Trigger Warnings

trigger_warningIt seems that “trigger warnings” are everywhere these days, from the usual “This program contains crude language and sexual content; viewer discretion is advised,” to “Trigger warning: rape, extreme verbal abuse, and torture.”

You might think if ever there was a place for a trigger warning, it’s an ABE, adult literacy or GED class where teachers daily work with students who have experiences of violence:

  • those whose childhood experiences of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse made it difficult for them to succeed in the K-12 system;
  • those who came from war zones, who may have been tortured and who saw loved ones killed or wounded;
  • those who, as youth or adults, were or still are involved in gangs or other criminal activity;
  • those who are currently living with violence from their boyfriend or spouse.
  • those whose schools lives were miserable because of taunts and bullying from students and teachers because they did not succeed at school tasks.

Real lives are tough; sometimes an article, story, or picture wakens a memory that has lain for years half buried in a student’s mind. That trigger causes a reaction that interferes with the purpose both you and the student agree is the reason for the class: learning particular skills, particular content, working towards a successful exit from the class.

As an adult literacy instructor, I wanted to bring people’s real lives and experience into the classroom; but often when I tried to do so, it blew up in my face. Some students, when triggered, just disappeared, either by physically leaving the room (sometimes dropping out altogether) or by spacing out; others, sensing the tension, grew agitated, and the discussions raged until I found myself wondering how to bring people together again.

If I could not bring things back to a calm and easy tone before the class ended, I worried about them leaving the class with emotions storming. Had I made it even more difficult for them to cope with the stresses of their day? What problems had I stirred up that another instructor would have to deal with in a later class? Or that a family member would feel the brunt of at home that night?

Eventually, I came upon a solution that involves giving students more power in the choice of material to use. I continued to offer them “tough” material that reflected their experience, but I learned to defer to them as the ones whose lives would be described. I learned to give them the power to say if they would be described in that way, here, today.

A powerful video, hard to watch

Phyllis Chelsea, wearing the Order of British Columbia. She is one of the heroes of Alkali Lake.

Phyllis Chelsea, wearing the Order of British Columbia. She is one of the heroes of Alkali Lake.

In a unit on heroes, I wanted to use a video about a First Nations reserve that, over several years, banned alcohol and bootleggers, and helped get people to rehab. (The Honour of All: The Story of Alkali Lake) The home group made repairs to their houses while others were in rehab and continued to support them when they came home.

They were heroes, the small group of people who started the process off! But the first time I showed the video to a mixed group of First Nations and white students, I could feel the atmosphere closing down around me. The first scenes in the movie are graphic, showing conditions as they had been: drunken people, violence, neglected children, poverty.

As I watched the opening scenes with the class, I could feel myself getting hot and embarrassed. I started to worry about the First Nations students. Some of them were coming to school to get away from all that; were they angry that I was rubbing their noses in those stereotypes? Many of them thought I was an ally; had I betrayed that trust?

And the white students? At best I think they were embarrassed for their classmates; at worst, they sniggered and made racist comments. Yet they picked up and contributed to the tension in the air. My classroom was feeling unsafe.

And me? I was ashamed that I had put the First Nations students in the situation where they might feel ashamed to be First Nations, where they had to hear racist slurs, or imagine the white students’ negative thoughts. I was worried that someone would do or say something that would lead to blows. I was disappointed that we would never get to all those valuable educational goals I had hoped for from the class session.

By the time we got to the “heroic” part of the video, I had lost the class. The discussion afterwards was flat, and everyone was glad when the clock let us leave the room.

Changing the conditions

The next term, talking about heroes again, I remembered that awful day of the first showing. I wanted to use that video with the class again. Why should they learn about heroes in mainstream culture, about heroes from other oppressed groups, about heroes from the past, but not about the heroes in their midst? Why should we lose the opportunity to show some of the complexities that lie behind the stereotype of “drunken Indian”?

However, I did not want a repeat of the tense hour of class that I had experienced the term before. I could see that my reactions, and the reactions of all the students, had been a consequence of the conditions I had set up for the viewing. So I decided to change the conditions.

I knew that I had been appalled by the opening scenes when I previewed the video. But by the time I got to the main action, I understood that the first extended sequence about the prior conditions on the reserve were necessary to show the depths of the problem, and I began to have confidence that the small group of heroes would be successful in their mission.

