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Writing helps students
get past the trauma of disaster

By Ann Manser
Office of Communications and Marketing
Deborah Alvarez

Deborah Alvarez helped teachers and students cope in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Now, she will work with those affected by Hurricane Sandy.


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Writing helps students get past the trauma of disaster >

Deborah Alvarez is spending time this summer in some of the New Jersey beach communities devastated by last fall's Hurricane Sandy, and when she arrives, she will be armed with her most important tools—pencils and paper.

"Children and adults have been through trauma because of this storm and how it disrupted their lives," says the associate professor of English at UD. "And when people have experienced this kind of critical incident stress, they need to tell."

For Alvarez, who specializes in adolescent composing and literacy processes, writing is a natural way for people to begin to deal with their trauma and move on after a disaster. Her focus is on teenagers and their teachers, exploring the kinds of writing activities that students do—either assigned in class or on their own—to tell their stories of coping with violence, abuse or natural disaster.

Also an adjunct faculty member in UD's Disaster Research Center, Alvarez was conducting her own doctoral research on writing literacy among teens when she learned that many of the students participating in the research had been victims of violence or other trauma.

"It really opened my eyes to what some of these kids have been through and the way they respond afterward," she says. "There are going to be serious impediments to learning after a traumatic event, and these children have to be helped to get past them."

After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the city and its schools began starting the recovery process, Alvarez expanded her work to victims of natural disasters. She spent two years in several New Orleans schools, investigating the way storytelling was used in the aftermath of the hurricane and flood.

"The need to communicate is critical," she says. "Some teachers ignored [the trauma of Katrina] because they couldn't deal with it, but the children are almost incapable of learning until they get help. Other teachers did some very creative things to help their students tell their Katrina stories."

Teachers know their own students, Alvarez says, and often are the best judges of what will help them deal with trauma.

As a result of her research in New Orleans, she wrote numerous articles and Writing to Survive: How Teachers and Teens Negotiate the Effects of Violence, Abuse and Disaster. The book analyzes the effects of such traumatic events on adolescents' writing processes and the writing lessons that teachers use in their classrooms.

Now, Alvarez hopes to conduct similar research in New Jersey. She plans to survey language-arts teachers in affected communities and then conduct follow-up interviews about the kinds of changes they noticed in their students after the storm, as well as the types of assignments they gave and the writing their students did related to the experience.

If requested, she says, she will also offer workshops for teachers, as she did in New Orleans.

"I'm not a psychologist, I'm not a doctor, but as a teacher I can suggest ways that other teachers can structure learning to help the students by letting them tell their stories," Alvarez says. "And if the teachers have experienced trauma, too, I encourage them to seek help. I tell them: You can help the children cope by coping yourself; help them handle stress by learning how to handle your own."