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Book and Film Reviews, Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Is ANYBODY not Wounded By School?

That’s a sincere question. I’m wondering if any of us escape from our at least 10 years of schooling unscathed?

For this week’s blog, we all agreed to read the book Wounded By School by Kirsten Olsen and write about it. The author says, in the introduction, “Because of school’s long, powerful presence in our lives, and its central role in shaping what we can do with our lives, it has an inordinately powerful role in determining who we think we are.” She also says the book is about “honoring and valuing the spiritual and emotional aspects of learning.”

While I believe it is that, she also spends a ton of  time describing the wounds she uncovered as she did her graduate school research. I spent much of the time reading this book with a lump in my throat as I read about the damage our culture of schools and teachers do to learners. Even as she decribes how people have healed themselves and the strategies we can use to do so, she reiterates the pain and suffering caused by “school’s long, powerful presence in our lives.” Kirsten Olsen defines school wounding as:

(and 6 more in the general list, although she then breaks wounds down into more detail by category.)

I’m glad someone has finally written candidly about what school does to students–what we, as teachers, often do to students. My Superintendent, Pam Moran, has been guiding conversations in our county to discuss joy and passion in learning.  In a recent Gifted Resource Teacher’s meeting, she shared that she had 27 teachers—and can remember ONE who absolutely made a difference and inspired her to be a Lifelong Learner, who kept her passion alive, her love of learning burning and who is responsible for her being here today. That’s 1/27 or approximately 4%.

In a recent blog, Becky Fisher, described her journey through school and said she had 4 out of 55 teachers who did that for her.  That’s about 7%.  I could go through mine, but honestly, I don’t want to take the time. . . I can just tell you the number is low.

But yesterday I got an email from a student that was pretty self-abasing, so I responded with an upbeat, complimentary one. She immediately came back with another one that  recognized my efforts to help, but laid it all at my feet–and clearly said she didn’t see what I was suggesting happening.

Here’s the deal: all year in 5th grade we’ve been pre-assessing units and the kids who show they mostly know the upcoming unit come to me for extension and enrichment. I make up the tests, and have deliberately made them extremely hard to be able to provide services for those very different kinds of thinkers who need that different experience. ANY CHILD who wants to can take the pre-assessment, so we have been encouraging kids to look at what they know and try to opt out of the “traditional” math unit.   This particular child, Calley, has never attempted a pre-assessment.

She is, however,  a good buddy of several I do teach, and that sort of puts up flags for me as a gifted teacher.  Gifted kids tend to hang out with smart kids, so one way I look for the talent  in our school is to pay attention to the friends of identified students. The kid has had enough confidence to come ask to check out an iPod, and she is one of two I have put in charge of our daily TV picture shows, sharing candid shots taken around the school.

Now for the last nine weeks, we are splitting the group a bit differently.  We have all-year-long-data on their successes on our assessments, so we are looking at that. We are splitting the group so that the classroom teachers can have smaller groups to make sure all kids know the fifth grade standards and my group this time will be large–the kids who basically have the skills and whom we know will do fine on “THE TEST.”

We are looking at anyone who has above an 80% yearly overall pass rate as possibly coming into my room.  That means I’ll have some kids who I haven’t taught this year. Calley is one of those kids.  In the email I sent her, I mentioned she might be in my class and she wrote this back:

Thank you so much ms.white. I apreciate it and for the question well because another kid has said she doesn’t think im smart enough, but maybe i am. but i have never actually tried the stuff youll do so i dont know why she says that but you never no!I

I sent her another email basically explaining WHY she might be in my room, sharing her data with her and describing what it meant. Here’s part of what I wrote:

For me, it’s about helping kids understand that learning can be fun—and it’s NOT all about school learning, although it has to be about learning in school.  That’s why I take on things like the yearbook and the TV and help kids know how to do those things as well.

I taught a kid named Taylor at Murray in fourth grade and we made movies in class, much like we did in the fall here with 3rd and 4th graders.  In fact, that particular class actually helped produce a PBS movie on copyright called “Copyright, Copywrong.” That kid—who is no longer a kid—is in movie production as his job now.  I think the experiences I provided had something to do with that.

I believe that many kids don’t understand just how smart they are, and you are one of those kids.  But you need to understand that in all the math tests you have taken this year, you have gotten 86 percent of the answers RIGHT. Do  you realize what that means?

In a simplistic way to explain, it means that if we had 100 test questions on a fifth grade test, you know 86 of them. 86% means that you know  A LOT—and the ones you don’t know should be fairly easy to learn.