I had gone through that emotional journey in the privacy of a small screening room, so I was prepared to watch it again with the class.

Determined to do it differently the second term, I told the class that I had a video about a group of First Nations heroes, but that the video had some pretty ugly scenes in it, and I didn’t know whether to show it to the class. I asked for a small group of First Nations students to preview the video outside class, to decide if the class should see it, and if they wanted it shown, to introduce it to the class.

When four or five students volunteered, I sent them off to reserve a time for themselves in the small viewing room in the library

A trigger warning is born

Later that week, the small group stood together in front of the class and introduced the video that they had decided to show.

Over the next three terms, three different small groups of First Nations students took on the job of previewing the film. Every time, they decided to show it to the class. The trigger warnings they gave were much more effective than anything I could do; four or five students at the top of the class would say that, especially at the beginning, there were many scenes of drunkenness and other bad behaviour, and First Nations people looked like the stereotypes they had often heard. Then they would give the reasons why they had decided to show the video to the class in spite of those scenes, and why they thought those scenes had been included in the video.

This new way of working completely changed the situation. Not only had I moved away from the circumstances that made it weird and ugly, I had found something that extended the educational possibilities of the situation. What did I see in the students’ behaviour that led me to this conclusion?

  • Their introductions and trigger warnings showed me that they had engaged with the video in a deeper way than when I had introduced the video.
  • Their articulateness and the forcefulness of their opinions was better than just a “class discussion” because they had had time to distill their reactions and “rehearse” them with the small group.
  • Their contributions made the full class discussions richer and deeper.

The small group of all First Nations students found it easier to do the first viewing together, rather than in a larger mixed group. Further, it seemed that their discussions and their decision to show the movie brought them together. Asking them to decide whether or not to show the video gave them authority and impact in the classroom; they really “took responsibility for their learning.”

As a white middle class woman I was not the right person to name the trigger, or to decide to show the video or not to show it. But as the teacher, I had the first responsibility for making the classroom as safe as possible. Asking for guidance about what to do, from the people most in danger of being triggered, was the first step.

(This is the first in a series of posts about trigger warnings. Thanks to Jenny Horsman, barbara findlay and Evelyn Battell for reading early drafts of this post.)

11 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings

  1. Pingback: A Trigger Warning Tells a Lie | Working in Adult Literacy

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  4. This post is so insightful, thank you for addressing this important topic. I will be sharing this with our literacy tutors and instructors and am looking forward to the rest of the series.

  5. This resonates with me too Kate. In undergraduate and grad programs at SFU I have been discussing the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as it has unfolded. My reasoning is that educators need to know what schools have done and why we work so hard to create safe and high quality public education for everyone. But when I show movies (such as the 8th fire series) I find I contribute to the same stereotypes I am trying to undo. I think it’s because, as you say, I am not the right person to be deciding what material we should view. And yet there are SO FEW indigenous students in our classes and THAT is the really big problem.

    • I can’t agree more, Suzanne, when you say “educators need to know what schools have done and why we work so hard to create safe and high quality public education for everyone.” When I was teaching ABE and literacy, I always found my adult students very glad to be asked to speak to teachers. They welcomed the idea of helping teachers be better teachers, and of course figuring out what they were going to say, and practicing and delivering the message were all wonderful exercises in real life literacy. They would have loved a field trip to SFU! Too bad you and I didn’t make that connection back then.

  6. Great article thanks Kate! Your writing resonates with me and gives me ideas for doing things differently in many contexts in addition to adult literacy.

    • So glad to hear it. I often think my ideas about teaching have applications to other contexts than adult literacy, but that’s the context I know, so I usually stick to it.

  7. Reblogged this on Melinda's Education Blog and commented:
    Kate Nonesuch has thoughtful things to say about how to handle upsetting and difficult material in the classroom. I think she strikes a wonderful balance between giving students the opportunity to engage with difficult material and respecting their lived experience.

  8. Hooray! I always look forward to reading a new blog entry by you, Kate. I love how you have acknowledged the tricky balance between providing students the opportunity to engage with difficult material and doing so in a way that takes their lived experience into consideration. My colleagues and I have grappled with this complex issue many times in teaching literacy and ABE, and I think your approach is a fantastic and respectful one.

    • Thanks, Melinda. Being a practical soul, I also notice that being respectful of students lives and experience nearly always results in improved skills in reading, writing and math!

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