10 Questions with Sakeena Everett

A new faculty member, Everett is an avid literacy advocate and expert in urban education, teacher education, and literacy education. Here we explore her recent publication for the National Council of Teachers of English.

Sakeena Everett

Sakeena Everett is an assistant professor of race and social justice in education in the Neag School of Education. (Shawn Kornegay/Neag School)

In our recurring 10 Questions series, the Neag School catches up with students, alumni, faculty, and others throughout the year to glimpse their Neag School experience and current career, research, or community activities.

A new Neag School of Education faculty member, Sakeena Everett is an avid literacy advocate and expert in urban education, teacher education, and literacy education. Her work centers on the intersectionalities of race, gender, socioeconomic class, and justice as a praxis in education. Her research and teaching focus on the significant literacy development of Black male students in elementary and secondary schools, literacy teacher preparation, culturally sustaining pedagogies, and transformative, humanizing, and decolonizing research methods in education. Her research agenda recently expanded to investigate and support grief among educators, mainly supporting grieving Black women K-12 educators and university faculty.

In 2021, Everett edited a unique publication for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) titled Special Issues Volume 1: Trauma-Informed Teaching: Cultivating Healing-Centered ELA Classrooms. Here we explore her publication and her recent journey in joining the Neag School of Education.

Q: How did the idea of curating this collection of articles and poems come about?

A: During the peak of the pandemic in 2021, I was invited by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) to be an inaugural guest editor for a pilot project on “special issues” on pressing topics to meet the needs of English Language Arts (ELA) teachers. The special issues concerned: trauma-informed teaching, racial literacies, and critical media literacy. I was invited to focus on trauma-informed teaching due to my emerging scholarship in grief.

At the time, I was also the host of the weekly NCTE Member Meetings, following in the footsteps of my fellow literacy colleagues, Drs. Detra Price-Dennis and Antero Garcia. Drs. Price-Dennis and Garcia started the weekly NCTE Member Meetings shortly after U.S. schools were shut down in March 2020 to create a space for NCTE to listen and attend to the needs of English educators around the country as they were forced into mandatory virtual teaching. My colleagues hosted weekly NCTE Member Meetings on Zoom for about 56 weeks. I started hosting the Member Meetings in 2021. During these weekly Member Meetings, English educators were invited to build community during the pandemic and to learn with and from fellow educators, scholars, and students in different regions of the country.

In one Member Meeting I hosted, I had the opportunity to speak with elementary, middle, high school, and college students who shared ‘things they wish their teachers knew about them’ as they were navigating the pandemic. This was a powerful session that I continue to think about often. In that session, students vulnerably shared their fears and hopes about education during the pandemic and beyond. In other Member Meetings, leading scholars and educators shared recent research, pedagogies, perspectives, and policies that could guide us during this difficult time. Through the constant contact with English educators throughout the pandemic, NCTE leadership decided there was a need for a book that English educators could reference and use in their classrooms. I feel deeply fortunate to be part of a national professional association committed to listening to the needs of its members in real time and finding concrete ways to meet those needs.

“During my research process, I learned it is essential to consider ‘trauma-informed’ and ‘healing-centered’ teaching.” — Sakeena Everett

Fast forward, my task as an inaugural guest editor of the Special Issues, Volume 1: Trauma-Informed Teaching was to examine NCTE’s 11 journals and select previously published articles to help educators implement trauma-informed teaching approaches in K-12 and college classrooms. Volume 1 provides a sense of how NCTE scholarship was already addressing issues related to trauma-informed teaching, especially among ELA teachers before and at the onset of the pandemic. Beyond researching and curating a list of pieces for Volume 1, I also offered tips for incorporating each piece into classrooms. During my research process, I learned it is essential to consider “trauma-informed” and “healing-centered” teaching.

Q: Why is this collection essential, and how can the articles and poems help teachers?

A: We live in a time that requires attention to trauma. Educators and students are learning how to live in this precarious COVID-19 pandemic, which has amplified preexisting health, racial, economic, and educational inequities, and how we manage unprecedented natural disasters. This pandemic has shaped our students and us in ways we have yet to fully understand, but we know we must adapt. We need trauma-informed and healing-centered teaching approaches because we do not know our students’ trauma histories. We may never know them.

