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CIS is Training Educators on How to Support Students in Writing About Violence

Writing is a powerful tool for student self-expression. From poetry and fiction to essays and journaling, the rich variety of written forms offer young people many ways to explore their thoughts, feelings, and creativity. Communities In Schools (CIS) of Chicago has cultivated partnerships with many organizations that offer students outlets to hone their writing skills as well as lean into the form to think critically about issues that are important to them.

CIS of Chicago’s partnership with Do The Write Thing (DtWT) exemplifies how transformational writing can be in young people’s lives. An initiative of the National Campaign to Stop Violence, DtWT is a unique writing program for middle school students.

Through DtWT, students become catalysts who examine the root causes of violence in their communities and provide first-hand testimony on how it impacts America’s youth. Since DtWT was founded 30 years ago, 2.5 million young people from across the United States have submitted pieces. Each year, participating communities nominate two student authors to serve as ambassadors to the national Do The Write Thing summit in Washington D.C. There, the ambassadors not only share their views with legislators, activists, and national experts on violence reduction. Their written works are bound in a special volume in the U.S. Library of Congress that serves as touchstones for further advocacy.

In Chicago, CIS has been a co-sponsor with Latham & Watkins, LLP of DtWT since 2019. This year, CIS will recruit its largest cohort of schools ever from across the region to participate in Do The Write Thing, with the aim of having more than 1,000 students submit written works. For CIS and Latham, the effort involves coordinating with dozens of teachers, principals, and volunteers in a year-long process, culminating with a recognition dinner each May for 100 students whose writing has been particularly inspiring and insightful.

Teachers play an essential role in making Do The Write Thing a success each year. Students often share very personal things in their essays, and the works can provide windows into the social and emotional wellbeing of the young author. Sometimes they relate stories of friends and family members who have been murdered or committed suicide. Or they share their fears about living in violent communities where the risk of being victimized is heightened.

CIS of Chicago has leveraged its mental health expertise to support educators and volunteer readers in understanding and – at times – responding to the trauma students share in their work. Our clinical director Dr. Judith Allen, hosts trainings for teachers to help them understand the causes and prevalence of trauma in young people’s lives. She discusses the possibility of secondary trauma or vicarious trauma teachers may experience from reading the young people’s pieces, or simply from their everyday work in school communities where violence occurs. Leveraging core principles of Youth Mental Health First Aid, Dr. Allen teaches educators how to recognize signs that a student may be experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis, as well as what they can do to ensure a young person in danger receives immediate help.

“Teachers already know a great deal about their students from their day in, day out interaction in the classroom,” says Dr. Allen. “They can often tell if a student’s behavior is deviating from the norm and becoming concerning and warrants intervention.” Similarly, says Dr. Allen, students may offer clues in their written work that violence they’ve experienced – either first-hand or vicariously through friends’ or family members’ experiences – is having a serious impact on their lives.

“Teachers – as well as the volunteers who read the students’ essays – can be an important link to getting students help if they’re struggling with the impacts of violence,” Dr. Allen says. “While the primary purpose of Do The Write Thing is to provide our young people safe spaces to express their thoughts on violence, we have to prepare everyone involved in the effort to support our students if and when they’re directly or indirectly asking for help. That’s why we provide them access to our clinical team throughout the DtWT experience, just in case they need they need guidance on how to respond to something that a student has written.”

Students, teachers and volunteers consistently describe Do The Write Thing as a positive, life-shaping experience that builds a sense of connectedness and agency for all involved. By ensuring that the caring adults involved in Do The Write Things are thoroughly trained and educated about youth mental health and the impact of trauma, all of our student authors will be well-supported as they explore their thoughts and feelings about violence.

Do the Write Thing book of writings



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