Nurturing Teachers and Students: Creating a Safe Space for Teaching and Learning in Troubling Times

Dr. Judi Dodson

Judi Dodson

National LETRS® trainer and literacy consultant

 

Today, more children are arriving at school with significant social and emotional vulnerabilities due to the chronic stress and trauma of the pandemic. Our students have experienced stress and trauma in the past, but this moment is unique because the experience is more universally shared. This period is also exceptional because our teachers have experienced the chronic stress, loss, and uncertainty of the pandemic as well as our students. Teachers are often given the role of superheroes in our society, but we cannot ask teachers to give of themselves what they do not have. While it is urgent we address our students’ social and emotional needs, it is equally urgent that we address the needs of our teachers, if they are going to help students.

This podcast will address hands-on activities and strategies for supporting teachers and students with care and connection. Language allows us to identify and express our emotions. Our use of language to assist in our efforts to connect with our students can transform traditional instruction into “trauma-informed” instruction. Language and connection have the power to heal. Connecting with students does not cost money and can create a climate and culture that can change a child’s life.

 

Guest Presenter

Judi Dodson

Judi Dodson is a national LETRS® trainer and literacy consultant. She worked for 20 years as a special education teacher and educational consultant. She is the author of 50 Nifty Activities for 5 Components and 3 Tiers of Reading Instruction, 50 Nifty Activities for Speaking and Listening: for Oral Language and Comprehension, and The Literacy Intervention Toolkit. Judi Dodson consults on issues related to school change, teacher knowledge, and literacy achievement. She also is president of Peruvian Hearts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the education and development of leadership of young women in Peru, giving them the resources they need to break the cycle of poverty and become leaders in their country. Judi Dodson believes literacy is a social justice, equity, and inclusivity issue, and this adds passion to her work with teachers and students.

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Transcript

Transcript

 

Narrator:
Welcome to EDVIEW360.

Judi Dodson:
Through perspective taking, we can develop empathy. And I just really believe that this is critical to our communities, to our country as a whole right now, to be able to take each other's perspectives and still have empathy.

Narrator:
You just heard from Dr. Judi Dodson, an author, national literacy expert, and trainer of teachers. Dr. Dodson is our guest today on EDVIEW 360.

Pam Austin:
This is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW 360 podcast series. We're so excited to have you with us today. I'm conducting today's podcast for my native New Orleans, Louisiana. Today, we are excited to welcome Judi Dodson, an internationally-known reading expert, a respected educator, the author of 50 Nifty Activities for 5 Components and 3 Tiers of Reading Instruction, 50 Nifty Speaking and Listening Activities for Comprehension, and The Literacy Intervention Toolkit. Judi is our guest today for EDVIEW 360. Welcome Ms. Dodson.

JD:
Well, hi there. I'm really excited to be with you, Pam. It's very nice to be here with you today.

PA:
We are excited. I think you could hear it in my voice to have you with us and just knowing about the various resources that you've authored. I know you're going to entwine a few of those within our conversation today. Let's go ahead and get started by having you tell us a little bit about your background and what informed your belief that literacy is a social justice, equity and inclusivity issue and how that belief adds passion. And I know that passion is there, the passion to your work with teachers and students.

JD:
Well, Pam, thinking about social justice is not because I experienced a lot of discrimination myself, but I really became interested in this whole idea for two reasons. One, the very first boy I ever taught to read, his name was Cody, committed suicide as a young adult. And that has had a tremendously big impact on me in terms of how it feels to children who have struggled to learn to read and what happens with those children when they struggle to learn to read. So, I have to say that that is one of the things that has informed me. And the other is just a deeply felt belief that literacy is a social justice issue and that every child has the right to learn to read. One thing, Pam, is that I really believe that in our society, we think of firemen and policemen and soldiers and doctors as people who can save lives and are heroes. I believe that people who are reading teachers are heroes because I think not only do they change lives, but they actually can save lives. So, all of that together is what has led me here.

PA:
Thank you, Judi. I have to agree with you that there are many kinds of heroes out there and they are heroes that can help change the trajectory of a child's life. And I do believe, I agree with you, that reading teachers can definitely do that. Makes a big difference in the direction a child's life will go. Let's talk about how kids learn to read and everything that plays into that process. I know there's a lot going on with learning to read. You've mentioned before that there's a connection between SEL (social emotional learning) and literacy learning. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

JD:
Yes, I can. There's a lot to say about that. And, I first became interested in this with my work in a district that I've been working with for ten years in Appalachia. And, I just went there to do LETRS and to do data meetings and all of that stuff. And kind of do turnaround work with the district, which we were extraordinarily successful at doing, which was a wonderful thing. But then the opioid epidemic struck and when the opioid epidemic hit this little area in the mountains of West Virginia, it really had a huge impact on it. And about three or four years after the initial introduction of that period into the area, what we've discovered was we needed to start an extra special education preschool class because the children who had been born dependent upon drugs because of their mom’s dependency needed special services. And that was really the first time I started looking into social emotional learning and the issue of how can we address all of their needs.

