April 18 2021

Fostering Collaboration and Agency in an Antiracist, Trauma-Informed Classroom: Creating Community-Learning Agreements through Reflective Practice

Ryan Rideau, Tufts University

illustration of a group of masked people

I began my current position as the associate director for teaching, learning, and inclusion at the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at Tufts University in 2018. As I began this position, I met with several faculty members across the campus to learn about their experiences and ways I could support their work. One of the common concerns I heard was the need for faculty to find a space to talk with others about the challenges of teaching courses on race and racism in predominantly White classrooms. Some of these challenges included discussing race and racism in a manner that acknowledges the potential experiences of racial trauma for BIPOC students, and navigating the reality that many White students often lack experience and are uncomfortable talking about race and racism. In an attempt to address the concerns of the faculty members I met with, I convened a faculty learning community for instructors who taught courses that centered race and racism. This was an opportunity for participants to build upon their collective wisdom to brainstorm solutions and resources to address these challenges in their own courses. Throughout our conversations, we identified a common assumption that underlined all of our pedagogy: students’ experiential knowledge was essential to learning. However, we recognized that for students to share their experiential knowledge in these courses, we needed to foster an antiracist, trauma-informed, and empowering shared learning environment. But this type of environment will not occur on its own. As such, we spent significant time discussing how to lay the groundwork for this to happen.

Religious studies classroom can be particular sites of racial trauma for students. Whether it is discussing Islamophobia in a world religions course or examining the role of religion in colonization and empire, there are a myriad of topics and discussions that could be sources of trauma and re-traumatization for students. As such, when teaching religious studies courses, the process of creating community-learning agreements can be a beginning step toward fostering an antiracist and trauma-informed learning environment. Community-learning agreements are collective values for how all members of the learning environment can support each other’s learning. If done in a truly collaborative manner, creating community-learning agreements can be an important part of fostering a trauma-informed classroom by allowing students to determine the conditions for their interactions with each other and how they engage with course content.1 It is about students indicating what is needed for them to be able to bring their “full selves” to the learning environment. But if done incorrectly, creating community-learning agreements can lead to re-traumatization for students through a reproduction of dominant forms of oppression. For example, a particular challenge to creating community-learning agreements in classrooms where the majority of students are White is that the final list of agreements may prioritize the safety of White students at the expense of BIPOC students.2 I have seen this situation play out several times. It leads to BIPOC students feeling marginalized in the classroom and unwilling to share their experiential knowledge because they do not view the classroom as a supportive space. As such, faculty must be intentional and design a process for creating community-learning agreements that centers the empowerment of BIPOC students.

I recognize that community-learning agreements are frequently used as a pedagogical tool, particularly in discussion-heavy courses. But too often, these guidelines are either dictated from the instructor, or if they are student-generated, include broad, meaningless statements such as, “maintain respectful dialogue.” But to create an antiracist and trauma-informed learning environment, the process of creating community-learning agreements requires deep and rigorous reflection and collaboration. If not, students will revert back to generating superficial agreements that they have seen in other courses. 

I suggest that the process of creating community-learning agreements begin with reflection. Prior to the start of the course (or on the first day of class), I encourage instructors to send students a set of four questions, asking them to reflect upon their social identities and knowledge of race and racism. These questions are as follows: What were you taught about race and racism? How often did you engage in conversations about race and racism growing up? How did your learning (or lack thereof) about race and racism relate to your own social identity? How do you think your experiences discussing race and racism may impact how you engage in this course? Students should write brief anonymous responses to these questions. In the instructions, instructors should make clear to students that they do not need to write any information that they do not feel comfortable sharing so as to not place a burden on students to reveal traumatic experiences. These reflective prompts draw students’ attention to consider the ways social identities impact lived realities and the types of knowledge they and their classmate bring to the course. Some students may struggle to answer these questions, particularly those who have not had to think about race and racism. However, I believe this is a useful exercise because it primes students who haven’t previously had to think about why they haven’t had to engage in these conversations. It also provides the instructor with information for how to best support students.

