Infusing socio-emotional learning into K-12 classrooms utilizing “hunger” as an agricultural context

Student Contribution, Teaching

Dr. Stephanie Lemley develops socio-economic awareness as students experience disciplinary literacy in an agricultural setting. Read more about Dr. Lemley at the end of her blog.

As a literacy teacher educator and a PI or Co-PI on three United States Department of Agriculture/National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA/NIFA) grants for professional development in agricultural literacy, I have been fortunate to work with teachers across Mississippi on infusing agricultural literacy into their classroom instruction. Two of my grants have enabled me to create a summer professional development and then host the teachers on the university campus in the fall and spring for follow-up days. This school year I am working with colleagues from Agricultural Education, Leadership, and Communication, Poultry Science, and Food Science and 28 amazing K-12 teachers from across the state. The teachers’ experiences range from starting their first year of teaching to 25+ years in the classroom. We are currently working with content areas such as special education (e.g., gifted and inclusion classrooms), mathematics, ELA, science, welding, and agriculture. During a four-day, intensive workshop this summer, the teachers learned how to incorporate poultry science and food science content knowledge and lab investigations, literacy instruction, and socio-emotional learning (SEL) skills into their classroom.

 This is important because most Americans are agriculturally illiterate (Taylor, 2021, July 7). In fact, in most cases, individuals are three generations removed from the farm, which means more and more people are not aware of where their food comes from (Brandon, 2012, March 30). The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture (2012) has created pillars of ag literacy, one of which is understanding the connections between agriculture and the environment. Hubert et al. (2000) posited that teachers can use agriculture as a topic to teach about the environment and the world around them. This focus on the natural world can also be a great way to infuse socio-emotional learning (SEL) skills into the curriculum as well (Carter, 2016).

Socio-emotional learning (SEL) skills is an “umbrella term used to describe psychological constructs such as personality traits, motivation, or values” (Danner et al., 2021). When teachers teach these skills to their students, they are helping them become efficient workers who know how to build trusting relationships with others, cope with change, serve as leaders, and produce creative solutions to solve problems (Danner et al., 2021). These skills include responsible decision making, self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills (National University, 2022, Aug. 17). Agricultural topics are the perfect place to teach socio-emotional skills to students because of the diversity of content and emphasis on problem solving. For example, when discussing food choices, students are practicing the socio-emotional skill of responsible decision making; when working in groups to complete labs, students will be practicing the socio-emotional skills of social awareness and relationship skills.

Here’s an example of how teachers who work with me in the four-day workshop investigate the topic of ‘hunger in Mississippi’ through book readings (How Did That Get in My Lunchbox?: The Story of Food by Chris Butterworth, Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt, and Free Lunch by Rex Ogle), online investigations, and proposed solutions to food waste in local communities. We tied the topic of hunger to a variety of Mississippi state science standards.

Table 1. Example Mississippi College-and-Career Readiness Standards for Science

Example Science Standards
L.K.1A Students will demonstrate an understanding of living and nonliving things. L.K.3A Students will demonstrate an understanding of what animals and plants need to live and grow.L.2.3A Students will demonstrate an understanding of the interdependence of living things and the environment in which they live. L.2.3A.1 Evaluate and communicate findings from informational text or other media to describe how animals change and respond to rapid or slow changes in their environment (fire, pollution, changes in tide, availability of food/water). L.5.3B Students will demonstrate an understanding of a healthy ecosystem with a stable web of life and the roles of living things within a food chain and/or food web, 
including producers, primary and secondary consumers, and decomposers. L.5.3B.1 Obtain and evaluate scientific information regarding the characteristics of different ecosystems and the organisms they support (e.g., salt and fresh water, deserts, grasslands, forests, rain forests, or polar tundra lands). L.5.3B.2 Develop and use a food chain model to classify organisms as producers, consumers, or decomposers. Trace the energy flow to explain how each group of organisms obtains energy. L.7.3 Students will demonstrate an understanding of the importance that matter cycles between living and nonliving parts of the ecosystem to sustain life on Earth. L.7.3.5 Design solutions for sustaining the health of ecosystems to maintain biodiversity and the resources needed by humans for survival (e.g., water purification, nutrient recycling, prevention of soil erosion, and prevention management of invasive species).    

On the first day of the workshop, teachers investigate ‘hunger’ in their local school district, local community, and the state. First, they searched “hunger in Mississippi” and looked at sites such as Mississippi Food Network ( and Feeding America ( Then, they searched “hunger in [insert county or city name]. Finally, they looked at hunger in their own school district. One source of data they looked at was from the Mississippi Department of Education ( They wrote information that they found on sticky notes and then shared out the information with the rest of the class.

