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Student reflections of a world in crisis Teaching Photojournalism in Spring of 2020 and the Need for Trauma-Informed Teaching

By Robin Hoecker, Assistant Professor at DePaul University

Spring quarter of 2020 will surely go down as one of the most chaotic in my teaching career. It began with me scrambling to move coursework online and worrying about Zoom-bombing. It ended with me trying to counsel students who witnessed a fatal shooting during the protests against police brutality, and essentially having to dissolve the class before finals week.

At first, I thought the challenges were going to be mainly technological as teaching shifted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, technology turned out the least of our problems. As the quarter went on, students faced increased traumas caused by the virus, social isolation and economic upheaval. By week nine, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted around the world, students were managing enormous amounts of stress and emotional anguish.

"Help us," reads a message on DePaul's University Hall as students moved out of the dorms during finals week of winter quarter. Some students moved home with their families to the suburbs, to other states, or even to other countries, while others had to find new housing in the city on short notice. (Photo by Amy Do)

Through it all, my students documented everything, creating a remarkable visual time capsule of a world in crisis. Despite the challenges, it cemented my resolve that visual storytelling matters now more than ever. As I prepare for teaching next fall, I realize that I need to take trauma-informed teaching into account.

The sun sets over Chicago during spring quarter of 2020. (Drone photo by Jesus Montero)

I teach photojournalism at DePaul University in Chicago. The largest Catholic school in the country, DePaul prides itself on its Vincentian mission to bring higher education to marginalized groups and address social issues through hands-on work in our communities. Roughly 40% of our student body are students of color, and one third are first-generation students. Many of our students work full-time as they complete their coursework, and many live at home in intergenerational households. My spring quarter classes reflected these demographics.

Self-portraits of some of my students taken early in the quarter, clockwise from top-left: Yusra Shah, Kinise Jordan, Jesus Montero, Caitlin Hoogstraten, Eric Henry, Amy Do and Jamie Cooley.

As the virus marched across the globe and cases started popping up in Chicago, DePaul decided to cancel in-person classes and close the dormitories during finals week of winter quarter. Students scrambled to move– back home to the suburbs, to other parts of the country, or other countries altogether. Others remained in their apartments, alone. These vastly different circumstances would deeply shape their experiences during the pandemic.

Some students were already living at home with their extended families in and around Chicago, including Cicero (top, photo by Jesus Montero) and Englewood (bottom left, photo by La'India Cooper). Others moved to other states, such as rural Maryland (bottom middle, photo by Ryan Gilroy). One student moved home to northern France (bottom right, photo byRaphael Cannesant). Students' living circumstances played a large role in how the pandemic affected them.

As students adjusted to their new living situations, I rushed to adapt my spring courses to an online format in a matter of days. Thankfully, DePaul has a robust and renowned online teaching program, and I had previously developed and taught intro to photojournalism online. The other class, an upper-level photojournalism & environmental justice course, was intended to be an experiential learning class, with many field trips and in-depth reporting projects. I essentially had to scrap the class and start over days before the quarter began. I soon realized that the pandemic created conditions that were much more complicated than simply shifting materials online.

The lack of childcare presented an immediate barrier for me. Chicago Public Schools closed down in mid-March and remained closed for the remainder of the year. My husband and I both work full-time. With our 5-year-old daughter home from school indefinitely, and without any family to lean on, I struggled to balance work, childcare and her remote learning assignments for school. So as my students' concerns mounted, I had limited attention to be able to deal with it. With competing responsibilities, and divided attention, I often felt like I was failing on all fronts.

I often worked alongside my daughter as she completed her kindergarten homework for Chicago Public Schools. I felt like I had three full-time jobs: professor, parent and kindergarten teacher. I felt guilty that I could not give my full attention to anything or anyone. (Photo using self-timer)

Another major challenge was the fact that my students could not go out into their communities to report. As the virus spread in Chicago, the city locked down and the governor issued a strict stay-at-home order. While other journalism classes could get around this by reporting over the phone or from a distance, this became a near impossibility for photojournalism, where the mantra is always, "get closer."

"This is a remarkable time in history. It needs to be documented," I told them.

To get around this I relaxed the ethics guidelines to allow students to document themselves and their families and roommates. A "humans of Chicago" assignment became "humans of your household." Environmental portraits became self-portraits. The result was a much more personal view of my students, their lives and inner-thoughts than I had ever been exposed to before.

"The uncertainty feels like impending doom — but maybe a word that’s less strong than doom? I’m not sure yet." –Jamie Cooley

Camera gear was an issue, but not an insurmountable one. Normally, students have access to professional DSLR cameras and lenses, which levels the playing field, to some extent. But because campus was closed, and students were scattered across the globe, some students had to muddle through with cracked iPhone screens, while others had their own high-end equipment and drones. I quickly created a second track of lessons and materials for students with smartphones.

