Almost every classroom has students who have reputations as troubled, unpromising or problem children. Often, students are saddled with these negative stories throughout their school years.
In a recent issue of The Elementary School Journal, a team of researchers reports on one second-grade teacher’s highly documented efforts to “restory” two troubled students in her class, one an anxious and withdrawn girl and the other a disruptive African American male. The teacher’s efforts at intervention were focused not only on the students’ social issues but on their resistance to writing and their evolving self-identity.
“If a student’s story continues uninterrupted, it can gain momentum, and the student may be implicitly or explicitly labeled a problem, with the negative story following him or her throughout school and interfering with academic, emotional, and interpersonal progress,” write the team of researchers from the University of Texas, Austin.
The second grade teacher at the center of the study, “Mae”, was a skilled teacher who had the ability to make thoughtful, in-the-moment decisions that seem just right for the situation at hand, according to the researchers. “Pedagogical tact” is essential for restorying students, the researchers write. Race and gender also can feed into negative stories and stereotypes.
Culturally responsive teaching is important in restorying students. One criterion of culturally relevant pedagogy is the development of a political consciousness necessary to critique the cultural norms, values and institutions that maintain inequities.
Ethic of Care
The term “ethic of care” has been used to describe the recognition of and longing for relatedness that is a basic human need, the researchers write. In restorying, caring teachers use confirmation of what is positive in the child and do not look for what is not there. The teacher avoids preconceived or unrealistic expectations and tries to uncover strengths and abilities that may be hidden.
In this study, researchers used an ethnographic approach to data collection. Across the school year, the teacher was observed for a total of 38 days and her class videorecorded 18 times. Researchers also conducted many formal and informal interviews with teacher and students and shared many of their observations in interviews and memos. The data was coded and in the course of their study of this exemplary teacher, the researchers developed the theme of “restorying.”
The team focused its attention on the after-lunch read aloud in Mae’s classroom, a highlight of the second-grade class and a central component of Mae’s teaching practice. Mae sat in a rocking chair with her students around her and usually read from a novel. In the course of reading, the class discussed issues relating to family and cultural experiences, relationships, feelings, and ethical dilemmas. The teachers chose a reading and writing workshop approach with back-to-back 45-minute sessions of reading then writing.
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“Restorying” of Lydia
Below is a description of the teacher’s restorying of Lydia and a briefer description of the restorying of Edward:
Lydia was described in field notes as having a worried look—almost a scowl—on her face. When the researchers, who were participant-observers in the classroom, approached her, she would turn her head away and shrink in her seat. She was visibly distressed by a touch on the shoulder. The researchers followed Mae’s lead and kept a physical distance from her.
Although she was an avid reader, Lydia was the most reluctant writer in the classroom. During writing workshops, she usually sat staring at a blank piece or paper or wrote a word or two and erased them. During the first 6 weeks of second grade, she rarely spoke to other students and hung in the back of the group during read-aloud, browsing through the books on the shelf and rarely looking at the teacher.
Mae learned that several of Lydia’s family members had a history of anxiety that had interfered with their educations and that her parents had divorced and had an antagonistic relationship and vastly different parenting styles. Lydia went back and forth between their houses during the week and had an active fantasy life, believing that fairies lived in her house.
School staff had suggested a possible diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. Mae’s restorying of Lydia focused on her strength and interest in reading to help her become more comfortable in social interactions and to get her unstuck from her writer’s block. First, she took advantage of the time and flexibility of classroom workshops to gradually gain Lydia’s trust and learn about her ways of being, without forcing interactions. She simply sat near Lydia and then speaking quietly and gently, touched her on the shoulder. During reading workshop, Mae brought Lydia together with Shelly, a low-key, friendly student with similar interests in books.
“Perhaps in the absence of pressure to participate, Lydia also began to interact with other students by small degrees,” the researchers write.
Lydia makes strides
In October, researchers noted that Lydia began to sit with class during read-aloud discussion and to participate to a limited degree with short answers to questions Mae asked her.
In late November, Mae made an important breakthrough in the restorying of Lydia. During a read-aloud discussion of mythical characters in Eric Carle’s poetry collection, Dragons, Dragons (1991), Ellie mentioned a book series about fairies she had been reading. Lydia had been facing away from Mae during the entire discussion, head down on her desk, squirming or staring into space. At the mention of fairies, Lydia turned around, raised her hand and initiated her first comment during a read aloud.