This initial foray into hunger allowed the teachers to learn more about this impactful issue across the state. For many, it reinforced information they already knew about their own community, but it was eye-opening for many to see how big of a problem it is statewide. For example, in looking at the free and reduced lunch data, many were surprised that some of the perceived ‘affluent’ counties in the state still had multiple schools with high percentages of free and reduced lunch. As such, this topic introduced them to a part of environmental and agricultural literacy—food literacy (Siegner, 2019). Food literacy is defined as “the scaffolding that empowers individuals, households, communities, and nations to protect diet quality through change and strengthen dietary resilience over time. It is composed of a collection of inter-related knowledge, skills, and behaviours required to plan, manage, select, prepare, and eat food to meet needs and determine intake” (Vidgen & Gallegos, 2014, p. 54).  In addition, this investigation reinforced the SEL skill of social awareness—showing understanding and empathy to others—because it required them to reflect on their own students and how many of them might come to school hungry and need additional sustenance to stay focused during the school day. The second day, the teachers worked in groups to create an innovative way to address food waste in communities. This activity required them to think scientifically and utilize precise science and engineering terminology and design methods to create their solution. We chose this activity because many of the teachers had recently talked about how much food was wasted either at restaurants or at their schools during lunch and how they would like to put some of that food to good use in their community.

Figure 1. Food Waste Innovation

On the third day, the teachers, in groups, created hero scientist cards on a food science or poultry science scientist who has done work that impacts hunger in the state. This activity required the teachers to showcase a scientist who has had a positive impact in improving Mississippi’s environment and its agricultural industry. This activity also required the teachers to not only work on SEL skills such as relationship skills and self-management, but also to use discipline-specific terminology related to the food science or poultry science field when adding information to their trading card.

Figure 2. Poultry Science Hero Scientist Trading Card
Figure 3. Food Scientist Hero Scientist Trading Card

After the summer PD, the teachers returned to their classrooms and implemented lessons that we had done with them in their own teaching. Many used the agriculture texts to teach SEL skills and the food supply. They used the strategies and activities we taught them, and they also shared their new knowledge with their colleagues at their school site or in their district. During the fall follow-up day, the teachers continued to investigate hunger, but this time looked at it not just from a regional and state perspective but also a worldwide perspective. I chose to focus on hunger more broadly this time to show them how they could have their students consider hunger in their own community first (as we did in the summer) but then have them realize that hunger is not just a Mississippi problem—in fact it is a problem in our region, country, and world as well. The lesson and activities I implemented were also tied to state standards in the science, mathematics, social studies, and ELA standards.

Table 2. Example Mississippi College-and-Career Readiness Standards.

Mississippi College-and-Career Readiness Standards for Social StudiesMississippi College-and-Career Readiness Standards for ScienceMississippi College-and-Career Readiness Standards for English/Language Arts
6.8 Examine how humans and the physical environment are impacted by the extraction of resources and by natural hazards 3. Assess the opportunities and constraints for human activities created by the physical environment.ENV.4 Students will demonstrate an understanding of the interdependence of human sustainability and the environment. ENV.4.3 Enrichment: Research and analyze case studies to determine the impact of human‐related and natural environmental changes on human health and communicate possible solutions to reduce/resolve the dilemma.RI.6.7 Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

First, they watched a video about the area of Memphis, TN, that is a food desert (see link in resources). The video was then tied into the National Agriculture in the Classroom lesson on ‘Hunger and Malnutrition (see link in resources). In this lesson, students investigate the importance of eating a variety of nutritious foods and explore diets around the world. The teachers were introduced to more health and food science terminology such as nutrient, undernourishment, food bank, staples, accompanying foods, and hunger. They then used the National Geographic website, What the World Eats, and answered the following questions:

  1. Which country consumes the most calories in a day?
  2. Which country consumes the fewest calories in a day?
  3. Which country consumes the most 1) red meat, 2) grain, 3) sugar, and 4) fat?
  4. Which country consumes the least 1) red meat, 2) grain, 3) sugar, and 4) fat?

After they had worked on this investigation, we discussed what they found across groups. These activities continued reinforcing SEL skills such as social awareness, relationship skills, and self-management as they negotiated group tasks. It also provided them an opportunity to continue to investigate environmental and agricultural literacies specifically food literacy. This is important because part of being agriculturally literacy involves understanding the food system and the importance of plants and animals to our environment.  The workshop concluded with the teachers being introduced to two short films from Mississippi State University Films: one of which was on food insecurity, and one of which was on a local school district response to schools shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic and getting food to the students who relied on school lunch as part of their food sources daily. These videos provided a real-world example of people using socio-emotional skills, such as responsible decision making, compassion, and relationship-building to make a difference in the local community. Further, the teachers learned about ways that community members are stepping up to help end food insecurity in their own backyards through the creation of local farmers markets and other means. This can help further develop their agricultural literacy knowledge because they have a deeper understanding of the food system.