“Right before the coronavirus hit, I dropped my phone and smashed the front screen. The crack goes right through the front facing camera. The first few weeks were kind of a blur. I did a lot of reading, I started my classes, I figured out how to get unemployment benefits. Now I’m just sort of on autopilot. Recently I discovered that I could hold one of my chickens in a way which makes her fall asleep in my arms. That’s what I’ve been working on most recently.” – Jessica Prough

To my surprise, internet access was also an issue. Some students who moved back to rural areas did not have fast enough internet to watch videos or participate in Zoom calls. One student completed all of her schoolwork from her car, spending several hours a day parked outside the public library.

"The worst part of being in a car all day is the limited access to a bathroom. Back pain, cramps, and headaches are almost an everyday occurrence and there is not much I can do about it." – Brooke Sievers

As time went on, the threat of the virus became much more pressing. The socio-economic inequalities that divide the nation and the city of Chicago became apparent among students, as well. While some families were able to self-isolate at home, other students and their family members continued to go to work at grocery stores, banks, hospitals, factories and freight yards. Some relied on public transportation throughout the pandemic.

"COVID-19 has forced me to move in the middle of a pandemic, separated me from almost all my friends in Chicago, caused the newspaper chain I freelance for to go out of business, and exponentially increased my anxiety about my career prospects and health. I work part-time at a grocery store, and do not feel particularly safe at work." – Bianca Cseke

Racism was also a concern, particularly for some of my Asian and Asian American students. As politicians, including the president, blamed the pandemic on China and immigration, students faced verbal threats from strangers who blamed them for the situation.

"After Trump claimed corona was a 'Chinese virus,' the outside started to become an uncertain thing for me because I am Chinese. I was born in Southwest China and came to the States when I was 17. Last week, I ordered groceries and a bottle of wine for delivery from Amazon. I asked my boyfriend, who is not Asian, to get the packages for us because I didn’t want to show the delivery person my Chinese passport." – Sarah Cheng

Some students had a tough time adjusting to living back at home with their families as adults. In some cases, the lack of personal space, and added family drama, made it harder for them to focus on their schoolwork.

"I'm sharing a small room with my twin brother. He plays video games for hours with his friends. I try to spend as much time as possible outside." – Eric Henry

For students living alone, the months of isolation took a toll.

"Living alone, working from home and attending graduate school online means I spend 80% of my day in front of my laptop...Alone time can be good for a person’s health but spending too much time alone can contribute to mental and physical health issues." – Kinise Jordan

As the pandemic dragged on and businesses remained closed, the economic impact on the students and their families became apparent. Several students lost their jobs, and their families felt the economic strain of not being able to work.

"My stepmom, my dad, and my sister watch TV. My family owns a hiking trail that they recently turned into a zipline canopy tour. The business is new, and was only really starting to pick up this year. The pandemic has hit them pretty hard, like it has with most small businesses." – Charlotte Carey.

As the statewide-case total mounted, the virus crept closer and closer into my students' lives. Several students went to get tested after traveling or being exposed to someone with the virus. As far as I know, none of my students have contracted COVID-19.

"I went and got tested for COVID-19 during my lunch break at the bank. One of my co-workers passed away, although not from COVID-19. At least that's what they say." – Cleanna Moore
"My grandma doesn't know it because she suffers from memory loss, but she turned 90 this week AND beat COVID-19 last month, making it a very happy birthday." – Eric Henry

One student had a death in the family, an uncle, which forced her to take on home-schooling for her little brother, as her mother dealt with the aftermath of the death.

"I have been taking on the 'Mom' role in my family so I have to take care of my brother a lot. He is a Chicago Public School student and has an Individual Education Plan, so e-learning has been especially hard, but here he is working with what we can." – Izabella Grimaldo

The cumulative pressure took a toll on students' mental health. Many reached out to let me know that they were not doing well, and I tried my best to steer them towards help and resources.

"I’m trying to push myself to be creative, but sometimes my mind is slow-moving. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself." – Carolyn Bradley

In some cases, I worried about their well-being and safety, and there are some images and stories that I did not include here.

It occurred to me as I fielded these messages that students did not have their usual coping mechanisms: friends, nature, sports. Stay-at-home orders and closed lakefronts and parks prevented that kind of relief.

Closed sports facilities, along with the closed Chicago lakefront, meant that these common avenues for managing stress were unavailable. (Clockwise from top left, photos by Cleanna Moore, Jonathan Aguilar, Jonathan Aguilar and Bianca Cseke)

Some did turn to their religious faiths for comfort and strength. Although, they could not worship in large groups, students and their families did their best to maintain their customs at home.

"My roommate and her brother celebrated Passover Seder via Zoom in our apartment." (Photo by Amy Do) "My grandfather uses juice for communion at home." (Photo by La'India Cooper) "My brother reads the Quran during Ramadan." (Photo by Hifza Ayaz)

Despite the pressures, students found moments of joy and wonder, and many expressed gratitude and relief for their family and their health.

