Introduction

Nowadays, teachers are more closely debating how to most effectively teach a lesson when certain topics may prove disturbing for their students. Teachers need to take into account student experiences in order for their students to most effectively absorb information. When teachers are able to empathize with their students and develop their classroom structure around those individual experiences, both parties become more capable of learning from each other. Accordingly, teachers should consider utilizing trigger warnings before introducing potentially disturbing material. Students are then able to process material in a more calm and rational way when they are aware of what is coming. Therefore, the use of trigger warnings can greatly improve the learning experience within a classroom.

Resources

Trigger warnings are not an inherently new concept. Therefore, understanding how to utilize trigger warnings should not be an intimidating task. Many resources floating around the internet outline the process of understanding and using trigger warnings in a classroom setting.

Lesson Plans 

  1. Intro to Content Warnings: This “Inclusive Teaching” resource, through UMichigan’s College of Literature Science and the Arts, gives a thorough introduction to trigger warnings, or “content warnings.” It starts by defining the concept and gives an overview of how to implement it into the classroom. It includes examples of notices to give, including blanket warnings, syllabus warnings, and email warnings. It even gives a blurb for teachers on making mistakes and understanding how they should approach situations when they mess up. At the end of the resource is a list of the most commonly triggering topics, including assault and death. 
  2. Understanding Trauma Activity Packet: This resource, through the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, gives a lengthy and detailed overview of how to understand trauma and its impact on individuals. It provides facilitators instructions and five different lessons that include activities and discussion questions. It also includes pre-training and post-training surveys at the end. The activities cover “Types of Trauma,” “The Stress Response,” “Recognizing Trauma,” “Applying Trauma Concepts,” and “Secondary Trauma Stress.” Though intended for training adults to understand trauma, this plan could potentially be used in a classroom setting as well. 
  3. Teaching Trauma Activities: This resource from TeachTrauma provides an activity for understanding trauma. This activity and resource can help individuals better empathize with students and understand the necessity of trigger warnings. The plan includes a TedTalk discussion, an NPR discussion, and prompts. It also includes several classroom activities in empathizing with and understanding trauma.
  4. Teaching With Trigger Warnings: This pamphlet from Oakland University provides a short overview of how trigger warnings are used and gives several tips on applying the warnings to a classroom setting.  including “[framing] troubling content for growth” and “identifying troubling course material.”

Articles

  1. Why I Use Trigger Warnings: This op-ed from the New York Times, written by Professor Kate Manne, details her practice and reasoning for using trigger warnings. She uses common criticisms for the practice to justify its necessity. She defines college as a “time for intellectual growth and emotional development,” and therefore students should be challenged and given the opportunity to reflect rationally on information thrown at them. All in all, she well justifies the use of trigger warnings and illustrates how she implements them, a good example to set for other educators.
  2. How Teachers Are Utilizing These Warnings: This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education describes how three college professors uniquely incorporated trigger warnings into their lesson plans in order to make them more inclusive. These teachers’ empathetic approaches to teaching proved successful in improving classroom dynamics and student teacher relationships.
  3. Psychological Accommodations: This article from the American Psychology Association discusses the role of psychological trauma and how trigger warnings may or may not help in certain circumstances within the classroom. While little research has been conducted about psychological effects of trigger warnings, this article provides some potential classroom solutions. Since educators play such an important role in students’ lives, they should provide classroom accommodations and encourage students to address long-term distress.

Informational Sites

  1.  Approaching Difficult Conversations: Stanford University’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL) published this resource describing difficult classroom conversations. It includes three links of transcribed conversations that provide frameworks for approaching trigger warnings, including the circumstances of “Creative Writing Classroom,” “Social Tensions,” and “Disability and Accommodations.” Teachers can use this resource to understand how to be more inclusive in different classroom settings. 
  2. Importance of Content Warnings: This page from the Odyssey gives a great introductory overview of trigger warnings and content warnings. It gives teachers a good foundational source for defining and utilizing these warnings. Teachers and students can read through this page to better understand the purpose of using a warning. It is a very passionately written, persuasive article that attempts to convince all teachers to consider using trigger warnings.

 

Conclusion

Trigger warnings within a classroom allow for students to more efficiently process lessons and provide a humanizing approach to teaching. To be clear, teachers should not hinder their classes from having important political or social conversations in order to avoid provoking students. Shutting down uncomfortable conversations altogether is ineffective and limits personal growth. Trigger warnings will serve merely as a “heads up” for students for whom the topic may be especially personal.

 

Additional Resources 

  1. What UChicago Gets Wrong With Its Letter on Academic Freedom: This article from The Atlantic, written by Alia Wong, covers the debate of academic freedom versus the use of trigger warnings. It was written in response to a 2016 scandal at the University of Chicago, in which Dean John Ellison wrote a letter to the Freshman Class of 2020. In the letter, he indicated that the University would prioritize its freedom of expression over providing safe spaces and trigger warnings for its students. This article gives UChicago alumni reactions to the letter and gives a more accurate definition and overview of a “safe space” than the initial letter provided.
  2. Survey Findings of Trigger Warnings on College Campuses: This report from the National Coalition Against Censorship investigates the use of trigger warnings on college campuses in order to approach the debate of free speech vs providing needed warnings for students. It reported several key findings, including large numbers of college students asking for more warnings, teacher perspectives, and chilling results of troubling curriculums. This resource gives a powerful overview of trigger warning practices and provides concrete statistics to support the cause.
  3. Trigger Warnings and Trauma Roundtable Discussion: This is a transcribed roundtable discussion, from the Organization of American Historians, between five history professors and a history PhD candidate. Each person provides serious insight into how they have and plan to take into account student trauma in their classrooms. The different perspectives of the historians manifest an open environment in student experiences.