I wanted to share these lessons and resources with my teachers because I wanted to show them how they could help their students become more agriculturally literate with a topic that is relevant to everyone—hunger and food. Over the school year, some teachers have emailed me to share how impactful these agricultural literacy SEL lessons have been for their students, particularly reading the book Free Lunch with their class and then investigating hunger in their community and where food comes from.  Others expressed this in their delayed post follow up survey. For example, one teacher wrote that creating trading cards has been the most successful activity with their classes. They noted, “The kids love it and are all 100% into it.” Creating the trading cards on scientists allowed students to showcase their learning in a creative way. Another teacher wrote that participating this year helped them have “more opportunities for students to learn agriculture in different cultures, bringing awareness of food deserts and waste.” The teacher said the students particularly enjoyed exploring the National Geographic website and watching the videos about Memphis and food insecurity in the Mississippi Delta; learning about this topic had them think about what nutritious food was available to them on a regular basis outside of school.  Another teacher wrote participating in the professional learning gave her “an enhanced sensitivity to food deprivation within my classroom.” These lessons over the past year opened this teachers’ eyes to hunger in their own students and the teacher has made it a priority to have nutritious snacks available for the students. Two others wrote, “All of the SEL!” for their response. Finally, one additional teacher wrote, “From ACRE 2.0, I’ve already used interactive simulations and hands-on experiments in my class. Next, I plan to add collaborative projects and real-world problem-solving tasks. These activities deepen understanding and build teamwork skills. Additionally, I’ll integrate more tech tools for personalized learning.”


American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture (2012. Pillars of agricultural literacy.

Brandon, H. (2012, March 30). At what cost the disconnect between agriculture and the public?

Carter, D. (2016). A nature-based social-emotional approach to supporting young children’s holistic development in classrooms with and without walls: The socio-emotional and environmental education development (SEED) framework. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 9-24.

Danner, D., Lechner, C.M., & Spengler, M. (2021). Editorial: Do we need socio-emotional skills? Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 1-3. 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.723470.

Hubert, D., Frank, A., & Igo, C. (2000). Environmental and agricultural literacy education. Water, Air, Soil Pollution, 123, 525-532. https;//

National University. (2022, August 17). What is social emotional learning (SEL): Why it matters.

Siegner, A.B. (2019). Growing environmental literacy: On small-scale farms, in the urban agroecosystem, and in school garden classrooms [Doctoral dissertation, University of California Berkeley]. UC Campus Repository.

Taylor, B. (2021, July 7). Ag illiteracy: What happened, and where do we go from here?

Vidgen, H.A., & Gallegos, D. (2014). Defining food literacy and its components. Appetite, 76, 50-59.


Judd-Murray, R. (2013). Hunger and malnutrition (grades 3-5). National Agriculture in the Classroom.

Mississippi Department of Education. (2023). Mississippi college-and-career readiness standards.

Team, I. W. D. (2024, February 14). The hungriest state. MSU Films.

What the world eats. National Geographic. (n.d.).

YouTube. (2019, November 20). The food deserts of Memphis: Inside America’s hunger capital | divided cities. YouTube.

Funding Statement:

This work is supported by the USDA/NIFA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, AFRI Agricultural Workforce Training Priority Area, award # 2022-08873.

Stephanie Lemley; Studio Portrait.(photo by Logan Kirkland / © Mississippi State University)

About the Author:

Dr. Stephanie M. Lemley is an Associate Professor of Content-Area Literacy and Disciplinary Literacy Instruction in the elementary education program in the Department of Teacher Education and Leadership in the College of Education at Mississippi State University. She is the recipient of three USDA/NIFA grants on professional development in agriculturally literacy (either as PI or Co-PI) and in the last four years has worked with approximately 150 K-12 teachers across the state, either virtually or through face-to-face instruction, on infusing agricultural literacy into their classroom instruction. She can be contacted at .

Where I’m From


This post will discuss how “Where I’m From” poetry helped provide a scaffold to better understand multilingual students and their evolving identities. This post is written by Emily Graham. Read more about Emily at the bottom of this post.

The question “Where are you from” is one often heard by multilingual learners (MLs). Although all the MLs at my school could answer this question simply by naming their birth country as either the US, Mexico, or Guatemala, this answer gives little information about each student’s identity. Through her poem, “Where I’m From”, George Ella Lyon shows us how we can tap into the more complex answer to this question. Lyon links together memories of special places, people, sayings, and stories from her past to tell us who she is, and this can serve as a powerful model for reflection and exploration of the rich and diverse identities among students.

In a poetry unit built from Lyon’s ideas, structure, and themes, my MLs explored and shared their own identities. Students’ poems and thoughts gave me a small window into my students’ past and present lives and their critical and creative thinking abilities. The “Where I’m From” Poetry Project allowed me to build a deeper, more complex understanding of who my students are and “where they are from” beyond just a geographic place.

There are countless get-to-know-you activities that require students to answer categorical questions such as: “What are your favorite foods?”; “What are your favorite songs?”; “Who is in your family?”; or “What do you like to do when you are not at school?” While I believe these questions are important, their answers do not always provide great insight into our students’ lives. Often these questions are asked and answered without much thought or reflection. Students may say: “My favorite foods are tamales”; “I don’t know my favorite song”; “I live with my dad, aunt, uncle, and sister”; and “I watch T.V.”, but there is little depth or passion to these responses.

When we use poetry to elicit these responses, we can reframe these questions in a way that requires reflection and deep thinking. When the questions are reframed to: “What are the family, foods, thoughts, and stories that make you who you are?” a teacher can gain a much deeper understanding of students and their unique identities. “Where I’m From” Poems provide a frame and an artistic lens for students to respond to those questions about identity.