As I researched, and I did a lot of research into this area, it just became a passion of mine because I also learned that children who, because these children had experienced trauma and chaos often in their lives as well, and so I started looking into that and I started also understanding that any child who has experienced trauma or chronic stress in their life kind of shuts down, their brain literally shuts down in response to novel learning and they're kind of closed for business. So, that was the beginning of my research into this area and my experience with this area. So, how did I connect that to me being a literacy specialist? And here's the connection that I believe is very real for every reading teacher. And we can talk more about it as we talk together, but I feel like if we teach foundational reading skills well, then children will be able to read effortlessly and therefore they will read.

When they can read effortlessly, there's room in their brain for comprehension. When they can comprehend, there's room in their brains for what we call deep reading, and deep reading is really when you can actually take on the perspective or understand the perspective of the characters that you have attached to, that you care about and you can see their perspective. Through perspective taking, we can develop empathy. And I just really believe that this is critical to our communities, to our country as a whole right now, to be able to take each other's perspectives and still have empathy. So that's kind of the connection that I see.

PA:
And it makes sense when you think about students who have experienced trauma, chaos, and stress, as you said, Judi, your brain can't focus. You used the term that the brain shuts down, right? And so they can't even attach to those foundational skills that we know that they need. Thank you for sharing so much and giving us that perspective and understanding that that's going to lead to that effortless reading when we're able to connect the two. When we leave that room for, as you said, that deep reading and that comprehension, the perspective of characters that you read, don't we learn and grow by reading about others, Judi?

JD:
Absolutely.

PA:
How can teachers of reading weave SEL (social-emotional learning) into this whole process of learning to read, and what is their special gift as you've been known to say?

JD:
Well, I think books are their special gift. And I mean, there are many special gifts, but what you're alluding to in terms of weaving it in is really the whole idea of bibliotherapy. And how can we use books in an intentional manner and not just pull a book off the shelf to do a read aloud or choose a story, or what's the next story in the core reading series, but to really choose books thoughtfully and carefully. And one of the quotes that I use all the time and talk to teachers about all the time is Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who talks about the idea that books can be a window into other worlds. It can be a sliding glass door that children can walk through with their imaginations to imagine other people, other lives, other worlds, but it can also be a mirror.

She says when the lighting is just right, that a book can even be a mirror and children can see themselves in the book. And I really believe that is incredibly important. But one of the things that I've been talking to teachers about recently in terms of using books in an intentional way so that they can literally heal children, be a contributor to healing children who have experienced trauma and stress is the idea of using diverse characters, number one, very important children of all different ethnicities and from different countries and really important, but also diversity in a different way. Some children are hungry and there are books now about kids going to a food pantry or a child who doesn't have her own snack at school. And personally, I believe that if an eight-year-old is old enough to be hungry, then the eight-year-old sitting in their class next to them is old enough to know that some children are hungry.

And I believe that too. I believe that racism is a traumatizing experience for children. And I believe that if again, that eight-year-old and I used eight-year-olds, because I remember thinking about this in terms of my granddaughter, who is now nine, but I remember thinking if she's in a class and she doesn't have any of these problems, but she's in a class with someone who is old enough to have experienced racism or hunger or whatever it is, then my granddaughter is old enough to know about that. And so I believe choosing books like that are very helpful.

I also show teachers now books about children who are anxious. We've all been through this collective trauma of the last two years and this collective stress. And I feel like it's very important that we talk about children who have anxiety and so there's a book called What To Do if You Worry Too Much. I also have books about children who have learning disabilities and just talking aloud to children about this. They all know that someone goes out to see a special teacher, but let's talk about it and let's talk about what it feels like to be that child. So I believe that a teacher has the gift of using books and a teacher has the gift of developing and teaching and developing empathy for every child.

PA:
You used the word intentional a few times, Judi, and that just jumped out at me. So the intentional use of books, to thoughtfully and carefully choose those books to identify maybe an emotional need or a situation. The idea of the mirror in the window, reflecting those diverse characters and the idea of healing, I like all of those connections that you've made. So what we might assume is attention seeking behavior could really be connection seeking behavior for some of our students, correct? How can educators change that mindset?

