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A Classroom Strategy for Improving Student Mental Health

Earlier this month, my 11th grade students hosted a storytelling showcase in conjunction with Story District, a local non-profit that "turns good stories into great performances." As we molded our personal stories into shape and rehearsed them in front of each other for the umpteenth time, my students started noticing something disturbing. 

Many of the stories my students chose to tell about themselves were about misbehavior...and the subsequent consequences which invariably involved physical punishment. So many of the stories involved physical punishment, in fact, students started to become self-conscious about the issue. A few of them changed their stories before the showcase, others changed their focus away from violence when they spotted the trend. The showcase was great and our stories really did become great performances. But the idea of the prevalence of corporal punishment in many of my students' lives was out in the open, a topic ready to be discussed.

May is National Mental Health Awareness month. That got me thinking about Richard Wright, the author of the book Black Boy, the last book we read together in my 11th grade English class. In it, Wright chronicles the abuse and trauma he suffers throughout his childhood and into adulthood in the Jim Crow South. Students love reading this book, and often end up "confessing" that they actually enjoy it (a win for an English teacher!).

Because of the discussion on physical punishment that came up in our storytelling showcase, we decided to look a little deeper as a class into the psychological and psychosocial dynamics of Wright's development. We read about Erik Erikson's "ages and stages"as well as Bruce Perry and John Marcellus' groundbreaking work about the effect of trauma on a developing brain. We talked about ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores, and even took the quiz as if we were Richard Wright. Finally, we discussed protective factors and what might have helped mitigate Wright's childhood trauma. Later this week, my students will be writing clinical evaluations about Wright and making predictions about his behavior as if they were professional psychologists.

Somewhere between the greatness of Wright's story and the engagement of learning about developing healthy minds, students started talking about their own development and mental health. Some experimented with the ACE quiz to find their personal score. A debate started about the cycle of violence caused by abuse. Students were astounded to discover that a young woman who scores a 4 or above (we determined Wright to be in the 5-6 range) on the ACE quiz has a 40% chance of becoming pregnant as a teen! 

Discoveries like these became a real world hook into Black Boy. I asked students if they thought a book written nearly 75 years ago (a millenia in teen years) was still relevant today. You can guess their response. To a person, students wrote that the physical, mental, and emotional abuse Wright received as a child is still every bit as applicable today as it was in the Jim Crow South. Our personal stories from before we started Black Boy seem to corroborate the book's relevance as well.


One of the many reasons I love reading and discussing books is that they keep us healthy. Reading about other experiences, fiction or nonfiction, enables us to examine ourselves indirectly. Black Boy, for instance, engenders conversations about race and race relations in present day Washington, DC, the city where I teach. Wright has started the conversation, and we feel compelled to continue it.

These conversations may not make the segregation of our neighborhoods and schools easier to handle, they may not take away the violence we see in our neighborhoods, but they go a long way to making us healthier. They make us aware of the collective impact these issues have on us as developing individuals. And awareness is a first step toward healing.  

May is Mental Health Awareness month. What better way to contribute to our cultural Mental Health than by picking up a book and discussing it together. This is one step we can take--in and out of the classroom--to ensure our minds are healthy both intellectually and psychologically throughout our lives. We will never stop the destructive cycle of trauma and abuse until we take that first step.


Topher Kandik is the 2016 Teacher of the Year from the District of Columbia, a National Network of State Teacher of the Year member, and a 2013 recipient of the Mayor's Arts Award for Teaching English. He teaches High School English and Creative Writing at SEED PCS of Washington, DC. He is Nationally Board Certified and holds an M.Ed from George Washington University with dual certification in English and Special Education. Topher loves books and is looking forward to summer so he can read some more of them.


Photo courtesy of Christopher and Creative Commons.

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