Here is an example of how one student’s poem provided me with a glimpse into his rich and unfolding identity. Looking at his identity from a more reflective perspective helped me build an understanding of the student’s home life, language, family, and interests that I had not slowed down to see before.

Jimmy, a 3rd-grade multilingual student, was born in the United States and struggled with academic language and literacy. Although he was born in the US, he did not begin learning English until he started school in kindergarten. The first language, the language used most often, and the language that he used with the people he loved, was Spanish. Jimmy was considered a student who “struggled” in school.  He often put his head down in class, he refused to work independently, and said things like, “I’m not smart” or “I can’t read.” Sometimes he participated in whole group discussions but more often seemed disengaged. Jimmy’s class was starting a unit on poetry, and I anticipated resistance from Jimmy. I decided to teach a unit to build background knowledge and confidence in poetry.

Jimmy initially seemed disinterested in the idea of studying and writing poetry. But that slowly started to change through the process of a close read of Lyon’s “Where I’m From.”  At first, we looked at the literal meaning of Lyon’s words through translations, pictures, and discussion. Jimmy was able to confidently define big words from Lyon’s poem such as “carbon tetrachloride” and “forsythia bush”. He was able to explain how someone might lose a finger to an “auger”. He also was able to discuss big ideas like nostalgia and memories.  In later readings, Jimmy stated Lyon’s voice reading her poem sounded like a ghost. He said Lyon talked about the past and memories like a ghost would. Jimmy seemed to enjoy building on the ideas of his group members. He was not afraid to share his opinion on the meaning of certain phrases and his thoughts about word choice. I was surprised by Jimmy’s desire to build an argument and support a claim in the discussion. He said, “I think the author likes to play in the dirt under her porch. Maybe she liked to hide there because that is what I do. My dogs also like to hide under the porch because it is cool, and they feel safe.” I was also impressed by Jimmy’s critical thinking and questions.  He said, “I wonder why she said the ‘it tasted like beets.’ Maybe she is talking about when she was a little kid because little kids always put stuff in their mouths. They are curious and that is how they explore.”

Jimmy was not initially thrilled about the task of writing his own poem. He needed some support organizing his ideas. With the support of graphic organizers, help in spelling, and some motivation from a YouTube student example, Jimmy wrote. Here is his poem:

I am from fish tanks and from dirt

and my dog DJ

I am from broken glass in my backyard

I am from my broken T.V.

From Roblox and road trips

I am from sunflowers and bamboo

I am from tag with my brother and helping my mom

from Joseph and Marissa

I am from the sad puppies and Llama the puppies mama

from swings and broken pinatas

I am from my dad’s Honda

with a big engine

I am from my mom’s Hyundai

it has a push button to start

from riding my bike and making my own adventures

I am from digging holes and making traps

I am from inventions

Jimmy’s poem was a powerful representation of his identity, and his word choice was beautifully poetic. He was able to infuse his poem with alliteration and repetition, imagery, and emotion. He juxtaposed happy and sad memories, and purposefully ended his poem with positive attributes about himself. He talked about both joyful and upsetting times with his family. Times where they celebrated together — “broken pinatas” — and times of trouble — “broken T.V.” From reading and talking about Jimmy’s poem, I learned about ways Jimmy interacted with his family, some challenges in his life, and personal characteristics that he was proud of. Jimmy was proud to explain how he helped his mom with daily chores and sometimes would go to work with his dad. He talked about his dog Llama having puppies and the irresistible sad look on the puppies’ faces. He found joy in playing with the puppies. He talked about being devastated when some of the puppies got sick and died. He said he felt so bad for Llama, the puppy’s mama. Jimmy sometimes showed insecurities in the classroom but spoke with complete confidence when discussing his adventures and inventions outside of the classroom. He talked about his positive attributes like creativity, curiosity, and bravery. Jimmy took pride in his poem, so much so that he wanted a copy to take home and read to his family

Jimmy’s poem and the conversations that resulted from discussing poetry helped me shift from focusing on Jimmy’s struggles to identifying and sharing his strengths Before, I might have shared my frustrations on Jimmy’s lack of motivation or refusal to do work in my class. Now I had something so much more powerful and beneficial to share with other teachers — Look what Jimmy wrote, look what Jimmy can read, but most importantly look at some of the things that make Jimmy who he is! Through poetry I learned more about his academic abilities — Jimmy could craft meaning from metaphor and explain his theories about themes and lessons hidden in poems. I also learned about his interests and motivators. I discovered Jimmy’s empathy for others, passion for inequalities in his community, and desire to help others. Jimmy’s poem allowed me to understand his uniqueness and make connections to my own childhood curiosities and adventures. I felt the same empathy for animals and dreams of a more peaceful and equitable world.