JD:
Yeah. Pam, I teach literacy. Most of what I teach is literacy, but lately I've been speaking at conferences about social emotional learning. Social emotional learning in and of itself and in relationship to reading. And one of the things that I have learned is the idea that often when children are seeking attention, they're really seeking connection. I tell teachers, I am not going to train a teacher anymore. Not going to teach teachers anymore. When I have their ear, I am going to tell them that the two greatest things that they could do for their children, and it will improve their literacy learning, is relationship and connection. And they're free, free for nothing. These are things that if a teacher takes the time to do, a child will be more open to the learning, whatever the learning is. So that is number one.

That's what children need. If we give them connection and relationship, then they will have a sense of belonging. And when they have a sense of belonging, they will feel safe enough to learn. So we can be banging our heads against a brick wall with our skills, skills, skills. And we have so much to do that. There isn't time in the day to take the time for connection and relationship. And yet if we do take the time, we can get more done in a shorter time, because the children will follow you anywhere if you can show them how much you care about them. And I'm not suggesting that teachers don't always care about their children, but I'm suggesting that they themselves are under so much pressure that they feel that it's not okay to take the time to create that.

The other thing I want to say that I've been dealing with in the schools where I consult recently is the idea that children who have been diagnosed as ADHD might truly be masking trauma and that that behavior, which is attention seeking in the classroom, but really perhaps connection seeking could be masking trauma. And the idea that as we look at children in terms of that behavior, if we were to do a historic analysis, or try to find out if they have experienced trauma or are experiencing trauma, we would be treating them in a different way. So the therapeutic approach for them would be different than simply ADHD doesn't mean you don't have to address the behaviors, but we want to get to the root cause.

PA:
Most definitely. And to help teachers get there, you mentioned two things that teachers need to make sure that they build, relationships and connections, because these laid the groundwork for learning. I just wanted to reiterate that. Do I have it, Judi?

JD:
Thank you very much for reiterating it, Pam. Yes, you do. And it's simple. It's not a difficult thing, and I think teachers would be nurtured by that as well as children, but our teachers are feeling so overwhelmed themselves that sometimes they don't take the time.

PA:
Thank you, Judi. When a school or a district makes the determination to increase their focus on social emotional learning, what are some of the things they should look for and consider?

JD:
Well, the most important thing I would advise them to do is to discover CASEL and that's C-A-S-E-L.org and it stands for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. And it is a repository of the research of some of the most significant research that's been done in this area. And they have like CASEL-approved programs that you can look into. So I think looking into what does it mean to be a trauma-sensitive school? What does it mean to be a school that really does have a program in place for this? You could get a lot of information about that from CASEL. I think one of the biggest steps that a school would take is that when they are researching this and when they begin their training, that they train everybody in the school. So that means the gym teacher, as well as the math teacher, as well as the music teacher and the literacy teacher.

And it means the bus drivers and the cafeteria workers and the custodians, that everybody gets an opportunity to understand our children better. And I think when we do that, it can make a big difference. The other significant step that I think I've become more aware of since this pandemic hit us, is that we are in a period of collective trauma and our teachers have been dealing with so much chronic uncertainty and loss in their own personal lives often, or at the very least, the loss of normalcy for sure. And the loss of their ability to their efficacy in the classroom, because of all the inconsistencies and the absences and everything that I really believe we have to take care of our staff as well. And I have begun, when I talk about this at a conference, I now talk not only about what can you do to help children, but also what can you do to help your teachers?

And I feel like sometimes administrators talk about, "Well, you have to take care of yourself, don't forget to take care of yourself," but we have to give them time and space to take care of themselves. And I think that sometimes we don't take that extra step. We focus them on taking care of the children. But what I always like to say is you can't give what you don't have. And it's like if you can remember being in an airplane, when they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first, before you put it on for your child, I feel the same way about our teachers. We've got to take care of our teachers so that they can take care of their children.

PA:
Very good. Thank you, Judi. So first steps to SEL, seek the research, get everyone involved. You're taking care of the students, but you also have to take care of the teachers. And by the way, that was a great analogy with on the airplane, you have to put on your mask first to get that oxygen so that you can help those around you. Thank you for giving us that imagery there, Judi.

JD:
You're welcome.

PA:
We, as adults, know words can wound and that words can heal. How can educators honor student dialect and build self-esteem and competence in learners?

