Peek Inside a Classroom: Effective Education Reform


By Dr. Sandra L. Bloom and Daun H. Kauffman.

I always started school days with my class by sharing a personal greeting and an optional hug with each student as they entered the door of our room. They had a comforting routine with coats and backpacks and warmup work on the board ready for them. They knew that someone who knew them had prepared especially for them. Our startup was paired with breakfast for everyone, courtesy of Title 1.  The familiarity helped students with self-regulation in the transition to a classroom environment.

Teachers can learn too!

I felt we had a positive, caring beginning to our day of academics, but I couldn’t help but push the pace, especially when days overflowed with Lesson Plans.

That is, I felt that way until a friend who pioneered the development of the “Sanctuary Model,” Dr. Sandra Bloom, suggested an addition. With an ear-to-ear smile she pressed gently and politely and respectfully, but oh so firmly and confidently. She pressed the case to “add one question,” add “just one question.”  Dr. Bloom waited… pointedly and expectantly. She wanted me to try adding a “Community Meeting” to our daily startup. 

“Go around the classroom so each student participates: My name is ___.  One word for my feelings this morning is ____,” she suggested.

I agreed, skeptically, thinking we already had a fine, “community” startup, and wondering where we’d find the time.

We started with learning the routine.  I added some options to Dr. Bloom’s question:  a) to ‘pass’, knowing that sometimes some of the kids would be dealing with heavy stuff, and b) to add a reason for their feeling or simply say “no reason.”

The first 10 days, many simply shared “I feel happy. No reason”.  Or “I feel sad. No reason”. So, I began to incorporate “feelings words” into our other vocabulary work and I bought a large wall  poster with visualizations of feelings words. The kids began to be intrigued.

“Knowing” is not the same as “Understanding”

The “Community Meeting” in the Sanctuary Model “Toolkit begins similarly, as part of building any trauma-informed organization. Explicit acknowledgement of feelings as first priority, embedded in establishing social norms of safety and caring for each person in the group.

In our school classroom, “How are you feeling?” became central to developing community, to learning clear oral communication, and to building class norms.

It also generated undeniably invaluable learning about feelings.

Then, even more: Practice composing and publicly sharing those feelings.

But most importantly it moved us beyond factually knowing names.  It became understanding feelings, understanding the person. Understanding ourselves better. Understanding motivations. Our own and others.  Children understanding each other as people. Myself understanding children and their childhood traumas.  “Social literacy.” 

Building understanding required investments of time and labor.  We didn’t achieve it for free. We invested about 20 minutes from our already packed schedule. We prioritized that time to listen to each other. So, we had more learning to do. We had to learn to listen: Not interrupting, not even politely questioning.

Simply listening.

Ultimately, it started with all of us being “in the moment”

Immeasurable, but invaluable

We progressed to “I have two (!) feelings. Can I share them both?” (with much elaboration).

No one ever passed.

We progressed:  All of this investment steadily reinforced norms of a socially literate, caring classroom culture with a common understanding of goals. The value becomes obvious when we move on to academic topics

We progressed to Kerrie, eyes brimming: “I feel hurt.  My dad told me that I wasn’t his daughter if I couldn’t read better.”

Should understanding Kerrie’s pain change how literacy was taught that day and beyond?  Could we be successful without understanding? 

DeShawn, squirming with anticipation: “I feel excited.  We’re going to see my dad this weekend for my birthday.”  (Later sharing privately: “he’s at the state prison.  He did something really bad…”).

Would math or social studies lessons be different after that new understanding? Would we be successful without understanding?

Starr, trying to appear nonchalant: “I feel sad.  I miss my dad.  He’s in the hospital again for fight… no he didn’t really fight this time. He just banged his head on the car real bad.” Long pause. “My mom can’t pick me up after school, so my sister[3rdgrade] will.  We can walk by ourselves.

Should my understanding of Starr’s behaviors and motivations be more aligned with the “Common Core” and ‘National Standards’ or should I adjust national standards to be aligned with Starr’s core?

Kerrie, DeShawn and Starr are not unusual. Childhood trauma affects two out of three students at some level.  Too many (one is too many) to ignore.