I had the same kind of revelations and connections with my other students. I learned Alexander had a job caring for sheep in Mexico through his lines: “I am from a big river where the sheep used to cross” and “from a scary ram who chased me all day.” I learned Veronica’s older brother always said to her “sup bro and dap me up, bro.” I learned about Marta’s memories of Guatemalan cuisine: “tortilla’s (sic), tortas, tamales, and tacos.” Each poem was beautiful and unique and a window into my students’ lives. These poems provided voice for my students and a platform to share the individual identities that they were proud of. This background was both unique and unifying. The poems gave students an opportunity to be more clearly seen and heard.

Sometimes we want to get to know our students, but we don’t know the right questions to ask. The question “Where are you from?” seems simple on the surface but does not have a simple answer. Studying George Ella Lyon’s poem with my elementary multilingual learners helped me slow down and deepen my understanding of Lyon’s words and, more importantly, my students’ words.  Although my initial purpose of the poetry unit was to provide academic background knowledge for my students, a more beautiful and poetic thing happened — poetry provided background knowledge for my students for me. The poems provided a space for me to do the learning and for my students to do the teaching. The format provided a space to merge home life and home language with school life and language. “Where I’m from Poems” allowed us to celebrate each student’s beautiful and unique identity.  

Lyon, G. E. Where I’m from, a poem by George Ella Lyon: Writer and teacher Subtitle.

Emily Graham is from Johns Island, South Carolina. She currently teaches grades K-5 as a Multilingual Learner Specialist in Charleston County Schools. She is a certified elementary educator and has served in several different teacher roles including as a Multilingual Learner Program Specialist, a second grade teacher, an English teacher abroad, a substitute teacher, and a teacher’s assistant. She speaks Spanish and enjoys traveling, creating, and being in nature. She lives with her husband, 8-month-old girl, and two rowdy rescue dogs.

Cover Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

The Power of the Pen:  Poetry as the Bridge to Liberation


This post is written by Darius Phelps. You can read more about Darius at the bottom of this post.

As bell hooks argued, some forms of writing create “a space where we are able to confront reality in such a way that we live more fully.” Having been an educator for thirteen years, I believe that teaching students to write should be a practice that comes from the soul, especially if we want to foster a true connection between ourselves, our students, and the intimacy of writing. For me, growing up, poetry had been a sanctuary, the space in which words were the only thing that brought me comfort. As a young man of color, I found solace in the work of Korean rapper, and author, TABLO of the Korean hip-hop group Epik High who spoke out on issues such as struggling with mental health, depression, assimilation, and even struggling to experience joy as a young man. Inspired and enamored by his work, I began to write poetry myself, letting the words and emotions flow as they came, without restriction.

Dr. Maxine Greene (2000) argues that we must advocate for the inclusion of arts in the classroom in order to help foster a deep understanding and foundation for imagination. She stresses that there are multiple voices and multiple realities for, “We must now allow the enthusiasm for publicity about changed methods of reading instruction to obscure the facts of exclusion and neglect.” (p 36) Writing is part of the conversation,  and through these crucial conversations, we foster dialogue.  In Chapter 9 of Releasing the Imagination, titled “Writing to Learn”, Greene (2000) reinforces this idea When teaching writing, more specifically narrative writing, I use my own personal narrative as a guide/model for my students, showing them that there is power in being vulnerable and sharing what lies on their hearts. I remember the days when I was a student, especially in elementary school; I didn’t have a connection with writing inside of school because I didn’t see myself reflected in the prompts or discussions we would regularly have.

Once I became a classroom teacher, I discovered that diving into writing and teaching as a way to express ourselves via social-emotional learning helps us become better teachers for our students, even challenging us to face our own struggles head-on. With it, we learn to speak well and with emotion, to emulate that emotion, and to be more attentive to words and the emotions that they convey. (Storey, 2019) The power of the pen is one that is truly immaculate, and I feel that can be combined with the implementation of SEL. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a lifelong process for both the teacher and the student. In order to develop self-awareness, self-control, interpersonal skills, and all the intangibles that are paramount of work, school, and life, both adult and child must be willing to do the inner work that is necessary to allow these areas to manifest into something that they can apply to real-life, everyday situations. I believe that the process of doing that inner work requires honest self-examination, painful self-excavation, and restorative healing.

Effective educators use various strategies to improve their pedagogy and to reach their students. It is crucial for teachers to not only understand where their students come from culturally but also truly see them as individuals.  Anyone can be/become a culturally relevant teacher no matter what age group, area, or subject you are teaching.  Ladson Billings (2009) stresses that the key is to go in with an open mindset and see your students for who they are and what they are capable of doing; don’t focus on the negative. As we instruct them in both literature and writing, we must truly believe each and every one of our students can and will succeed. In order to transform them as students, we must be willing to instill this in them and show that we care, and I believe that poetry can be that bridge to vulnerability.

