First Do No Harm: Helping Students Write about Difficult Topics

Read Helen Frost's advice on how to deal with sensitive material in the classroom.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This article originally appeared in Teachers & Writers Magazine Volume 32, Issue 1, page 4. May-June 2001.

Helen Frost is the author of When I Whisper, Nobody Listens: Helping Young People Write about Difficult Topics (Heinemann, 2001). This article is excerpted from her book.

In my work as a writer-in-residence in schools, juvenile facilities, and violence-prevention programs, students often present writing that requires special attention: a fourth-grader writes about her mother crying all the time, a seventh-grader uses imagery that suggests sexual abuse, a ninth-grader contemplates carrying a gun. Such writing raises legal and ethical concerns that anyone who teaches writing should consider.

First Do No Harm: On Violent Fantasies

Kids have always sought to shock their elders and each other. It’s fun to change the words of “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” to “Deck the Halls with Gasoline / Falalalalalalalalala / Light a match and watch it gleam / Watch the school burn down to ashes / Falalalalalalalala / Aren’t you glad you played with matches? / Falalalalalalalala!” Adults have always known that children who sing such songs have no serious intention of burning down their school. But then came Columbine and other terrifying events of school violence. People were shocked, after the incident, to discover that the students who shot their classmates had planned the day in considerable detail, in writing and on videotape, and that teachers had seen some of these plans before they were carried out. In retrospect, it was hard to imagine how something so blatantly violent could have been ignored; but retrospect is always clearer than foresight. In any case, it became apparent that what had previously been unimaginable was now within the realm of imagination. Teachers everywhere became more cautious.

Later that year, a student was suspended from a school for his response to a Halloween homework assignment: Write about something frightening. He imagined, in a fictional story, someone being attacked and killed, and when his writing was interpreted as “violent fantasy,” he was suspended. Again, a cry of public outrage arose, but this time it was for the opposite reason: “This student was suspended for doing his homework!” Teachers walk a tightrope on the question of what to do about violent fantasies in student writing, and our decisions can have serious consequences. I don’t pretend to have a definitive answer, but I would advise that you think the questions through before a difficult situation arises. Know your school policy, know your own feelings, and be sure that your students know where you stand. In general, I would offer the following advice:

  1. Pay close attention to violent fantasies that name a specific person as the object. The more specific the fantasy, the greater the cause for concern.
  2. Make a clear distinction between writing about violence in a thoughtful manner and writing violent scenes (or lyrics) because they are exciting.
  3. Take seriously any ongoing, repeated, or obsessive fantasy.
  4. Ask the student direct questions about the intent of the writing. If the student says, “I was just kidding around,” point out that something intended to be humorous can sometimes be scary or hurtful. Give the writer a chance to apologize.
  5. Be sure that attention is given not only to the writer, but also to anyone in the class who may feel threatened by the writing.
  6. Inform parents and counselors about your concerns.

On Censorship

A fourth-grader may delight her classmates by using the word poop in a poem, and a ninth-grader may want to write rap lyrics that have the words b**** or n**** in every other line. Does your school have a policy about censorship and freedom of expression? Do you agree with it? If not, would you be willing to challenge it? Find out if there have been any instances in which issues of censorship have emerged in the past, and discuss it with your students so that they know the limits of what is allowed. Then be honest about your own sensibilities.

Here, I will relate two personal experiences. When Ryan, a sixth-grader, wrote a poem including the image of “a fart in an empty cave,” the class erupted in laughter and looked to me to see if I would express disapproval. I just smiled and acknowledged that it was a vivid image, but the next week when I passed back the poems, I asked if anyone remembered Ryan’s poem. Everyone remembered the fart, but no one remembered anything else about the poem. I asked Ryan if that was what he had wanted, and he decided that he had really wanted the poem to be more than a joke.

As much as possible, I try to keep the classroom focused on the actual effect of the words. Beyond the question of offensive language, there are complex questions about freedom to express ideas that may offend others; for example, there are boundaries to be set regarding stories of a sexual nature. Once, while teaching poetry in a non-school setting, I received a batch of poems from teenage boys that contained a lot of language that was disrespectful of women. I discussed it with my co-workers, and we decided, though not without some discomfort, that we wanted to meet these young men where they were, rather than set rules about what language they could use. But when I sat down to type their poems, I found I could not give them the respect that careful typing requires. I typed them, but left out the lines I found offensive. When I returned the poems, I said, “Some of you will notice that your poems aren’t typed exactly the way you wrote them. I’m sorry. I’ve known women who have been badly hurt by the kind of language you are using, and I just can’t bring myself to type it.” I was not exactly making a rule; I was being honest about my response, and they heard that. After a quiet pause, one of the boys said, “You know what, I agree with her. I don’t like that kind of language either.” A few others murmured assent. Where I had expected a mild confrontation, I found instead a meeting point.

As in all your work with students, I urge you to be as direct and honest as you can about the questions that arise around issues of censorship and freedom of expression. Students are trying out their voices, and freedom is essential, but they also need to learn that their words have an effect on others.

You may begin to “see what they mean” underneath a sometimes crude surface; they, in turn, may discover that “respectable” language can be stronger than that which offends.

On Illegal Activity

As a teacher of writing, I have, on several occasions, held in my hand what could be interpreted as a signed confession. On other occasions, I have encountered student writing—most often from teenage girls—that suggests that they have been raped or sexually assaulted and may not even realize it. In such cases, I recommend that you find out whether the law requires you to report any evidence of illegal activity to the police. It is also important to ascertain whether student writing could be subpoenaed in a juvenile court case. Different rules may apply to illegal activities that occur on school grounds or are a part of a school function. Find out whether your school policy requires that you report the crime to school authorities. I would also advise you to decide what responsibility you have to the parents of a minor.

If it is not defined by school policy, define it for yourself. Again, the main point is to be straightforward with your students before you invite any writing that might venture into such territory. On the other hand, don’t think that you need to address such issues in all situations. Such precautions are probably unnecessary and could be frightening to most elementary-age students. I don’t raise issues of illegality unless I have some reason to believe they are pertinent to the class I am teaching. Before I began a writing project that specifically invited students to consider violence, I called my county prosecutor’s office and was informed that I did not have a legal responsibility to report any references to possible crimes. While I was glad to know that I would not be forced to come forward with such information, I did not want to find myself wondering whether I should have done so. For that reason, whatever my legal responsibilities, I advise my students not to divulge such information. I ask them to protect themselves and me by not writing directly about anything that could get themselves or anyone else in trouble with the law. Instead, I encourage them to use fiction writing or anonymous writing to express themselves. But even such seemingly safe genres may not be enough. Sometimes you must decide whether or not you can permit students to write about such subjects at all.

The most important point is not to surprise your students. Don’t encourage honesty in writing, and then use the writing in a way that could have consequences that the author did not anticipate.