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Faculty Researcher Studies Black Male Students Affected by Trauma

Cassandra Lo at AERA conference

Dr. Lo and student Olivia Fritz at the American Education Research Association international conference in Toronto.

When marginalized students face family deaths or other disturbing losses, finding a way to share what they are going through can be critical. That’s one of the findings from “Silenced Voices of Loss: Black Male Students Writing and Witnessing Testimonials of Trauma,” presented by Georgian Court University faculty researcher Cassandra Lo, Ed.D., at the 2019 American Education Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting in Toronto, Canada.

Dr. Lo, an assistant professor in the GCU School of Education, examined the impact of traumatic experiences on high-school-age black males through journaling exercises, peer sharing, and teacher support. The faculty researcher found that for students who experienced loss, especially those who are marginalized and silenced because of their identities, testimonials of trauma are necessary to share, but are often suppressed and not witnessed by others.

Supporting Students Through Positive Relationships

“As a high school English and journalism teacher, I found that students were writing about personal and traumatic events in their journaling exercises,” said Dr. Lo, who formerly taught in New Jersey’s West Essex Regional School District. “I also found that many schools didn’t offer support for students writing about these things. In my dissertation research, I wanted to know what happens when students are provided with space to share their traumatic experiences.”

Her research took students through writing exercises and discussions to see what having a space to share would mean to them. Her work centered on relational teaching—building positive student-teacher connections—to discover how the relationship impacted students or enhanced their educational experience.

Mercy Core Values Reflected in Compassionate Teaching

“The goal was to investigate ways to improve the schooling experience for black males who are grieving from trauma by providing them the space to write, express, and reflect about their experiences,” said Dr. Lo. “Little things that teachers did—positive and negative—had an impact.”

The study, which included students from an all-boys’ charter high school, found that spaces for sharing and building communities of loss are critical—especially for black male and marginalized students who are particularly deprived of these opportunities.

The lesson?

“Teachers need to be compassionate toward students. We don’t know what students have been through,” Dr. Lo said. “It’s important that teachers demonstrate compassion from day one and show that toward their students. Compassion is the number one Mercy core value in my research,” she said, referencing the university’s historic guiding principles. 

Professional Development Enhances Student Learning Experience

Olivia Fritz, a GCU senior English and education major from Jackson, joined Dr. Lo at the AERA conference to provide technical assistance and any additional help needed during the presentation. Olivia is the first recipient of the Dr. Marilyn E. Gonyo Student Award for Professional Development. The funding was established by Dr. Gonyo, a former faculty member, to support a GCU junior or senior with their participation in a professional conference that will enhance their experience and prepare them for success after college.

“I am honored to be the first recipient of this award,” said Olivia, who was especially excited to meet educators and researchers from across the U.S. and the world. “It is an awesome opportunity for someone who wants to be a teacher to attend the AERA conference.”

The two GCU representatives were among more than 14,000 AERA members, scholars, policymakers, and practitioners in Toronto to address many of the biggest issues in timely education research.

Aerial view of GCU.

About Georgian Court University

Founded in 1908 and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Georgian Court University is Central and South Jersey’s only Catholic university. GCU is a comprehensive, coeducational university with a strong liberal arts core and a historic special concern for women. As a forward-thinking university that supports diversity and academic excellence, GCU is known for expanding possibility for more than 2,100 students of all faiths and backgrounds in 35+ undergraduate majors and 10+ graduate programs. The GCU Lions compete in 15 NCAA Division II sports in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC). In 2020, GCU was named a Best Value College by and a Best Bang for the Buck (Northeast) by Washington Monthly. High student retention and graduation rates also make GCU a Top Performer on Social Mobility on U.S. News & World Reports rankings. The main campus is located in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the picturesque former George Jay Gould estate, a National Historic Landmark. Georgian Court, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, also serves students at other locations, such as GCU at BrookdaleGCU at Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland Campus, and through multiple online certificate and degree programs.

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