Blog Reflection #2 for the Community Field Experience at UBC

Under the guidance of Dr. Andrea Webb, Community Field Experience at UBC teacher candidates used our graphic narratives to create teaching materials for a variety of classrooms. Education that addresses trauma and human rights provides skills and strategies for students to develop an awareness of the value of diversity in a pluralistic society and encourages sensitivity to a diversity of positions. This educational approach connects with curricular priorities including historical thinking and global citizenship, and provides strategies for teachers to support students as they learn about topics such as genocide. 

Each week, we will post a new reflection by students from the UBC CFE Program. 

Reflection by William Munroe

For my CFE, I had the privilege of of participating in “The Narrative Art and Visual Storytelling in Holocaust and Human Rights Education” project. As a teacher candidate, my role in this project was to create teaching materials based on graphic novel style narratives created using Holocaust survivor testimony. I developed a mini-unit around a graphic novel created by Barbara Yelin, based on the testimony of a survivor named Emmie.

For the unit, I focused on trauma, both how it is translated through text, and how we experience it ourselves. The unit was designed with a trauma informed approach—to put it plainly, my overall goal was to be able for students to understand trauma, without having to experience it themselves. Within this, I also became fixated on ideas of memory.

Through my research I’ve come to see trauma as its own kind of memory. I grappled a great deal with these ideas—trying to reconcile the use of narrative, which is a mediation of memory, and the translation of trauma into that medium, was difficult. We want a text to provoke strong responses from the reader, and we want to translate feelings and ideas clearly. But, in doing so, we put ourselves at risk for “secondary traumatization”, that is, becoming traumatized by learning about the trauma of others. From my research I learned this is an all too common issue in counselling programs, and trauma based studies.

I myself found it quite harrowing at times to do the research for this project; looking through survivor testimony, becoming intimately familiar with Emmie’s story, reading in depth about the details of life and death in concentration camps, were all emotionally exhausting, and at several junctures made it more difficult for me to apply the research to my work.

Emmie Arbel, I know that I'm strong
From But I Live, by Emmie Arbel and Barbara Yelin

Through this experience, I came to the realization that the best thing for students who may take on this graphic narrative, is to be protected, to look at it in the safest way possible, in order to get the most out of it. I think that our capacity as humans to be secondarily traumatized, speaks to something wonderful about our species. The fact that there exists in us, such deep wells of empathy, that we can take on the suffering of another, even seeing it mediated through story, through text and image, is incredible. In considering this, I wanted to be able to leverage that empathy, that understanding, and the power of narrative as much as possible—the only caveat was making sure we did so in a safe way.

The ultimate principle underpinning my unit was the idea of a “safe way in” and a “safe way out”. Through every step of the unit I tried to scaffold things as much as possible, and create a sense of predictability, and stability in the classroom.

What has been most helpful for me, in learning about this approach to pedagogy, is the universality of trauma informed pedagogy. I was prompted to take a trauma informed approach due to the nature of the content I wanted to teach, but as I learned more, and developed the unit along these theoretical lines, I began to understand that I was simply designing my ideal classroom environment, irrespective of content. The principles of trauma informed pedagogy, to my mind, translate well to any content objectives. Trauma is a widespread and often invisible affliction. For students dealing with trauma, the classroom can be a minefield—there are so many outdated assumptions and entrenched habits in the classroom that, we are learning, are massive impediments to healing, and to learning, for students dealing with trauma.

I think we should always be mindful that we teach content in a way that is both respectful to the content itself, giving it the space it needs and air to breathe, but also in a way that is respectful to our students. It was gratifying to see the increasing prevalence of trauma informed care and pedagogy—in my ideal vision of the classroom, there is always a safe way in, and a safe way out.

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