Our Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) and other reformers across our nation command standardized learning —  an illogical, inconceivable goal.  Be assured, from the reality of the front line in the classroom, that students are all unique people. They each have a unique heart and a unique mind and a unique life.  Not better or worse than one another, just different.

Children can not and do not learn in standardized, robotic fashion, or synchronized timing.

It’s clear to educators:  Academic success in any classroom at any age has to be student-centered, not standardized.

Back to community meetings:  I usually shared my feelings too. If a long weekend was coming, I shared two (!) feelings:  the excitement of the break and the sadness at missing each one in our class. I often shared explicitly that I loved each one in the class. Sometimes I shared feelings about my own children when I was going to see them soon, or sometimes how I missed them.  My students wanted to understand me as a father and as a grandfather, not just as a talking head “presenter”.

Let me paraphrase the quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt:

Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

It does go both ways:

On the days I dared try to skip our community meeting, I was immediately, verbally hounded.  Even If I only forgot (or intentionally skipped) only myself, the kids raced, almost tripping over each other to ask: “Mr. Kauffman, how are you feeling today? No, really, How are you feeling?”

Powerful learning, powerful understanding grew all around our classroom. 

Implications in our trauma-impacted world

Our learning was such a great story.  Really.

But I can’t stop here with a feel-good story.  The community meeting is only the first step in the Toolkit towards a trauma-informed system.

We all live in very violent, dysfunctional times.

Statistics tell us that 25% to 50% of students in all schools are dealing with life-changing levels of developmental, or childhood, trauma.

It’s urgent.

Neuroscience tells us that unaddressed developmental trauma and toxic stress change the architecture of the physical brain and social behaviors Cognition, or learning, is impaired. For some of those children in survival mode, academics are impossible in the moment.

Developmental trauma is not a poverty issue. It’s not a color issue.  It’s not a geography issue. It is not an income issue. Experts call it a national crisis, an epidemic.   Yet, it’s the elephant in all our classrooms.

Developmental trauma is an achievement gap issue, given its skew to high stress, higher violence urban areas.

Developmental trauma is an equity issue.

It gets worse.

Biological and social adaptations to childhood trauma will affect our health throughout our lifetimes, and can lead to early death. 

It’s urgent.

Effective education reform  begins with recognizing the child and remains child-centered.

Effective reform will prioritize training and support to schoolwide staffs, so they understand and accommodate millions of trauma-impacted children nationally.  Community meetings can be integral to becoming trauma-informed.

At the school level, effective reform includes identifying, or in some way screening for, students’ trauma histories. It’s too easy to miss those who are quietly dissociating. We should also be re-evaluating zero-tolerance discipline stances. We should also be adjusting efforts against the “achievement gap” to areas with greater violence, stress and trauma. We should also be understanding the disconnect of regimented, time-based national standards from unique humans learning. We should also be understanding the illogical impotence of “standardized” test-and-punish model for academics.

Without effective reform, students have valid claim that we haven’t given them equal access to learning.  Millions of students.

Listening is integral to effective reform. 

We all have much to learn, much to care about, much to understand.  

If you agree, ask someone else “How are you feeling?” and then simply listen.


Graphic 2

All student vignettes in the “Peek Inside a Classroom” series have pseudonyms in their true stories. 

For more on developmental trauma, in short, true vignettes, click on the narrative series below, “Nowhere to Hide”:

Nowhere to Hide the Elephant in the [Class]Room  (overview)

Nowhere to Hide.  Maria Fight, flight or freeze?

Nowhere to Hide.  Andre’s fear.   What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

Nowhere to Hide.  Jamar’s Hyperarousal Defense

Nowhere to Hide.  Roberto’s Dissociation Defense

Nowhere to Hide.  Danny’s Memories

Nowhere to Hide.  Ashley’s Education Part1

Nowhere to Hide.  Ashley’s Education Part2

Click below for more “Peek Inside a Classroom”;

Peek Inside a Classroom: Jasmine

Peek Inside a Classroom: Danny

Peek Inside a Classroom:  Jose

Peek Inside a Classroom: Failing Schools, or Failing Paradigm?

Peek Inside a Classroom:  Effective Education Reform (with Dr. Sandra Bloom, M.D.)


Add Comment

Comments (0)

© 2020 All rights reserved.