‘One of the worst things that can happen to you can end up being one of the best.’
Pamela Shime was a lawyer, university lecturer, activist and NGO director before entering the GSE as a Haas Graduate Public Service Fellow to further her research into the effects of traumatic stress on teaching and learning. She recently joined the Neurotechnology Initiative of Stanford Psychiatry’s Early Life Stress and Pediatric Anxiety Program, where she designs games and strategies to help reverse trauma’s neurological effects.
I was recruited out of law practice to the faculty of my alma mater law school, the University of Toronto. I built two programs – one I was hired to build, Canada’s first national public interest law program, and one I founded, the Global Advocacy Lab, whose premise is that advocacy in different forms is essential to robust democracy and affects us all.
I became interested in how different kinds of advocates could learn from each other. How a parent seeking services for her autistic child could learn from an environmental activist. How each could learn from street activists fighting for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS.
My path from there to Stanford's program in Learning, Design and Technology was paved with three Ts: teaching, technology and trauma.
I fell into teaching in a rather strange way. It was a very distressing experience I had that resulted in something I loved. I was harassed quite graphically based on my sexual orientation. I spoke about it at a meeting at my workplace. Based on what I said and how I spoke, a woman who happened to be at the meeting asked me to teach. It shows you how one of the worst things that can happen to you can end up being one of the best.
So I taught gender law and sexuality law within the Arts and Sciences faculty. Then I developed and taught How to Make Change, a course in advocacy.
Well, I fell in love with teaching. I became fascinated with pedagogy. I studied various pedagogies for the various types of classes – lecture, seminar and so on.
I was, at the same time, researching advocacy. I interviewed extraordinary advocates from around the world, like Donna Shalala, the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Edwin Cameron, a justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. I distilled the lessons from those interviews and then taught what I learned.
In South Africa on a research trip, I met two women who worked against “corrective rape,” a crime committed against Black African women perceived to be lesbians. The community stigmas around sexual orientation and sexual assault meant that many victims had not sought health care. Owing to the country’s high AIDS rate, there were a lot of deaths and suffering apart from the horror of the act itself. These two women were utterly overwhelmed by the scope of the challenge. It was clear to me that they had PTSD.
But we established a pretty good connection and we continued talking. They talked about how their work was affecting their own lives. And it got me started about thinking about trauma and advocacy, and in people in the classroom who were experiencing trauma, either direct or secondary.
The third T was that I was trying to push the boundaries of the classroom, of pedagogy and different approaches to research. I felt my knowledge of technology was curtailing my ability to be creative in my teaching.
I had mostly taught late teens and adults. When I came to the GSE … I shifted my focus a little downward in respect to age and started looking at trauma in the K-12 classroom.
My starting question: How well can a child learn algebra when she’s been sexually abused the night before? I immersed myself in where that question led me, the neurological effects of childhood trauma. I lived, walked, breathed, slept the neuroscience of childhood traumatic stress and its connection to capacity to learn.
The other area I was taking a deep dive into was technology and learning. Where and when is technology effective with respect to learning? I brought these two streams together and that was incredibly rewarding.
One of the LDT program’s greatest strengths is how open it is. I was able to craft my own learning experience. I took classes in the medical school and in the School of Engineering. I ended up developing a curriculum on trauma and law for Stanford Law School. I worked with an NGO in Massachusetts, designing an e-curriculum on preventing and identifying sexual abuse that’s launching this fall.
The other piece to LDT’s excellence is its director, Prof. Karin Forssell. She was a great adviser to me and is so open and welcoming and warm.
I think I’m quite unusual in that I came to LDT later in my career. I’m Canadian, I’m Jewish, I’m a lesbian, and I'm older than the usual student. The openness of the program allowed me to maximize my time for who I was as a student.
I went on to work for nine months with Paul Tough, an education writer, on Helping Children Succeed, the book and website that were his follow-up to How Children Succeed.
Then, Stanford Psychiatry hired me to build my LDT master’s project, a game that’s an intervention for children experiencing traumatic stress. Since then, the mandate has expanded into the development of a Neurotechnology Initiative. We design, develop and study games and technologies to help reverse the neurological and related effects of childhood traumatic stress.
We see changes in brain architecture and function in response to traumatic stress, including shrinking of the prefrontal cortex, which directly affects learning and memory. But because of neuroplasticity, it’s possible to reverse those effects. Technology allows us to extend the reach of evidence-based interventions that help get children and families back on track, in the classroom and beyond.
-- Barbara Wilcox