In this Volume, I clearly define trauma-informed and healing-centered teaching and learning for ELA educators. Government agencies inform my definitions of these approaches, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), which lead public behavioral health efforts in the United States. More specifically, “I define trauma-informed teaching as teaching that views trauma through ecological and cultural lenses and recognizes how context plays a significant role in how students and teachers perceive and process traumatic events in educational settings.”

I draw from education research scholar Shawn Ginwright’s 2018 definition of healing-centered care, which has four explicit components:

  1. To build awareness of (in)justices and is explicitly political.
  2. To view healing as a restoration of cultural identities.
  3. To focus on well-being, recognizing that people are more than the traumas they experience.
  4. To support adults in their healing as they work with young people.

By overlapping trauma-informed and healing-centered frameworks, this Volume attempts to support students and educators who are hurting, too. This Volume also raises awareness about various traumas, including individual, vicarious, collective, and historical traumas. To effectively engage in trauma-informed teaching, educators must consider the ecological, cultural, and racialized realities that shape exposure to traumatic events. These articles and art pieces are meant to provide educators with tools to help anticipate and avoid institutional processes and individual practices likely to retraumatize students with trauma histories.

Q: How did you select the articles and the authors?

A: Various forms of pre-pandemic trauma (natural and human-caused), like hurricanes, earthquakes, school shootings, homelessness, poverty, racial intimidation, violence, bullying, sexual assault, etc., did not go away during the pandemic. Millions of young people in grade school and college are still processing pre-pandemic traumas on top of the current trauma of the pandemic.

Given that my task in editing this Volume was to help our ELA teacher membership understand trauma-informed teaching and learning in ELA classrooms, I wanted to include pieces that addressed the use of the English language, literature, and the arts. Hence, there are poems, empirical research articles, education policies, and essays. I curated trauma-informed and healing-centered pieces and used a combination of creativity, evidence-based research, innovative pedagogical approaches, and pragmatic problem-solving. I prioritized the wide range of topics and work because I started my research process with basic keyword searches and scanned pieces of published work within the past 2-3 years. After compiling a list of works, I checked to ensure the Volume included various voices concerning race, gender, sexual orientation, and perspectives on the topic.

Q: Who are the authors, and why is their expertise significant?

A: The authors are diverse and include K-12 classroom teachers, literacy coaches, university administrators, professional association leaders, teacher educators, doctoral students, professors, researchers, poets, and professional children’s and young adult (YA) literature authors. This wide range of voices is crucial for understanding various forms of trauma and healing in teaching and learning spaces.

Q: Did you pre-select the four themes, and why are those themes important?

A: No, not at all! Because this was a pilot project and I am the inaugural guest editor of this series, I had no idea what to expect. As I searched across the 11 NCTE journals for pieces that were relevant to the topic, I found many articles that could have worked in the Volume. However, I had a page limit for printing. Therefore, I wanted to find the widest range of perspectives and approaches to trauma and healing. I narrowed it down to about 36 pieces. Within those pieces, I searched for themes.

Any serious approach toward trauma-informed or healing-centered teaching must include a combination of micro- and macro-level supports. Micro-level supports include skills or individual practices that can support trauma-exposed people. Macro-level support includes programmatic and large-scale initiatives. No single approach will be sufficient to minimize harm. I have divided this particular issue into four sections:

  1. Navigating pandemic-specific trauma.
  2. Nuancing the diverse spectrum of trauma.
  3. Building healing-centered ELA pedagogies.
  4. Supporting hurting educators.

In carefully curating this special issue, I have examined a combination of micro- and macro-level supports educators need to engage in trauma-informed/healing-centered teaching and learning.

Q: What did you like best about curating this collection, and were any lessons learned during the process?

A: I enjoyed the organic process of discovery and learning. I was led by the desire to connect theory and praxis for my ELA colleagues. Yes, many lessons! As previously mentioned, I learned it is essential to consider “trauma-informed” and “healing-centered” teaching. In addition, I learned a variety of approaches to pedagogies, practices, theories, vocabulary, and policies across the diverse spectrum of English education in K-12 and college learning contexts in different regions of the country and world.

I also learned disturbing facts like “suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds in the U.S.” (Heron, 2021, p. 10). Some of those young people lost due to (un)intentional self-harm-how the government defines suicide-were our students. Such facts guided the care and urgency I took to curate this Volume. This was a point of struggle and strength for me. I want to do right by the families, communities, and schools of those affected by these traumas.