In education, we often talk about the top quarter or the bottom quarter.  From 75-100 is the top quarter—and your scores are SOLIDLY in that.  (88, by the way, is an advanced pass on the SOL test so you only have 2 more points to go to achieve that.  It’s all about effort—and what YOU put in to get there.)

Understanding 86 % of a grade level’s work in a topic is GREAT… And shows you are indeed a smart kid. It also means you don’t need a LOT of review for the SOL tests, so I have suggested you are in the classroom Mon/Tues and with me W/Th/F. We’ll see what happens—the teachers will also have a say in the decision and they know you better in class than I do.  🙂

She then writes me back with this:

Wow ms.White that really makes me feel good and sums it up very well i didnt no i was that smart by the way.

“I didn’t know I was that smart, by the way.”   How can a child get to fifth grade and not have a clue she’s smart? What is it we’re doing to sort and classify our kids to make them believe other kids are smart but they are not? How can we pre-assess and target instruction to that pre-assessment without sorting and classifying–or having the kids feel like if you go to Ms White’s class, you’re smart? (And also believe that only the smart kids go there. If you don’t, you’re not smart.) How can we get past those labels of giftedness, yet meet the needs of those very different thinkers as well?

This book is all about that–pointing out all the ways we do harm to students and wound them daily by our culture of schooling, which is WAY outdated! It also shares some specific strategies for changing schools.  My favorite? “Schooling needs to be reorganized for participation rather than imposition.” Roland Meighan in “An Education Fit For A Democracy” 2006. He also says that “in a democracy, learning by compulsion means indoctrination and that only learning by invitation and choice is education.”

Olsen ends with a paragraph entitled “How Do I Stand Up?”  “Seemingly insignificant, little change can lead to big transformations” she says–much as I did in my blog, Sparks of Learning. We HAVE to speak up as educators.

Will you?

Will you look for those students who are “wounded by school” and attempt to be an “emergency room” for them, helping them find their passion and voice and giving them some choice in their learning?

(And, by the way, I would recommend you read this book. As Aaron says, “it’s a great book to really make you mad and fire off provocative comments.”)

We simply cannot, in all good consciousness, continue to wound our students through following a culture of schooling that no longer is valid or valuable!


About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


2 thoughts on “Is ANYBODY not Wounded By School?

  1. Paula, I appreciate your fantastic ability to relate to us your students’ perspectives on their education. I also greatly appreciate the exemplary care and expert practice you share in championing kids and their learning.

    Do you think it would be useful for a PLC, faculty, or self-selected un-conference group in our division (any division) to sit down and talk about how school hurts kids and adults? About how teachers and students can effect change and stop the wounding? How would you structure such a conversation or opportunity? How would you get a team or building’s worth of adults ready to hear what kids have to say?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 8, 2010, 7:38 pm
  2. Control. Power. Authority. Distance. Tradition. Conflict. Opinion. Fear. Status. No matter the lens- whether through personal narrative or a qualitative study- wounds endured by children who attend our schools scar them for life. The word list captures some of the weapons we educators use to inflict wounds, and as we use those weapons, we suffer the irony of those weapons being turned on ourselves. Our children are not our enemy and school should not be a Lord of the Flies game of survival of the fittest- for any child, anywhere.

    Choice. Freedom. Democracy. Proximity. Openness. Inspiration. Joy. Adaptation. Accessibility. Fluidity. Some educators do close the seemingly insurmountable distance from learner to teacher. It has been my experience that teachers who do so:
    • encourage and emerge each child’s voice as important to the community;
    • listen to, watch, and study each child to seek pathways to relationships;
    • value learning differences and spend time figuring out how each child comes to
    access learning and, most importantly, synthesize the adult role needed to facilitate
    that access, and
    • see intellect as fluid, not static, and understand that a teacher’s power ultimately lies
    in a capability to figure out what drives a child to learn and then to act on that

    I have seen a few teachers who do this with a magical intuition and others who have studied great teachers and worked hard to become such a teacher. But, when I talk with adults and young people, I hear over and over again that such teachers are rare in our schools.

    Each young person we teach deserves the best we have to offer. Challenge. Vigor. Creativity. Care. Dissonance. Passion. Joy. Engagement….. and unrelenting confidence in their capability.

    From my perspective, the greatest conundrum of our field lies not in questions of resources, standards, desk alignment, school schedules, or length of the school year. It simply lies in how we entice people who are born to teach or who have the courage, passion, openness, and will to learn what the greatest of teachers among us do to inspire, coach, and engage learners to do the often hard work of learning. With these teachers, young people also will find a space for playfulness, connectedness, and fun.

    And, thank you, Cooperative Catalyst bloggers and Kirsten Olsen for creating an explicit discussion about wounded by school.

    Posted by Pam | April 18, 2010, 6:40 pm

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