In My Shoes”

by Darius Phelps

If you only knew

what it was like

to walk in my shoes

You’d know my steps 

marched to the beat

of different tunes

Music, art, and poetry

all different clues

Pieces of the puzzle

to my past

The weight of the world

heavy like a stack

of cement bricks 

But nothing

and no one

would hold me back

from overcoming life’s tricks and turns



but never… burned

In my shoes,

You wouldn’t last a day

Surviving Hell’s fire

Like a blistering summer in May

No matter the trauma, the heartache, or the pain

I’ve come out stronger, better, and wiser with much more to gain

For even flowers bloom, after April’s rain

If you only knew

what it was like

to walk in my shoes

When we share our emotions, we foster meaningful discussions that are applicable in students’ day to day lives. I encourage teachers to challenge their students to think critically and outside the box, encouraging them to tackle emotions such as depression, grief, perfectionism, and even abandonment with various forms of discussion. Each person comes with a unique understanding of life, love, freedom, and emotions. Emotions equal freedom because you can’t control when a certain emotion washes over you or rises up, within you. If schools are built on deep relationships, and consent is embedded in the framework of relationship-building, we truly learn how to be self-aware, to recognize how others want to engage with us, and to face our own demons. (Hooks, 2021)

“Where I Am from” 

By Darius Phelps

I am from the pages of battered book

From fiery passion and grit

I am from the daily prayers of my grandmother

Loved endlessly, protected, and cared for

I am from the falling petals of a sunflower

radiant, yellow, and soft like the sun

I am from dinner on Sunday’s and hard work

From Mattie and Eddie, raised by my grandparents

I am from their loving and selfless hearts, the purest love I’ve ever know

From playing outside and using my imagination to dream endlessly

I am from the early Sunday mornings at church and praying before bed

I am from Riverdale, Georgia

From chocolate cake and sweet potato pie

From the endless nights watching grandma bake

The early mornings watching mom leave for work

photograph by photograph

Snapshots of my childhood memories

That slowly fade as time passes by

These are the memories that I hold closest

Where I am from, appreciating what is now gone, remembering that place I used to call home

Where I am from, will never compare to where I am headed

I am Darius Phelps

In the classroom, teachers can utilize poetry prompts such as Georga Ella Lyons “I Am” or “Where I am From” or even ask students to write about their experiences with a day in their life of being in “In Their Shoes.”  In doing so, we both create and provide a safe space for students to come openly with their trauma, pain, and grief and freely express their significant losses in their writing while paying homage to where they come from and light the path to where they are here.

The world of poetry opens our minds to explore our own voice and even find a new one in the process, especially when using it to discuss a wide variety of topics.  Poetry can teach us about ourselves and others in a deep and meaningful way. Instead of writing or reading a generic story about us or someone else, poetry provides the freedom for the writer to not only feel but to fully experience exactly what the writer went through, in a way that honors both their voice and experience. During that journey, the reader’s experience becomes enhanced with the use of similes, metaphors, alliterations, imagery, foreshadowing, and other literary devices. These factors that poetry can offer are what makes our writing that much more personal, and what’s personal for us can end up being a universal message for our readers and our students, allowing them to give their ancestors’ stories a voice, a reason, and a platform to be shared, heard, and acknowledged by all.

We must prioritize freedom of expression through writing opportunities moving forward both in the home and school settings so that children can begin to form relationships, especially the ones with themselves. Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop’s significant framing of multicultural literature as providing windows and mirrors into lived experiences and Morrell’s (2005) call for critical English education open opportunities for excavation in the classroom. I believe that with vulnerability comes authenticity for “Understanding and identifying trauma among students should be grounded in the context, while also considering the range of experiences for diverse individuals within the context.” (Alvarez, 2017)

To do so, we must lead by example, meaning, we as educators must be open and honest about our trauma, struggles, and grief for students to write and formulate their own personal narratives through whatever method speaks to them.  It is through our vulnerability that they will lead towards the liberation of their own respective experiences. If there is anything I want my students to know, it is that writing is about freedom of expression. Be you, regardless of anyone else’s opinion. You are destined to change the world, don’t ever forget that, and let your let shine.

Darius Phelps is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens, Hunter College, Teachers College, and intern at Brooklyn Poets.  An educator, poet, spoken word artist, and activist, Darius writes poems about grief, liberation, emancipation, reflection through the lens of a teacher of color and experiencing Black boy joy. His poems have appeared in the NY English Record, NCTE English Journal, Pearl Press Magazine, and ëëN Magazine’s The 2023 Valentine Issue.  Recently, he was featured on WCBS and highlighted the importance of Black male educators in the classroom. Darius can be contacted via email at:

Trauma Informed Teaching During COVID-19: What the Virus has Taken from Us and How We Can Get It Back


By: Kathleen Pennyway, High School Drama Teacher

Before the schools closed…

My classroom was fully invested in the practice of trauma-informed teaching. I was confident in my ability to build relationships with students that were based on honesty, listening, and mutual respect. I used those relationships to strengthen my students’ academic and social-emotional abilities. We had regular meditation practice in my room for all of my students. I had a couch in the corner that students frequently used to calm down if they needed to decompress from a stressful situation, and snacks in my office if anyone had forgotten breakfast. There were signs in my room celebrating diversity and respect for all, and my students regularly had conversations about race, police brutality, sexism, gender and sexuality, and other issues of social justice. I had agreements with other teachers in the school that if they needed a student to cool down for a second, they could send that student to me. Each of these strategies was designed to center my students’ needs, and to help them to deal with traumas such as violence, home instability, and poverty.

