Published: Sept. 3, 2019 By
Child reads a book in the library

(Credit: Creative Commons photo by Pixabay)

At the start of second grade several years ago, a young boy that we’ll call Carlton to protect his privacy had been through more than most of his school friends.

Before classes began, Carlton was diagnosed with lymphoma. But when he got to school, the boy decided to share his story with his fellow seven-year-olds. He even pointed out where doctors had poked him to draw blood.

And that’s when something surprising happened, said Elizabeth Dutro, an education researcher who had been following Carlton’s class for her work on literacy studies.

Elizabeth DutroThe Vulnerable Heart of Literacy book cover

“The students all started to make connections with Carlton: ‘My grandma was sick,’ ‘I was in the hospital because I broke my arm,’” she said. “The stories just started to fill the space.”

Dutro, a professor in CU Boulder’s School of Education, would like to see more of those kinds of connections. 

The former elementary school teacher is the author of a new book called The Vulnerable Heart of Literacy: Centering Trauma as Powerful Pedagogy. In it, she lays out a road map for how educators can begin to incorporate the difficult life experiences of their students into day-to-day school activities—from essay prompts to lessons on poetry.

She believes that such an explicit recognition of trauma in school curricula won’t just help students like Carlton to process their grief. It might also help them to take charge of their own education.

“I’m interested in exploring how challenging life experiences can be taken up in schools in ways that show that children experiencing trauma bring a lot of knowledge to learning,” she said. “It’s rich knowledge even if it does come from contexts that we wish children didn’t have to experience.”

Making lives matter

Dutro’s new book is, in many ways, the culmination of her own experiences with trauma.

Her little brother died in an accident when she was still in high school. Dutro remembers returning to class after the accident and feeling like nothing had happened—almost no one acknowledged her loss.

One exception was her chemistry teacher, who pulled Dutro aside one day to tell her how sorry he was. Later, she learned that his own daughter had died several years before. 

“It was really profound because he had never said one word to me before that day,” she said.

As a teacher herself, and through many hours of visiting classrooms as a researcher, Dutro has seen the benefits that can come from such profound experiences. Early in her career, for example, she learned that if she talked to her young pupils about what happened to her brother, they would respond with their own life stories.

“If I just shared my connection of loss, there was just this explosion of life that would enter those conversations,” Dutro said. “That’s really what started me down this path.”

She’s careful to point out that teachers can’t, and shouldn’t, replace therapists, social workers or other professionals who work with children dealing with trauma.

But Dutro said that educational research shows kids often learn more if they feel invested in their school assignments—and that means discussing the stuff that really matters to them. 

“We want to show children that our whole lives matter as a resource in school,” Dutro said. “That’s going to impact how you feel as a learner—that you’re valued, that everything you bring from your life makes you a brilliant learner, not a damaged learner.”

Writing prompts

Much of The Vulnerable Heart of Literacy tackles how teachers can go about showing children the value of their experiences, especially in lessons that focus on literacy.

Most people, for example, will remember having to scribble essays in class, often about superficial topics like what they did over summer vacation.

Dutro envisions these routine assignments becoming something more. Teachers, she explained, could begin the process by sharing their own personal stories. It wouldn’t have to be a gut-wrenching tale, just a moment that made them sad or worried at some point in their lives. 

“Teachers can talk about any challenge that they have that’s appropriate for their kids,” Dutro said. “Then they invite, never require but invite, students to incorporate their own stories into the lesson.”

And, Dutro added, teachers could fold those invitations into any mandated curricula. 

She understands that her advice might make a lot of teachers uncomfortable. But she said it’s worth pushing past that discomfort. Embracing vulnerability will help kids feel like their life stories, no matter how hard they are to talk about, count.

“It feels risky as a teacher,” she said. “But being in school is always risky for children.”