cynthia trapanese

Educating the Whole Child During the Pandemic and Beyond: An Interview with Cynthia Trapanese

Cynthia Trapanese is an elementary school educator and an adjunct faculty member for IHE’s graduate programs where she teaches two electives that she created, Creative Activism and Just Good Food. Cynthia has had previous careers in theater, pediatric chaplaincy, non-profit bereavement work, and lived on a small wooden sailboat for two years in her early twenties. She is also a published writer. Cynthia’s interest in education was inspired by her experiences teaching about grief and loss in K-12 classrooms as the Program Director for a children’s bereavement center. She made a full career transition to education and integrates humane education, culturally responsive pedagogy, arts, and inquiry into her transformative teaching practices. At IHE, we can attest to the fact that Cynthia’s courses are truly transformative for our graduate students.

IHE: You’re a first grade teacher during COVID-19. What does that look like? What have been some of the biggest challenges as well as some of the most compelling and profound moments?

Cynthia: Teaching in an urban setting (San Francisco) during this stay-at-home order has been challenging. Our school building has been closed since mid-March, and our transition to distance learning was immediate. I am extremely grateful to be teaching in a school that is truly collaborative, inquiry-based, and student-centered. We quickly made a decision to focus on whole-child wellbeing. Our administration raised funds to supply technology and WiFi hotspots to families that needed them. We learned on a Thursday that we’d be closing on Friday, and families had what they needed by the next Tuesday or Wednesday. 

Each of our grade-level teams create Google slides Monday through Thursday, with a slide for each content area, including social and emotional learning. Each slide has a link to a 3-5 minute videotaped lesson and activity, and the daily slide deck has a teacher-created read aloud. As a school community, our focus is on continuing to practice skills and keep the students grade-level fluent in reading, writing, and math, rather than introduce new content at this time. 

Ms T

I’m working ten-hour days in front of my computer in a home-made classroom space—an alcove in my tiny apartment that I share with my daughter who is in grad school and is also participating in a full online learning schedule. I sit on the floor in the alcove, on a rug with a cushion, and a breakfast tray as a desk. Sometimes, by the end of the day, my body aches. And yet, the most difficult part is missing the students in the classroom. We work so hard as teachers to build a community of learners, and that community does not translate easily to online learning for any age, but especially lower elementary students. My heart aches more than my bones.

Some of the most profound moments have come in the work that I’ve been doing to help teachers and parents. At the request of my school’s administration, I’ve created webinars about how to support children as they experience grief, loss, and change. I created a tip-sheet and resource list and presented a session built on the one I designed for the bereavement center where I worked many years ago. As I facilitate these sessions, I take participants on a journey into their challenging emotional experiences and help them build self-awareness around what they need when they are experiencing difficult feelings. Over the past month, I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate this session with many schools and parent groups. I was also interviewed about this topic for the Ethical Schools podcast. To have my life’s work experiences woven together in this way has been very meaningful. 

IHE: When this pandemic is over, what do you hope we will have learned that will inform and potentially transform schooling? 

Cynthia: I am very concerned about the trauma that children will have experienced during this pandemic. Many have missed school, events associated with school, and social aspects so deeply that they are really struggling. Some are experiencing traumatic events in their homes. While there are others who are very happy in their homes now, I worry that they will have a difficult time re-entering the outside world and the structure of a school day. I have heard from some parents that their children have become afraid of the outside world—nature, animals, humans—everything is perceived as danger. We need to prepare for all of this trauma recovery, and to acknowledge that this time has been weird and difficult. 

I hope when this pandemic is over that we have learned that the factory model of school, built in the industrial revolution, is not effective. We need to be together in a classroom community, collaborating, practicing critical thinking skills, aware of emotional and social needs, not confined in desks but working within flexible groups. We need to come together with creativity and design-thinking models to respond to the actual world, integrating technology, cultivating empathy, seeing the connectedness of all life on the planet. We need to nurture curiosity and creativity, while teaching the foundational skills that all children require in order to have their unique voices heard. We must remain aware that helping them share their ideas and creativity is why we are teaching them. I hope that we find our way out of the dominant narrative and build classrooms that address inequities, use a critical race lens, and assess student learning without standardized testing. Our goal should be schools where students thrive. 

IHE: You teach Creative Activism and Just Good Food in IHE’s graduate programs. Not many educators teach both first graders and graduate students. What are the commonalities that you bring to teaching no matter what the age of your students? Do you have an educational philosophy that informs your teaching?

Cynthia: The educational philosophies that most inform my teaching come from Paolo Freire’s book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Ladson-Billings’ book, Culturally Relevant Teaching. I listen to my students. I consider myself a life-long learner. I certainly bring the knowledge I have gained from decades of being curious about the world to my students, but I consider my own knowledge secondary to my role as a learner alongside them. My work as an educator is most fulfilling when students make connections and have ‘aha!’ moments. This is equally true for first graders and grad students. My philosophy of transformative education is also rooted in the importance of creating a positive learning environment. I believe that students can learn and grow best where a culture of safety, support, collaboration, trust, creativity, and kindness is established.