Lydia: Um, I have a fairy named Violet, and she’s—purple. She’s like—I read about that kind, it’s like this kind of fairy, that protects your, you from bad dreams. She’s actually real [inaudible].
Mae: And you know you started a little draft in your WW [writer’s notebook] about Violet.
Lydia: Yeah you can get [inaudible]
Mae: Really? Do you think you might like to add on to Violet’s story? Maybe? Because the words that you just said? Those would be the words you would write down in your WW. And that would be your story.
Mae capitalized on the moment by socially identifying her as an author. To make the most of the opportunity, Mae turned to the rest of the class, gesturing toward Lydia, and said:
Mae: Give me a thumbs or thumbs down. Thumbs up if it’s true or thumbs down if it’s not true. When you tell a story to a friend, those exact words could be what you write in your writing notebood for a story you might write later.
“In this way, Mae enlisted community support for Lydia, a component of culturally relevant pedagogy,” the researchers write.
As the year progressed, the researchers noted that Lydia became more involved in read-aloud discussions and that her comments become more focused and connected to the topics being discussed. In April, when the class was discussing what book to read next, one student proposed several books with frightening events or story lines. Ellie then shared that she was often afraid before going to sleep. Lydia raised her hand and confidently shared her own strategy for comforting herself.
“Sometimes at night, whenever my eyes trick me, I sorta pull up the covers because I feel much, much better if I can’t see because then I feel scared. I like, pull the covers over my head, and then I’ll probably bring a stuffed animal.”
In addition to taking every opportunity to encourage Lydia’s peer interactions and her social identification as an author and participating member of the classroom community, Mae spent time working with Lydia on her writing and keying in to her interests.
Once, early in the school year, Lydia interrupted Mae in the middle of a writing conference with another student to tell her a story about a butterfly. Rather than scolding her for interrupting, Mae overlooked the rule about no interruptions during writing conferences and said, “Oh my gosh! That would be a great story. You should write it down!” Later, Mae explained to the researchers that it seemed more important to give Lydia the message that she mattered more.
Help from Lydia’s father
During the school year, Lydia’s father also worked with Lydia at home on writing. He talked about his work and shared family photographs at Mae’s suggestion. These topics became part of Lydia’s writing. The quantity of Lydia’s writing increased from an average of fewer than 5 words in her writer’s notebook each day to more than 25, the researchers write.
At the end of the year, Lydia shared the nonfiction book she had written as her class assignment, “Shocking and Amazing Jellyfish”, which she illustrated herself. The class observation video shows her sitting in the author’s chair waiting for her classmates to gather around her, according to researcher notes.
“Her relaxed stance—one leg crossed casually over the other and one arm draped across the back of the chair—contrasts sharply with the visibly anxious child we observed in the first few months of school.
“She appeared to now see herself and be viewed by her peers as an author, illustrator, researcher, and future professional.”
Edward, the second child in this case study, came to the class with a history of frequent office referrals that he seemed to take pride in, according to the notes of his 1st grade teacher. Sitting still was nearly impossible for him and he careened through the classroom making loud, often rude complaints and comments, according to the researchers. Sometimes he could be mean.
In an interview with researchers, Mae described Edward as “the type of student who can make or break a classroom community.” Like Lydia, Edward was a blocked writer. During the writing sessions of the reading and writing workshops, he would write little to nothing. He did, however, enjoy Mae’s read alouds. His behavior was challenging. He often fidgeted, did not face Mae and tried to get the attention of other students with funny faces and noises. He often made know-it-all corrections when his classmates misspoke.
Despite his disruptive chatter, Mae recognized that many of his contributions to read-aloud discussions were “right on.” He often spoke directly to characters or acted out events in the text, examples of “expressive, performative engagement.” Mae said she worked on achieving a delicate balance between giving Edward the space to contribute and feel valued and keeping him from overpowering and disrupting conversations, the researchers write. Edward had an interest in Greek mythology and Mae deliberately held him up as knowledgeable about this subject to his classmates, who gradually began to consult him about myth characters.
Without Mae’s interventions, Edward might have easily spent half the year in the principal’s office and Lydia would likely have been referred to special education, the researchers write.
“Mae purposefully disrupted Lydia and Edward’s negative stories and supported them in building positive learning and social identities through restorying.”
“Fostering Academic and Social Growth in a Primary Literacy Workshop Classroom, Restorying Students with Negative Reputations,” by Jo Worthy et al, The Elementary School Journal, 2012, Volume 112, Number 4, pp. 568-589.