After students have completed this reflection, in the following class, it is important to debrief with students their thoughts about engaging in these reflective prompts. This provides a forum for students to process the exercise with others. This debrief can be through open-ended prompts such as what new insights they gained from this reflection? Where did they struggle? Most important is that this process be open and flexible. Following the debrief, the instructor should share common themes and anonymous quotes from students’ written responses to the reflective prompts. Providing an overview of responses serves three goals. First, it signals to students the importance of considering the learning needs of others in the course. Second, it highlights the active role students play in shaping the environment. Finally, from my experience, it is a way to have White students reflect upon their “White immunity,” where they have been immune from having to think about race.3 It has potential to demonstrate the limitations of their knowledge about race and racism and the need for them to listen to the voices of those with this experiential knowledge. If you as an instructor identify as White, this may also be an opportunity for you to share your experiences discussing race and racism, the ways you benefitted from White immunity, and the ways you push through your own discomfort in order to engage in antiracist practices.

After discussing and sharing the responses, the class can then move into the process of establishing community-learning agreements. Instructors have different processes for creating these agreements. I prefer creating community-learning agreements through a three-step process, where students move from individual reflection, to small groups conversations, to a large class discussion. First, students will be asked to individually write out agreements that they would like to see for the class. For each agreement, students should think through why this agreement is important and what it may look like in the classroom. Second, after students have written their ideas, they should move into groups of four to share their ideas. In these groups, each student shares their agreements and why they believe each agreement is necessary. As a collective, group members will reflect upon each agreement in relation to the following questions: Does this agreement support learning? Is the agreement precise in its language so that everyone is clear about its meaning? Are there instances where the agreement may hinder learning? Are there ways that the agreement may silence individuals from minoritized identities? The purpose of these questions is to have students think about how each agreement will support student learning and to consider if it is reifying dominant discourses of race and racism that center whiteness at the expense of minoritized populations.4

Continuing in small groups, students should then decide if they think each agreement is worth adding to the final list. If there is some disagreement about adding an agreement, students work together to make amendments to suit their needs. However, students should be responsible for handling disagreements in any manner they choose, so long as it is consistent with the goals for the course. This is to provide them with an initial guide and model for how they can work together to support each other in future conversations.

Finally, after each group comes up with their list of agreements, this process is repeated as a large class. A student from each small group will share with the class their agreements and a rationale for why each agreement is important. Students then work through each agreement as a collective, reflecting upon the same prompts as those in the small groups, and ultimately coming up with an initial list of agreements. Throughout this process, one student in the class should be responsible for typing each agreement into a comprehensive list. This list should then be posted to the learning management system and shared with all students.

After these agreements are posted, students should reflect upon them overnight. Instructors should also provide an optional electronic form for students to submit any anonymous comments about the in-class process of creating the agreements. While students can submit any comments they choose, because students are given freedom in small groups, this is primarily a space for students to indicate if there was a particularly traumatic or problematic encounter that they experienced in groups.

In the next class session, students will have the opportunity to voice any outstanding concerns about the agreements. If there is a new disagreement, students will discuss that agreement again as a class and make a final decision about it. Once there are no concerns, students will sign a printed copy of the list of agreements. At the end of this process, students will have a final list of agreements and a structure for how to engage with each other in the course that they collaboratively created. This should be a living document and subject to revision at any point throughout the semester as the needs of students change. This is important, because as students’ experiences change over the course of the semester, it will be important to adapt to their evolving needs.

This process takes a great deal of time. In my experience, it takes about two hours of class time. It can take more if students are particularly passionate about certain agreements. Sometimes, students can become frustrated by the length of time it takes for this process. Despite the time involved, I believe this process is well worth pursuing. It prioritizes the classroom as a community of care. It is an antiracist practice by focusing on the potential needs of BIPOC and other marginalized students. Additionally, through constant reflection, it prompts students to consider ways to decenter whiteness. This is also a trauma-informed practice by initiating a collaborative process where students who have experienced racial trauma have agency in shaping the learning environment in a manner that is beneficial and supportive of their learning and well-being. Finally, this process initiates a way for students to build relationships with one another, a key element to supporting student learning. So, while this exercise takes considerable time, it has tangible benefits for students’ success in the course.