I (re)learned how important it is to make a process my own. I was invited to focus on trauma-informed teaching. However, I kept coming across intentionally joyful and healing-centered teaching and learning opportunities in the research and literature. Educators and students deserve joy and healing! I was also experiencing healing throughout this process, so I knew I had to make healing-centered teaching and learning central to the Volume. This move was well received by NCTE and the membership.

Furthermore, it is vital to note I am not a distant educator or writer. I, too, am entangled in the complexities of understanding, living, and supporting trauma-informed and healing-centered teaching in myriad ways. During the pandemic, our profession has become more stressful. Our schools and institutions of higher education rarely equip educators with the necessary interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to meet the increasing demands of teaching or attending to students’ social-emotional needs. Educators need to be mentally and emotionally well themselves. How can educators provide the trauma-informed teaching and healing-centered ELA classrooms our students desperately need if we are struggling? Participating in and hosting the weekly NCTE Member Meetings while curating this Volume motivated and supported my work.

I experienced much-needed healing and growth in both the personal and professional dimensions of my life as I curated this Volume. I still refer to many of my current teaching and learning pieces. I am also excited about the educator and researcher I will become as I continue to grow and evolve in my understanding of trauma-informed and healing-centered teaching and learning. Doing the internal and external work for this Volume has affected how I “show up” in the world.

Q: What do you hope are some outcomes from this collection?

A: This Volume is a useful starting point – not an ending point – to spark conversation, evoke deep internal and external reflection, and engage strategic pathways forward. I now believe trauma-informed and healing-centered teaching is more of a lifestyle toward teaching and learning rather than a strategy or product. Dr. Keisha Green and Lisa Matison Garrigues (two contributing authors in the Volume) prompt us to historicize unique moments like the pandemic that will shape this generation and future generations. Such moments shape what it means to teach, learn, and live. Therefore, I hope English educators feel equipped with a starting set of tools to document and historicize these unprecedented times – now and in the future.

I also hope teachers feel empowered to redesign the futures of teaching and learning and take Dr. H. Richard Milner and colleagues’ (volume contributors) notion of accessing and disrupting opportunity gaps to build humanizing curriculum, assessment, and relational policies seriously. But, unfortunately, I also cannot unlearn the concept of “access fatigue” forwarded by Annika M. Konrad (volume contributor), who describes how access issues appear to be procedural matters but impact the mental, emotional, and physical labor and wellness of people who live with disabilities.

Overall, I can’t overemphasize that while collective trauma like the pandemic affects all of us, there are amplified intersectional impacts of individual, vicarious, and historical trauma among and between historically marginalized populations like Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian communities, people with disabilities, those who live in poverty, (im)migrants, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities, to name a few. There is a particular need to attend to the complex traumas and necessary healing-centered care and resources of people in these groups.

Q: How has your first year as a faculty member gone so far, and what have you liked about working at the Neag School?

A: I have enjoyed my time at UConn. Everyone I have met seems interested in my personal and professional success. Plus, everyone seems very generous in pointing me to various tools, resources, and strategies or other people in the UConn community I should get to know.

“I was drawn to the Neag School because of its explicit focus on addressing justice and equity issues in education locally, nationally, and globally. These commitments align with how I see myself and my work.” — Sakeena Everett

Q: Why did you join the Neag School, and what have you liked about working here?

A: I was drawn to the Neag School because of its explicit focus on addressing justice and equity issues in education locally, nationally, and globally. These commitments align with how I see myself and my work. I enjoy learning more about the Neag School’s values toward relevance and impact, social justice and equity, and community-building. These commitments have been realized for me in hallway conversations, monthly faculty in-person meetings, several virtual meetings as well as professional learning opportunities with invited speakers who are experts in the work. In addition, I enjoy the myriad opportunities to meet and learn from new people.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?

A: Special Issues Volume 2: Trauma-Informed Teaching: Toward Responsive Humanizing Classrooms was published in November 2022. This Volume is the sequel to my Volume. Editors Elizabeth Dutro and Bre Pacheco have edited this collection of original essays with the belief that trauma-informed teaching, with all of the complex layers that term contains, can and must be harnessed to propel movements toward equity and justice in English language arts classrooms.

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