Significant trauma, including witnessing or experiencing violence, is a fact of life for many students. Left unaddressed, that trauma can be an obstacle to learning. Teachers, who are typically asked to focus on cognitive rather than affective learning, sometimes feel ill-equipped to help students process their experiences. This lesson provides a curriculum-connected place to start.
In the lesson students gain an intuitive sense of the difference between affective and cognitive brain functions. They are asked to use both art and expository writing to respond to clips from the documentary film QUEST. The family shown in the film uses community connections, politics and art to cope when their youngest daughter, PJ, is shot—caught in crossfire on the streets of North Philadelphia. As students compare and contrast responses, they understand the role that affective pursuits, like artistic expression, can play in the healing process.
2 class periods with homework in between
In this lesson, students will:
- Use the art forms of their choice to express their feelings about events and write factual accounts of the same events in order to learn the definitions of “affective” and “cognitive”
- Consider how art helps people heal from trauma
Film clips and equipment to project them
Step 1: Defining Terms
Display the words “cognitive” and “affective” and ask students if anyone knows what they mean. Fill in the gaps as needed, making sure that students understand that:
- Cognitive = mental processes of perception, memory, judgment and reasoning
- Affective = processes relating to, arising from or influencing emotions
The human brain processes the world both cognitively and affectively. Sometimes we think of cognitive as being related to the head (thoughts) and affective as being related to the heart (feelings). One isn’t superior to the other. To navigate the world successfully, we need to use both. Be sure that students don’t confuse the word “affective” with the word “effective.”
Step 2: The Music Studio
Ask students to give a few concrete examples of things they process cognitively and things they process affectively (e.g., doing math calculations or memorizing things for an exam uses cognitive skills; a horror movie or a poetry slam competitor’s recitation produces affective reactions).
Show Clip 2 of Quest Rainey’s music studio. Explain that in the clip, he opens the studio as a free drop-in place for teens in North Philadelphia. Ask students if they think this attempt to address a community need is focused on people’s affective or cognitive processing. Accept all evidence-based answers. Be sure that one of the answers is that providing an outlet for artistic expression is an affective-based community intervention strategy.
Step 3: The Assignment
Tell students that they’re going to learn a bit more about Quest and his family in a minute by watching clips from a documentary about them called QUEST.
When the clips are over, each student will be asked to do two things: 1. write a factual paragraph (or two) describing the events in the film; 2. create an artistic expression conveying how they feel about what happened. The art can be in any form the student chooses (a rap, a drawing, a poem, a song, a video, a poster, a dance, a meme and so on.)
Step 4: The Raineys’ Story
To give an overview, play the trailer for the film (Clip 1). If you need to save time, instead of playing the trailer, fill in needed background by explaining that Chris “Quest” Rainey and Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey are a couple living and working in North Philadelphia. She works in a women’s shelter and he delivers newspapers. He is also a music producer and they run a small recording studio that they open to young people in the community for free. They are politically engaged and worked to help elect President Obama. They have several grown children from previous relationships and are raising their daughter, PJ, who is a talented musician and athlete. They also care for an adult son who was diagnosed with cancer just before the birth of his first baby, and they help with his son (their grandchild). In many ways a typical American family, they struggle economically while living full and exhausting lives.
Fill in the details of the Raineys’ story by playing the remaining video clips, Clip 3 through Clip 7. It is these clips that students will summarize in writing and respond to with art.
As time allows, pause after each clip to let students react. Guide them to noticing how art (including less obvious forms of art, like posters for the march or dancing at the block party) is used to aid healing. Also guide them to notice how the filmmaker communicates both cognitive and affective messages.
Note: If your students have experienced events similar to those shown in the film, it will be important for you to plan extra time for this lesson so that students have a chance to share and process their own stories.
As homework, assign students to write brief, factual accounts of PJ’s shooting and the aftermath. Also ask them to express their feelings about the shooting, using any art forms they choose. On the day that the assignments are due, spend a bit of class time inviting students to compare what it was like for them to create each type of communication.
If your students have been prepped on productively, responsibly and safely engaging with social media, consider inviting them to share what they’ve made on social media using the hashtag #QUESTFilmPBS.
Alternative: If there has been a recent, compelling traumatic event in your students’ lives, you may want to use the film as in-class practice, just briefly imagining what they would write and the art they would create. Then assign them to write and create art about the real-life event. Be sure to create space/opportunities for those who want to share their art with classmates and/or the broader community.
Pick an event that students have studied (e.g., World War II or Hurricane Katrina) and have them research art/music/literature that was created to express survivors’ emotional reactions. Invite them to compare what they learned from looking at the art to what they learned from their textbook.
Assign students to research the science behind the use of art to help people heal from trauma.
Look at or listen to examples of art/music that are about trauma. This could include anything from fine art (e.g., Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a statue in front of city hall or a Langston Hughes poem) to pop culture (e.g., a dance routine from So You Think You Can Dance). Ask students to think about what these art forms are able to communicate that a news report or history book cannot.
Examine media forms that combine affective and cognitive elements (e.g., propaganda, some news reporting, some advertising, documentaries, late night talk show host monologues). Have students differentiate between the emotional and information-based appeals.
Have students research examples of music or art that are or were used to help a community heal (e.g., “Amazing Grace” being sung at a funeral, or the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.).
This is a list of organizations, websites, articles and other materials that may be helpful to teachers in developing the lesson, or for students as they are researching.
The film’s official POV site includes a discussion guide with additional activity ideas, steps to borrow the DVD from the POV Lending Library and other resources.
This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.
The Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice at Drexel University works to promote health, nonviolence and social justice through trauma-informed practice, research, professional development and advocacy for policy change.
This pamphlet offers helpful guidance on recognizing the signs of trauma, plus general interventions.
The foundation’s website features personal stories about how art was combined with medicine/psychological care to help people heal.
This organization’s website provides research reports and research-based recommendations for healing trauma. For example, this document offers recommendations that deal specifically with use of creative art.
An easy-to-read, short Psychology Today article by Cathy Malchiodi describes the use of art to help people heal from trauma.