discipline, threw out the traditional readers, encouraged experiential group work, and rejected tests and grading systems. He was promoting these practices in the late 1800’s but we could easily tell that same story of efforts across the country today. Alfie Cohn, a modern proponent of progressive education has a great summary of what progressive education is, and isn’t:

In this current effort to create trauma-responsive school settings I hear (and say) often- ‘this is good for ALL students, not just those that have experienced trauma’, an urging for us to consider this a universal (Tier 1) approach that benefits all, and a recognition that much of what we are suggesting is ‘just good teaching practice’. Yes, yes and yes. And I believe much of this good teaching practice is rooted in the tenets of the progressive education movement. We also say this is bigger than just understanding the science of trauma, this is a paradigm shift, and mindset. Yes and yes. I believe much of this new paradigm is rooted in progressive era philosophy.

If we consider trauma-responsive practices using SAMHSA’s 6 principles as a guide, maybe we can begin to see the overlap more clearly. SAMHSA’s 6 principles for creating a trauma-informed environment are:

  • Safety

  • Trust and Transparency

  • Collaboration

  • Peer Support

  • Empowerment and choice

  • Awareness of cultural, historical, and gender inequality

Looking at these I can easily see the practices of the progressive education movement reflected within this framework. For example, using a trauma-informed mindset we often include a broader conversation with examples such as increasing safety with an end to zero discipline policies and a move towards restorative practices, encouraging empowerment and choice through experiential process and project-based learning, and an inclusive environment with attention to our LGBTQ youth and students coming from communities that have experienced historical trauma. Both movements emphasize equity, respect, relevance, and most importantly the value of human connection and relationships.

I am so grateful for the new layers of knowledge we have gained around the science of trauma and ACEs while at the same time don’t want this movement, this revolution, to repeat past mistakes of reinventing the wheel and ignoring the truths we already know about how to transform our system. We want to avoid initiative fatigue and have this trauma-informed mindset not be ‘just one more thing’ but THE thing. Not siloed in the realm of student services but the framework and lens through which we view our entire system of discipline, teaching, and learning, testing, school policy, and more. In doing so I believe we must value the wisdom and practices that many of us, especially in the alternative ed world, knew were the right way to reach and teach kids. Now we know why.

These are my current musings and wonderings; What can we learn from our past to change the current system? How can we learn from those engaged in this currently? What thoughts might this bring up for you?

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