Photos by La'India Cooper, Jesus Montero, Cleanna Moore, Maria Guerrero and Amy Do.

It was in this atmosphere, already filled with so much stress and anxiety, that the Black Lives Matter protests erupted. With roughly half of my students identifying as students of color, the video of a police officer kneeling on and slowly suffocating George Floyd hit especially hard. When protests broke out, many of my students participated in and covered the events, despite the risks of the pandemic. They jumped into the fray and produced some of their best work.

A protester raises his fist above a sea of police officers outside of Trump Tower in Chicago. (Photo by Haaris Arain)
Protesters watch as a police car burns. A white man, Timothy O'Donnell, was later charged with setting the fire. (Photo by Jonathan Aguilar)
Police and protesters clash in downtown Chicago on Saturday, May 30. (Photo by Jonathan Aguilar)
Protesters congregate in Union Park, as protests moved to the city's many neighborhoods. (Drone photo by Jonathan Aguilar)
Protesters in Oak Park, Illinois kneel in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on George Floyd's neck, killing him. (Photo by Eric Henry)
Religious leaders, business owners and other community members gather for a Black Lives Matter Multi-Faith Vigil outside of First United Church in Oak Park, Illinois. (Photo by Eric Henry)

Although the protests were mostly peaceful, there was some violence and destruction of property. Students witnessed vandalism and theft in their neighborhoods and workplaces. In the Chicago suburb of Cicero, violence broke out between Black and Latinx groups, resulting in the deaths of two men. Two of my students witnessed some of this violence, including the fatal shooting of a man in the street by a group in a passing car.

State and local police lined the streets of Cicero as violence broke out between groups of protesters. Officers attended to victims of a beating (top) and a shooting (bottom right). (Photos by Jonathan Aguilar)

At this point in the quarter, the combined stress of the pandemic, economic turmoil, the protests and racism became too much. Students were exhausted, and so was I. My inboxes overflowed with a steady stream of pleas for help with all kinds of personal emergencies and requests for leniency in schoolwork. With support from the university, I decided to make final projects optional for all classes. About a quarter of my students completed them anyways.

Disbanding the class the week before finals relieved the immediate stress, but it left me with a lingering sense of sadness. Not seeing the students' work come together in their final projects left me with an irritating lack of closure. And that's when I started putting this together. Because despite all of the challenges they faced, students still managed to commit acts of photojournalism throughout the quarter. I am thankful that students agreed to share their images and thoughts with a larger audience. In the end, they produced an important visual record of what it has been like to live through this chaotic time. And that, ultimately, is what photojournalism is all about.

A state police officer stands outside the broken window of Ronny's Steakhouse in downtown Chicago. (Photo by La'India Cooper)

This past quarter has made me realize the importance of trauma-informed teaching, which involves "examining the influence and impact on students in our schools of factors such as racism (explicit, implicit, and systematic; and microaggressions) as well as poverty, peer victimization, community violence, and bullying," according to Edutopia. As I plan my courses for fall, here are some strategies I plan to use or continue.

Give students an opportunity to tell you what's going on in their lives. I would not have known what situations my students were facing if they hadn't been photographing their own lives. Photo prompts like, "What makes you anxious? What brings you joy?" elicited especially meaningful photos. The "humans of your household" assignment also worked well to get students to describe family dynamics. Adding questions to reflection papers, like "How does this reading relate to your life right now?" prompted students to share their experiences and concerns.

Maintain clear lines of communication. Some students prefer e-mail, but many do not. I made sure I was also available through social media direct messages, as well as scheduling online video chats for students. I ran optional Zoom meetings every other week, and a majority of students attended. I set my notifications so that when a student reached out to me via Instagram, I got an immediate notification on my phone. I proactively reached out to students who were missing assignments to see if they were OK.

Know what resources are available for students. With help from my college, I knew how to refer students to mental health counseling, as well as some financial assistance for students in specific circumstances. These were changing rapidly during the pandemic, so before fall quarter starts, I will make sure to have an updated list of resources and know who to contact for what.

Collaborate with other educators. I found much comfort and support in online educational communities, such as the online visual educators group on Facebook, as well as from my own colleagues. We shared frustrations, but also victories, which made me feel less alone.

Teach about systems of oppression. One of the best things I could do for my students was to make visible systems of oppression, and provide historical context for how those systems were created. I address the lack of diversity in journalism in every course I teach. To put the pandemic in context, we studied the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave, which also disproportionately affected Black residents on the city's South and West sides. When the protests broke out, I gave them readings about the Kerner Commission and the 1919 Chicago Commission on Race, which gave specific recommendations for the press for how to improve coverage of Black communities. I made sure to include diverse perspectives as sources. In my experience, this helps students to process their own experiences, and to see themselves as part of a moment in history that has been shaped by the past. It gets them thinking about how they might be able to change society for the better.

I have no idea what fall 2020 will bring. I hope that by reflecting on spring, I will be better prepared, no matter what happens.

(Header photo by Maria Guerrero)