School Wounds and School Healing

12 12 2010

Last week when I visited potential Kindergartens for my daughter, the principal at one of them discovered that I was a teacher and loaned me his copy of Wounded by School by Kirsten Olson. It is a book that I had been eager to read ever since I briefly met Olson and heard her speak last May, as she did some work with our school district and my school site.

Since Friday, I have been stealing every spare moment possible reading her words, reflecting on my own experiences in school both as a student and a teacher.

Her book’s main premise is that most schools unintentionally wound students and take the joy out of learning. This is an argument which deeply resonates with me, as I have come to see during the past two and a half years in my involvement in school reform, that this is, in fact the case.

I have heard colleagues say that some kids “don’t want to learn,” “They won’t do x unless I grade them,” or make other similarly cynical statements. In my core, I have believed for quite some that these statements weren’t necessarily true, but I encountered a very powerful situation this week that made very real for me the idea of school wounds and school healing.

Enter Roberto.

The first time I met Roberto, a sophomore with a perpetual mischievous sparkle in his eyes and an engaging smile, he decided to spontaneously join my AP Language and Comp class during a discussion. At the time, he was enrolled in digital imaging but said that he was “done” with his assignment, so he wanted to see what we were doing. Up to this point, my only knowledge of Roberto was that he had a reputation for being a huge troublemaker on campus. Speaking his name out loud created a series of eye rolls from any adult in the vicinity. However, when he briefly joined my AP class and engaged in dialogue with my juniors, I didn’t quite see the reputation that had preceded him.

Since that time, I have seen him in the halls at school, and we have exchanged casual but friendly greetings. I have continued to hear the same Roberto stories as always and have wondered what makes him act out so much in his other classes. Earlier this week, I had another profound encounter with Roberto that made me wonder about his school wounds and inspired me to reflect on what it might take for him to heal.

As the students in one of my freshman English classes were reflecting about what they had learned about persuasion, in walked Roberto, again with the same mischief behind his eyes. We exchanged hellos, and I asked what he was doing and where he was supposed to be. According to Roberto, he had been kicked out of his math class for the rest of the semester and was sitting in our on-site suspension room until January. That day, our administrators were all off-campus, and Roberto had been released from on-site. His math teacher wouldn’t allow him into her class, and his other choice seemed to be to wander around campus. I told Roberto he could stay, under one condition: he would have to work. He agreed.

When our class moved into the discussion circle, my goal was to give them an opportunity to reflect about how they could, at the end of our persuasion unit, answer our essential question: How do we use language to influence others?

One of my freshmen offered an idea, and Roberto looked at him and calmly responded, “I disagree with you.” He then continued to explain his position and support it with evidence. That moment was a catalyst for a lively discussion in which my ninth graders, led by tenth grade Roberto, began debating the difference between persuasion and manipulation.

I watched this scene awestruck. Here was a kid that had literally been permanently removed from his math class for being disruptive, and instead of sitting passively in on-site or wandering around campus being a nuisance, he chose to engage in my English class, without a grade, without external “motivators.”

As class ended, and he continued debating the issue with the most advanced student in my class, I wondered what had happened to Roberto during his school years. What wasn’t working for him in the system that made him the bane of other people’s existence? How deep were his school wounds? And could he be healed?

When he asked if he could return sometime, I smiled and knew that, for Roberto, healing was possible.