Originally published March 27, 2015
By Daniel Perez
UTEP News Service
Since 2013, several professors and almost 200 graduate and undergraduate students, mostly from UTEP’s College of Education, have been part of Do the Write Thing (DtWT), which asks middle school students to write about how violence has affected their lives, the causes of the violence, and ways to reduce violence in their schools and communities.
Some of the thousands of examples of the sexual, domestic and psychological violence shared by these children from 10 El Paso area school districts shocked the faculty members and, in some cases, brought the UTEP students to the point of tears. The experience heightened the awareness of those involved, and punctuated the need for empathy, compassion and commitment to understand factors that impact a child’s ability to learn.
Faculty in UTEP’s College of Education tell their students who plan to be teachers and counselors that they will need to address student behavior effectively and be ready to report situations to the principal or the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
“That’s an important lesson for our UTEP students to understand,” said Sarah Peterson, Ph.D., associate professor of educational psychology and special services (EPSS). She and her graduate students were among the essay readers. “Young students are dealing with pretty significant issues, and as professionals, (teachers and counselors) need to understand that students are more than a kid in a seat.”
Marilyn F. Corbin-Burdick, a guidance and counseling graduate student, said reading 150 or so of the essays gave her an insight into children’s perspectives about violence and their various coping mechanisms. In the college classrooms, the information is used to help students develop research and counseling skills and parent/community advocacy.
“I feel that having read these essays helped me see how violence can impede a person’s life and the bravery that many children have in confronting such issues,” said Corbin-Burdick, who plans to earn her professional counseling certifications and hopes to work at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in El Paso.
Josefina V. “Josie” Tinajero, Ed.D., professor of education and special assistant to UTEP’s vice president of research, became DtWT’s El Paso chair in 2013. She formed a research team with Peterson, Rick Myer, Ph.D., and Richard C. Williams, Ph.D., professor and associate professor of educational psychology and special services, respectively, to investigate the 20-year-old program’s impact on the education process.
The team conducted first-person interviews with DtWT participants, their parents and teachers during a June 2014 national DtWT Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C. Tinajero, the project’s principal investigator, shared the compiled data during a February 2015 DtWT chairs meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Among the findings were that participation positively impacted relationships among classmates, parents and families; understanding and compassion toward victims of violence; and generated interest in reducing violence. It found that sensitized teachers were more willing to adjust their teaching styles to support a student’s needs. Students reported better relationships with teachers.
The most significant aspect of the research to Myer was that it was based on the children’s own words.
“It gives (children) a voice and makes it real,” he said.
Dan Callister, founder and executive director of DtWT and the National Campaign to Stop Violence, praised the information and said he hoped it would reach representatives from the U.S. departments of Justice and Education who in turn could encourage DtWT expansion.
Callister, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, said the documented research backs up years of positive anecdotal evidence. He also was enthusiastic about the participation of UTEP students because he knows that sometimes classroom teachers are oblivious to the mountain of personal challenges and stress that children may face outside the classroom.
“We encourage that,” he said during a telephone conversation from Los Angeles, California. “It does help them in the same way that it is effective with police (officers), district attorneys and juvenile court justices.”
At one time, the thought of encouraging young students to discuss their ties to violence was discouraged, but the UTEP research showed that it had a positive impact on everyone involved, including students’ families.
In mid-April, the American Educational Research Association, the nation’s premier organization in education research, will present the team with a research service grant during its annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois. The funds will be used to support additional DtWT data collection. The researchers also will make two DtWT-centered presentations at the conference.
“We are now being recognized at the national level for our research,” Tinajero said. “They loved the work that we did.”