Learning science has taught us that cognition and emotion are inextricably linked.5 Our experiences and feelings impact our ability to learn. Across the world, we are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, we simultaneously continue to witness the death and harm of Black people through police violence. Our students are entering our classrooms with increased anxieties, fears, and trauma. In my work at Tufts at the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, one of the common mistakes I have seen from instructors is ignoring these issues. Ignoring them will not make your students anxiety go away or even support their learning. I am not suggesting you assume the role of a therapist. In fact, I strongly discourage this. But in our teaching practices, we need to acknowledge the role that trauma plays in our students lives and develop a pedagogy that is cognizant of the lived experiences and emotions of our students. Instructors cannot be so caught up on “delivering content” that little time is spent on shaping the environment for learning. The process I outlined above for creating community-learning agreements through reflective practice is one tactic for how to do this. This approach will not work for everyone or in every course. In fact, I recognize that this process is far from perfect, and I continue to modify and make changes as necessary. However, I encourage faculty to experiment with what works for them to bring trauma-informed principles into their courses. This will indicate a level of care for our students to help them thrive inside and outside of our courses.

 


Notes

1 Shannon Davidson, Trauma-informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide (Education Northwest, 2017). Retrieved from https://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/resources/trauma-informed-practices-postsecondary-508.pdf.

2 Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, “Respect differences? Challenging the Common Guidelines in Social Justice Education,” Democracy and Education 22, no. 2, 1–10. Retrieved from https://democracyeducationjournal.org/home/vol22/iss2/1.

3 Nolan L. Cabrera, “White immunity: Working through Some of the Pedagogical Pitfalls of ‘Privilege’,” JCSCORE  3, no. 1 (Spring 2017), 77–90. doi:10.15763/issn.2642-2387.2017.3.1.77-90.

4 Sensoy and DiAngelo, 2014.

5 Sarah Rose Cavanagh, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion, (Morgantown, West Virginia: West Virginia University Press, 2016).

Select Recommended Resources

Brookfield, Stephen D. Teaching Race: How to Help Students Unmask and Challenge Racism. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2019.

Cabrera, Nolan L. (2017). “White immunity: Working through Some of the Pedagogical Pitfalls of ‘Privilege’.” JCSCORE 3, no. 1 (2017), 77–90. doi:10.15763/issn.2642-2387.2017.3.1.77-90.

Carello, Janice, and Lisa D. Butler. ”Practicing What We Teach: Trauma-Informed Educational Practice.” Journal of Teaching in Social Work 35, no. 3 (2015): 262–278. doi:10.1037/e320262004-006.

———. “Potentially Perilous Pedagogies: Teaching Trauma is Not the Same as Trauma-informed Teaching.” Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 15, no.2 (2014): 153–168. doi:10.1080/15299732.2014.867571.

Cavanagh, Sarah Rose. The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2016.

Davidson, Shannon. Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide. Education Northwest, 2017. Retrieved from: https://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/resources/trauma-informed-practices-postsecondary-508.pdf

hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Love, Bettina L. We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2019.

Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. “Respect Differences? Challenging the Common Guidelines in Social Justice Education.” Democracy and Education 22, no. 2 (2014), 1–10.


Ryan RideauRyan Rideau is the associate director for teaching, learning, and inclusion at the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, Tufts University. He earned his PhD in higher education from Virginia Tech. While at Virginia Tech, he taught several courses on race, racism, and hip-hop music and culture. His research interests include, race and gender in higher education, critical race theory, and the experiences of non-tenure-track faculty members of color. His research has been published in The Journal of Diversity in Higher Education and To Improve the Academy.