JD:
That's a great question. And I was just talking to some teachers who I love in LAUSD and I was talking about bidialectalism. I was talking about this very topic and they told me that their preferred way of talking about it now is to talk about home language. So as we talk about that, I keep that in my mind. I think that one of the things that I try to impress upon teachers is that we have to be respectful of home language. And while we are respectful of bilingual children, we think that's cool and everybody wants to get their kid into a bilingual school. When it comes to bidialectal students, we are not as respectful. And we often blame the child or act like the child is not enough, is not as good as, and their home ...

I mean, first of all, to beat bidialectal means that you have more elaboration in the language centers of your brain, right? So that is cool, just like being bilingual, but also letting teachers know that a dialect is actually a rule-based system. That one is not better than the other. One may be more accepted and like general American English is, it's more accepted, but it doesn't make it better than anyone or the other. And the main point I think is that the home language is the language that children are loved in. And we have to remember that and saying anything or making them feel bad about that language, that they have been loved in the language that their mom uses and their auntie uses and their grandma uses, this is not okay anymore. So it may have been acceptable, but it's not acceptable anymore.

We have to keep our children's hearts as well as their heads in our heart all the time. So I think that's really important. But the other thing, Pam, is that I don't think teachers are taught this at all. And we have recently incorporated it into the LETRS program and I'm so pleased that we have done that. And we've looked toward experts in the field to help guide us as we've introduced it into our curriculum. But I think we owe it to teachers to give them a chance to learn this.

So, if a child is using dialect in their written work and a teacher is marking it wrong because they have no idea what the differences are. They don't know contrastive analysis, and they don't know how to contrast this particular dialect to general American English, it's not their fault. So I believe that there's a lot about literacy that could be done at the higher education level, but I think there's just as much that could be done about respect for dialect, about teaching teachers, about trauma and stress and its impact, teaching teachers about connection and relationship and what is being masked when children act out. So I'd love to see changes in that area in a higher ed, really.

PA:
Actually, coming from a home where I did a good bit of code switching all of my life being a New Orleanian one and thinking about the dialect we use in a home, it's something we definitely learn to do. So the emphasis should be, we still want students to be able to read that academic language, but we do honor where they come from. So they could speak in one way in a relaxed environment, but still hone in on that academic language.

That's so important because as you said, Judi, those foundational skills and reading, that's going to change the trajectory of their lives and want to make sure that these students have what they need to be strong, fluent readers in that academic language that is acceptable across the board. Just thinking, I often say, when I am about to lead a training if you start hearing me say this, that, these and those, that means I am very comfortable with you and it's like you're in my home. But of course we know that there are certain times where that academic language is definitely essential and we want to teach our students both. Am I correct in saying that, Judi?

JD:
You are totally correct in saying that. And I just think the key is what you said, which is to honor the home language and not try to change the home language, but at the same time, teach the academic language. Yes. But it's all about honoring and respecting.

PA:
Yes. Yes. Well, thank you for joining us today, Miss Dodson. And it's been a pleasure speaking with you. Please tell our listeners how they can learn more about your new book and how they can learn more about you.

 

JD:
Well, I am excited about a book series that I'm working on with Mary Dahlgren, who is a dear friend of mine, who has a website Tools for Reading. And through Tools for Reading, I'm publishing a series of books called Venture Town Readers, and I'm doing the lesson plans for them. And what is exciting to me, they're about a second-grade level decodable text, which hopefully will take a child who is at an advanced phonics stage and help them to become an effortless reader, give them enough practice so that they become an automatic reader.

But what I've done that is exciting to me too, is that in the lesson plans, we have both phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension. So if you think about Hollis Scarborough's Reading Rope, I'm using all the strands of the rope as I'm developing lessons around these advanced phonics decodable books. But in addition, they're all about the same characters. And my hope is that the children will attach to these characters. And there are social emotional touchstones in each book that have been explicitly taught to the teacher so that she can turn around and teach these to her students. And by emotional literacy, what I'm talking about is when we understand our own feelings, we can better understand the feelings of others. So in these little simple stories, we're trying to also incorporate diverse characters and social emotional learning at the same time as teaching children to read.

PA:
Well, thank you, Judi, how exciting. The idea of weaving SEL into this resource that you're creating, definitely research-based, thinking about all the strands of Scarborough's rope. This is Pam Austin bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you.

Narrator:
This has been an EDVIEW 360 podcast. For additional thought provoking discussions, sign up for our blog webinar and podcast series at voyagersopris.com/edview360. If you enjoyed the show, we'd love a five-star review wherever you listen to podcasts and to help other people like you find our show. Thank you.