CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Jagged. Torn. Crumpled. Scattered. A wave of emotions. It’s a few ways participants of the first ever “Writing and Healing after Hurricane Harvey” workshop described how they were feeling after the category 4 storm caused massive destruction along the Texas coast and near Houston. Participants of the workshop, mostly Coastal Bend educators who teach writing and language arts, came together on Oct. 28, to learn how to use writing to process the aftermath of the storm – both for themselves and their students.
“Writing and Healing” was a free service, sponsored by the Coastal Bend Writing Project (CBWP) at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
“Around this time each year, the Coastal Bend Writing Project hosts a conference on writing pedagogy,” said Dr. Catherine Quick, CBWP director, “but this year, we wanted to do something special for our local writing educators – some of whom lost their homes or belongings after the storm – and many of whom have students in the same situations.”
Dr. Jen Osborne was the event’s special guest. Osborne is the Director of the Center for Trauma Writing and teaches writing courses at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio. Her research on narrative writing, expressive writing and trauma includes extensive work with survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
“Decades of sound research in the field of psychology shows that expressive writing, when done on a regular basis, leads to strong health outcomes like physical and mental health improvements,” said Osborne. “It’s an inexpensive, easy tool to build psychological resiliency, to recover from trauma and lead a more contented and happy life.”
In the first tactile exercise of the workshop, participants were asked to tear pieces of construction paper into shapes representing their present feelings. This was helpful so everyone in the room could visually see how their peers were feeling, including moods like “rough,” “cracked,” and “broken into many pieces.”
Osborne then encouraged participants to write about how they were feeling post-Harvey, and shared ways to modify the activity to the different grade levels that each participant teaches.
One of the participants, Cindi Bonifer, is a seventh-grade teacher at Aransas Pass Independent School District. Bonifer earned two master’s degrees from the Island University – one in special education and one in school counseling.
“All of my students have been traumatized by the hurricane,” said Bonifer. “Most of them lost their homes and all of their possessions and they are not just having a difficult time writing, they have a hard time being at school and remaining focused.”
Bonifer says she hoped to take away skills for both her students and herself.
“Two months before Harvey hit, I lost my home to a fire,” she said. “I hope to leave here with writing techniques that will give me strength, resiliency and coping skills.”
Toward the end of the day, participants formed small groups and created a series of “20 Questions” to help students and themselves think about different concepts in a controlled way. For this workshop, they used the concept of “gratitude,” but the activity could be applied to other similar hard-to-talk-about ideas, like “hope” and “dreams.” They also talked about how literature – like stories, poems and even popular music and movies – could be used as a catalyst to talk with students who are struggling to cope with trauma.“Writing teachers – who are lovers of language – play an important role in healing from trauma,” said Osborne. “We can help others use the writing process to facilitate a narrative and a story. We can help students use imagery and metaphor to recover from painful events and become more resilient.”