MURPHYSBORO — William Moore knows first-hand how a traumatic family life can impact the education of a child. He and Murphysboro Middle School are part of Resilient Southern Illinois 2018.
Resilient Southern Illinois is a partnership among The Poshard Foundation for Abused Children, Illinois Education Association and Partnership for Resilience, along with 16 Southern Illinois school districts, working to support students dealing with childhood trauma or experiencing adverse childhood experiences (ACES).
“Together, we are working as a community to help improve students’ lives,” Mary Jane Morris, IEA director of teaching and learning, said. “It is so important to educate the whole child, and through this program, we are making sure that’s happening across Southern Illinois. We are building strong students, strong schools and strong communities.”
The program to build trauma-sensitive schools began in 2015 in three high-need, low-resource districts. Early results showed referrals decreased by 72 percent, suspensions decreased by 79 percent and detentions decreased by 87 percent. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade made significant gains in English and math.
The program began with a three-day training for teachers in June to discuss effects of toxic stress on students, identify stressors and issues, and offer strategies for teachers as they assist traumatized students.
One of the teachers in that training was William Moore, eighth grade social studies teacher at Murphysboro Middle School. One of his tactics is to help relieve stress and build relationships with students while teaching them to empathize with one another.
Eighth graders in Moore’s classes got a break from regular classroom activities a couple days before Christmas break. Instead, they had a “snowball” fight and created paper plate art.
No, Moore did not import snow from a frozen areas of the country or use the fake snowballs sold in snowball fight kits.
First, he asked students to write a Christmas wish, or just a wish for those who do not celebrate Christmas, on a piece of paper without writing their names on the papers. When the wishes were written, Moore explained how the snowball fight would work.
Students would wad their papers into “snowballs.” Then, the class was divided into two groups for a five to seven-minute snowball fight. After the snowballs had crossed the room enough to mix them up and make sure no one knew whose snowball he or she was holding, Moore asked the students to read the wishes.
Sure, some of the wishes ranged from the latest shoes to Nintendo Switch, cookies and Christmas socks, but others wished for a good 2019 or that school was less stressful, or for more time with family and friends.
A few wishes put into perspective the lives of some students, like no family fights, that mom would continue to be able to live on her own, to see a brother not seen for five years, that great-grandma was still alive or for a student and his or her mother to be able to like each other.
“Part of the reason we do that is to let students see there are people in our own classroom wishing for things that are not Nintendo or X-Box,” Moore said. “Everyone’s life is a little different. Go to the hallway. You never know when somebody just needs a little love.”
After the snowball fight, the students did an art activity, turning paper plates to Christmas or winter-themed art.
Students Haiden and Isabelle say Moore is a favorite among their friends.
“Mr. Moore straight-up helps me and chooses to be my friend,” Haiden said.
The 13-year-old has experienced trauma and is a victim of bullying.
“We come in here and actually learn and in here we do this kind of stuff,” Isabelle said.
She added that she has never heard one kid say anything negative about Moore.
“He cares about our feelings and talks to us,” Isabelle said.
As a part of Resilient Southern Illinois 2018, Moore is learning how to respond to the trauma his students face in hopes of making them more resilient.
“We teachers sometimes get so focused on teaching standards that we forget we’re teaching students,” Moore said.
He said students often go home and care for themselves and younger siblings, then come back to school without their homework. He told a story of one student who slept on the front porch of a home because he or she was scared to sleep inside. Another student who lives near the middle school gets up extra early to walk to Murphysboro High School to avoid bullying that takes place on the school bus.
Unless a teacher takes the time to get to know his or her students, Moore said they would never know this is what the lives of their students look like.
“Project Resilient Southern Illinois most of all stresses communicating with students,” Moore said.
The project also did something for Moore personally. It gave him a way to share his own story of trauma.
Moore never met his biological father growing up. His mother had five children with a total of four fathers. His stepdad had a drinking problem and was abusive.
“I remember when I was in the third grade, there was a 2 a.m. bust in our house. The people upstairs called the police,” Moore said.
His fifth grade year, his family spent Christmas in a women’s shelter.
Then, the summer before his seventh grade year, he ran away from home.
“As the oldest, I took most of the violence. Leaving them was hard for me,” Moore said. “They felt abandoned.”
Moore became the seventh grade class clown. When he got to eighth grade, the teachers were waiting for him. He spent most of that year at a desk next to the assistant principal.
“I got to high school, and the trouble I got into was a lot different,” Moore said.
He skipped school, then would be suspended for skipping school. When the suspension was over, the cycle started again. He was kicked out of three schools, two of which were alternative programs. He ended high school earning a total of 2.5 credits.
“The last principal said, ‘school’s not a place for you’,” Moore said. “Grandma cried. It was heartbreaking. If school’s not a place for me, she knew where was.”
Moore did a lot of things during the next four years. One of them was meeting the girl who would become his wife. When she gave birth to their daughter in March 1997, Moore realized that baby would be affected by what he became.
He took the GED test and passed it. After a series of sales, restaurant and factory jobs, Moore started taking classes at Richland Community College for sales and marketing. The first class was Economics 231, and he had no clue what it meant.
When he looked at his life and the people who influenced him, he thought of his fifth grade teacher Sheila Myers. She treated him fairly, bought him Burger King. She cared for him even on days he misbehaved.
“When I was standing at Richland Community College wondering what I was going to do, she popped into my head. My dream, goal, vision became clear. I wanted to be somebody’s hero,” Moore said.
After finishing at Richland, Moore went on to major in education at Southern Illinois University. He was assigned to student teach at Sesser-Valier in the classroom of Dennis Overturf.
“Had I not met Mr. O, I wouldn’t have gotten the job here (at Murphysboro Middle School),” Moore said.
When the school started the resilience program earlier this school year, Moore had never shared any part of his story with his colleagues.
“When the program started, it spoke to me because I know that being a kid’s hero not only changes lives, but it also changes their kid’s lives,” Moore said. “I want to be hope for students to know that what they have lived through is not the truth. If I am only able to reach one person, I want to become hope for that one kid who needs it.”
Other school districts in Resilient Southern Illinois 2018 include: Du Quoin, Eldorado, Gallatin County, Giant City, Grayville, Harrisburg, Herrin, Johnston City, Sparta, Trico, Unity Point, Vienna Elementary, Vienna High School, ROE21 Project Echo and Tri-County Special Education Services.