My students frequently commented the drama room was the place they felt safe, and I wore that accolade with as much honor as the awards we won at state competition. And there were many teachers at my school who were doing these things – I was only one part of a committed group of teachers who were working towards trauma-informed practice as our goal. Our school was making leaps forward, with plans for student and teacher wellness rooms, a good amount of teacher buy-in, and successful professional development opportunities. In short, there was momentum building in trauma-informed practice.

And then, the virus charged through our country and ripped apart everything that we had built.

I don’t know that I have ever felt as lost as an educator as I have during the past six weeks. I felt I was working harder than I have ever worked, and simultaneously I was failing at my job in reaching students. There were many times when I felt like giving up in despair. But I didn’t. As educators, our mantra is monitor and adjust, so I did. I made many mistakes over the course of learning how to teach theatre virtually, but I believe I have arrived back where I belong, with trauma-informed practice at the center of my teaching.

Here’s what I have learned.

1. Keep relationships at the center of your job

In the normal world, my classroom is constantly filled with of young people. From before the first bell rings, to long after everyone else in the building has left, there is theatre happening in Room 133. But more than that, I have worked hard to make the drama room a space where my students feel comfortable and safe. Whether kids needed a nap on my futon, a minute in the costume closet to cool down, or a chat in my office, they came to the drama room to find it.

Part of trauma-informed practice is creating a physical space that helps students relax and be able to learn. The loss of the physical space of my room left me without a huge tool to check in on students who are struggling academically and emotionally. The relationships built in school are grounded in the physical space of our classrooms. In a COVID-19 world, reduced to Zoom meetings and virtual assignments, our ability to connect and build relationships suffered. One of the things I miss the most about school is the ability to connect with my students easily and naturally on a human level. To say “Hey, I read that book you told me about,” or “What did you think of this scene in a play?” or “Have you heard about the new video game?” and hear about their interests and their dreams and who they are as people.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

As online teachers, we need to be more intentional than ever in our efforts to build and maintain relationships with our students. Some of the things I did to maintain those relationships included starting weekly Instagram posts where I would pose a silly theatre related question that students could respond to. I hosted watch parties of plays on Zoom and virtual “lunches” in the drama room. And I started reserving time in our Zoom classes to ask my kids to share things that were going on with them – what they were watching (a lot of Tiger King), whether they missed school (surprisingly yes) and whether they were sleeping on a normal schedule (definitely not). These non-academic pursuits brought back several of the students who had gone no-contact, and I was able to use them to convince some of those same students to complete some of their academic work.

It is easy, in the world of eLearning, to reduce a teacher’s job to academics. This is a trap, and we dare not fall prey to it. For many of our students, we are a stable and welcome presence in their lives they may not find at home. This presence is as valuable as the content we teach. I know many of us are worried about test scores, the summer slump, AP Exams and college preparedness. I understand this worry, but it cannot take precedence over our relationships with our students.

2. Encourage self-care in your students, and practice it yourself

Students and teachers alike are experiencing some sense of anxiety, loss, grief or trauma right now. The news of the virus alone is enough to keep anyone awake at night. Many of our students are experiencing economic hardship due to the pandemic as well. And there are losses that are small to adults but loom huge in the lives of our students. Prom. Graduation. Spring performances.

These are losses and your students deserve to grieve them. When a student tells me about something they are upset about, I don’t placate or tell them there are people who are worse off. I don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel the way they feel. Learning to recognize and regulate our feelings is an important part of trauma-informed practice. I frequently tell my students feelings are never right or wrong, and controlling what we do with our feelings is more important than the feelings themselves.

At the same time, we need to make certain we are practicing what we preach. As I mentioned earlier, I had an extremely difficult adjustment to eLearning. There were times when no matter how hard I struggled, I barely felt like a teacher. In addition, I was caring for a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old who were also experiencing some regression due to the pandemic. My spouse and I were both working from home, and there were many days where I felt like a failure as both a teacher and a mother.

Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

I eventually came to the realization that I was allowing my students flexibility that I did not allow myself. I needed to make changes – adjusting my Zoom schedule to coincide with my younger child’s nap schedule, for example, or creating time to do yoga and work in my garden. Many teachers have strong senses of empathy, and teachers who work with students who are dealing with trauma can suffer from secondary-PTSD. In addition, many teacher families are dealing with the same stressors that our students are dealing with. It is important to build routines of self-care so that we can maintain the emotional stamina to help our students. Our students deserve no less than our very best effort, and we cannot give them our best if we do not take care of ourselves.

3. Create hope, and involve students in a plan for the future

My students have many questions I cannot answer. Will we go back to school in the fall? Will we be able to do a musical? Will we be able to perform next year? It hurts my heart to have to tell them I don’t know. All students, but particularly students who have experienced trauma, need routine and structure to feel safe. So many of our routines are gone now. Nonetheless, I respect them too much to lie to them and promise them everything is going to be okay.

