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Are Schools Wounding Kids?

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When I returned to the classroom this year after six years as a literacy coach, I chose to teach a reading intervention class other teachers actively avoided—a mix of 6th and 7th graders reading at a mid-2nd to early 4th grade level.

It was a year of change for me as a teacher. I was returning to the classroom for the first time since No Child Left Behind prompted my district to introduce mandatory instructional programs. These included a scripted reading curriculum for our intervention students.

Teaching struggling readers wasn’t new to me. In the late 1990s I had created a language arts intervention course using service learning as the primary vehicle for motivation. Now, however, I found myself pushing students through a massive workbook each day. Their general response was, “It’s boooooring!”

Pretty quickly I found myself “cheating”—changing up the curriculum on Fridays. We read plays from Action Magazine, wrote and illustrated poems, did word games, and sent letters to pen pals and authors. I began letting my more creative side breathe a bit. When the theme included a story about wacky inventions, we had a contest in which students devised their own. When author Elisa Kleven’s scrap art was introduced, students invented their own scrap-art figures and wrote character sketches. Throughout the year, there was this constant tension between what I was supposed to be doing with students and what I was actually doing.

And what was I supposed to be doing? To me, hand-in-hand with the goal of improving reading was the equally important goal of providing my at-risk students with positive learning experiences. Many were already beaten down and convinced they were losers. Bringing some fun and win-win into the classroom equation would help them, however cautiously, to try once more. Was this not important, too?

Teacher-consultant Bill Page defines at-risk students as “Children who are expected to fail because teachers cannot motivate, control, teach, or interest them using traditional methods and prescribed curriculum.” This is precisely what I observed in the early months with my intervention students.

To shine a light on these issues, one day I had my kids sit in a large circle. One child at a time answered the question, “When did you turn off to school?” In my years as literacy coach, I met privately with intervention students who had the lowest grade point averages, and they always had an answer to this question. Most often they turned off in 3rd or 6th grade, when they realized they were struggling and others around them seemingly were not.

Interestingly, seven of my 7th graders this year had turned off to school in the 2nd grade, when they were part of a district experiment that retained the lowest performers. They still had not forgotten what it felt like to be left behind as their friends moved on. At least now I was able to tell them how sorry I was this happened to them. Surely these students deserve a chance to heal the hurt and rethink their identities as learners, something no scripted curriculum I’m aware of can address.

‘Teachers’ Little Comments’

Recently, I came across Kirsten Olson’s new book, Wounded by School. I immediately devoured it and found more insights into the world of at-risk students.

Olson explains that her book began “with a desire to understand the experiences of highly capable learners, virtuoso explorers who showed unusual vitality in learning.” But she was “quickly diverted by the repeated and powerful descriptions among my research subjects of educational wounding and laceration in school.”

As I read this, I immediately saw an image of myself as a 6th grader. I was walking back to class after recess, and for perhaps the fifth day in a row I asked my teacher, “Can I go to the nurse? I have a headache.” “What’s wrong with you?” shouted Mr. Wright. “Why do you always have a headache?!” It was another 15 years before my migraines were diagnosed. I warily hid my headaches from others after my teacher taught me to believe something was wrong with me as a person.

Wounded by School delineates a dozen different types of school wounding and their effects, including:

• Feeling you aren’t smart and your ideas lack value.
• Feeling you don’t have what it takes to be successful in school.
• Feeling ashamed of your efforts.
• Suffering a loss of ambition, self-discipline, and persistence when faced with obstacles.

In a section called “wounds of rebellion,” I found my intervention kids and their defensive symptoms:

• The only way to protect yourself is to rebel.
• In response to being unsuccessful or told we are unworthy, we become hostile.
• We are unwilling to see another point of view.
• We act out, as an adaptive response and it becomes fixed, maladaptive, and self-destructive.

Olson quotes one student, who remembers a crushing moment in 7th grade that led him to declare, “I quit! I just really quit!”

The student saw himself as a screw-up: “Basically I became motivated to not do well—like what I could do well was not to do well. ... Kids that struggle are so much more sensitive to moments—especially bad ones. These moments shape their whole lives, their sense of themselves. Teachers’ little comments had a huge effect on me.”

These lines could have been spoken by any one of my intervention students. In an essay about three strengths of his, one of my students wrote: “I am good at three things. I can draw (graffiti), I like to be bad, and I get in trouble a lot.”

Olson’s book is not directed only at struggling students. Her research clearly shows that all students are vulnerable to school wounds. She nails what I observed this year among the most capable 6th graders in my English and history classes. She writes:

“Rather than making them more dutiful, more competent, and more disciplined, they grew weary of school and learning … risk averse, overly intimidated by authority, or likely to underestimate themselves … simply deadened—less enlivened by the world and its possibilities than they might be.”

I wonder if this was why some of my most successful classroom projects from past years seemed less engaging this time around. Although these students were strong oral readers and tested well, they didn’t enjoy reading, were often highly apathetic toward learning, and resisted staying on-task if the work was challenging. As a result, I was disappointed at times by their response to assignments that had once excited and engaged my students before I became a literacy coach.

On our last day of school this June, as I dismissed the class with the cheery words “have a great summer,” one of my best students turned back and said, “We’ve been waiting for this day since September.”

What is within our control to do differently?

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