I cannot tell my students what the future holds, but I can give them some control over some of their circumstances. My student leadership board is currently in the process of choosing scripts for next year, as well as coming up with alternate plans in case the virus decides to make a resurgence. Young people are capable of coming up with those plans, and they deserve to have a seat at the table when those decisions are being made. There is very little we can control at this point in time, but offering our students the chance to help plan our future is one way we can give them some measure of certainty and agency. COVID-19 has transformed our reality in a matter of months, but one thing that has not changed is that we as teachers must put our students at the center of our practice. Whether we teach in classrooms or in packets or through Zoom, we can use trauma-informed strategies such as relationship building, self-care, and student-centered processes to better serve our students and ourselves as teachers.

About the Author

Kathleen Pennyway has been a professional drama educator, actor, and director for the past thirteen years, working for such organizations as the Windy City Players, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Childsplay. She has taught and performed in nine different states and worked with hundreds of young people. Ms. Pennyway graduated with a BA in Theatre from Northwestern University, and received her MFA in Theatre for Youth from Arizona State University. She currently teaches theatre at Dreher High School, and lives in Lexington with her husband Dee, her children, Harrison and Rosie, and her dog, Lily. 

Reflections of a school counselor during the 2020 school closures: “If this continues into the Fall semester, I cannot mentally sustain.”

Teacher Self-Care

By: Dr. Guy Ilagan, Associate Professor of Counselor Education at the Citadel

It has been about 40 days since Ms. West learned that her workplace closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ms. West is an experienced school counselor in a middle school. She is married and has three young children. She is known and respected as a humble, helpful, effective school counselor. She is active in her state organization for school counselors and is beloved by her peers and the graduate students she has mentored along the way. She loves her students and her school and reports that she has an effective relationship with the school principal. 

I asked Ms. West to reflect on her experiences since the school closures and specifically about the most difficult aspects. She said her biggest concerns were for her student’s unmet needs, e.g., “availability of food, abuse, neglect, and witnessing domestic violence.” She paused and added, “when we return, we’ll be dealing with their concerns and trauma. Right now I have no control, no real way to help them.” As she spoke these words she paused and added, “and there will be no decrease in workload when we return, and see the results of these concerns.”

Ms. West also cited concerns about the suicide risk assessment (SRA) process. Ms. West and her peers have noticed that when conducting risk assessments via teleconference, caregivers are not always willing to permit the students to have privacy (by leaving the room) for parts of the risk assessment. Thus, they have little control over the assessments, especially where privacy is concerned. Also, some schools require a second counselor or staff member to be present during the SRA, which adds a time consuming logistical layer. Whereas, at the school they can promptly find a second staff member and ask caregivers to step outside for a moment. Also, district administrators currently send messages over weekends and after hours that a student needs a “check-in.” Check-ins are prompted by keywords in search or communication functions of their school-provided tablets.

Ms. West is connected to other school counselors via peer groups. She is in a peer group with peers from across the US. She also connects with local school counselor colleagues throughout the week. Some of her peers found support groups on social media or initiated informal local groups. In her peer group she noticed one school counselor in another state was told not to talk to students or do anything else. Otherwise, Ms. West’s US peers are all working harder now. Some of them are micromanaged. Many are required to call each student who is not completing their academic work.  

Office hours for Ms. West are set from 8:00AM to 4:00PM. She emailed each household about office hours and contact information. She was also required to provide social emotional curriculum to students and continue to conduct Individual Graduation Plans (IGPs). Throughout the closure, Ms. West stated other school counselors she had spoken with described their current roles as “vague, having received minimal direction” and an “open-ended hot mess.” Many of her peers feel “pretty lost,” especially with connecting and collaborating with peers.

“If this continues into the Fall semester, I cannot mentally sustain,” she confessed with a laugh. She told me about her usual process of figuring out who will watch the kids when she and her spouse have conference calls at the same time. She knows she is deep into compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a secondary traumatization that affects our mood, health, and regard for our students and work. Providing empathy and understanding to students in crisis can lead to compassion fatigue.  “There is just not enough time in the day,” she said. “I’m not on my A game, more like a C game.” Without hesitation she said that due to her workload she has been unable to assist her own children in completing their school work.

When asked what has sustained her in her work thus far, she paused and referred to her support group with peers. She also said “finding breaks from the kids (her own).” In one of our video chats, I noticed a very human and touching moment when one of her children came into view. The child did not want to be apart from her mother at that moment. Finally, she said with a look of accomplishment that working out and eating healthy has helped her keep her mood up. She seemed pleased that she was using the time at home to boost her wellness and restart a few good habits. 

Ms. West was relieved to have her real name excluded so that she could feel more freedom to discuss her experiences.

About the Author

Guy teaches graduate students in The Citadel’s Counselor Education Programs. He earned a PHD from Clemson University, Master’s Degree from The Citadel, and Undergraduate Degree from College of Charleston. Guy has been a counselor in a variety of educational and community settings and has published studies on counselor effectiveness, suicide prevention, and the mental health effects of wilderness backpacking on college women. Guy, his wife Jill, and their dog Dottie reside in Charleston, SC and enjoy riding bikes, going to the beach, watching TV, and camping.