Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones, but Your Words CAN Affect my Literacy

The following is a Guest Post from Phil Park who is currently studying at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development as a Masters student on a track to teach Educational Theatre and English in Secondary Education. You can join him in the conversation to promote tolerance through literacy education on Twitter by using the hashtag #teachread. Together we can change a nation!

I remember the way that bathroom smelled as I sat, waiting for the hands on the other side of it to release their weight and allow me to go free. I remember the echo of every sniffle and every moan that I allowed to release from my throat. I remember the silence that accompanied my pleas for help, and the laughter that drowned out my questions of why.

I remember their words.

It was after school one day in sixth grade that I decided I would ask my English teacher for help understanding our reading assignments. I don’t remember what those assignments were, but I remember wanting help, wanting to learn. Maybe I wanted to learn too much—maybe if I had been less obvious, I never would have been in the situation I shortly found myself. I got to her room too soon, and instead of waiting, I decided that I should wash my hands, or blow my nose, or the host of reasons that bring you to a bathroom.

I didn’t see them. I had no idea they were there.

Armed with my excitement, I pushed the door to exit, but the door didn’t move. I was trapped. I was alone except for their words.

I remember their words.

In my studies as a pre-service teacher, I recently read Turner and Paris’s (1995) “How Literacy Tasks Influence Children’s Motivation for Literacy,” in which they discuss the importance of what they call the “Six C’s” to influence children’s motivation to read and engage in classroom work. Those six items are Choice, Control, Challenge, Collaboration, Constructing Meaning and Consequences. These features of pedagogical design, based on what we know about learning and teaching sound solid, but I was left with a question:

In cases similar to mine, what happens when bullying outside of the classroom, bleeds inside, rendering kids afraid to engage, subsequently stunting their abilities to infer, question, visualize, interact with peers, critically view the word and world—or a host of other literacy practices needed to be successful as a reader?

Whether any of us would like to acknowledge it or not, as social creatures, relationships, acceptance and popularity are strong influences throughout our lives. We depend on it in business, politics, and even the teachers’ lounge.

Turner and Paris (1995) say, concerning their second C, Control, that “students want to see themselves as originators of plans and ideas, not as followers in a grand scheme they may not understand” (p. 667), and while I agree that this idea will empower kids to feel in control of their education, my concern is that we still lump students together in much of classroom activity—empowered or not. In this context, what voices are heard? Who is taking credit for the originating ideas? To be bullied is to be made invisible, not heard from, insignificant. The result? Not only do those who are bullied lose their voice outside of the classroom, they suffer the same injustice inside the classroom, rendering their control non-existent.

From that moment in the bathroom, until I left high school, reading and comprehension was no longer something I desired—it was the very thing I avoided. If I didn’t understand, it meant I didn’t have to speak, with the hope that my silence would result in everyone else’s silence toward me. After all, my questions didn’t result in improving my understanding, but rather, in an extremely embarrassing and unfortunate situation. Questions were the cause of my torment, and in a desperate attempt to distance myself from that torment, my questions ceased. Reading became an object of dread for me, and there wasn’t a reading comprehension quiz I couldn’t fail if I thought it would help me. My preservation strategies only resulted in the adverse effect on my comprehension, and it would take me until the age of 27 to finish a book cover to cover.

Was my experience all that different from one faced by scores of other students around the country? Absolutely not, and all too often cases are much worse that being locked in a bathroom. Even still, the damage of bullying would stay with me, as I am sure it does for a lot of people. In the new age of high standards testing, and the desire to make our children “proficient” on paper, my question becomes:

How can we make reading in the classroom an all-inclusive event, catering it as an exercise in tolerance? Is there a way that we as educators can return words to their position of power as a learning tool, rather than a weapon of degradation?

In the interest of transparency, I am not sure that a text exists to perform that function. I will remain hopeful that as educators we can take up curricular and pedagogic approaches that will provide students with experiences to increase tolerance, directing them down a path that will promote unity with literacy education. I will dream that one day, experiences like my own will be stomped out by the students themselves, never to affect comprehension again. Someday soon, perhaps even through my teaching, students will leave their classrooms armed with knowledge founded in tolerance, and before standing by and watching bullying happen, they will jump into action saying:

I remember their words.

Turner, J. & Paris S. (1995). How literacy tasks influence children’s motivation for literacy. The Reading Teacher, 48(8), 662-673.

8 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones, but Your Words CAN Affect my Literacy

  1. Phil, this just reinforces my sense of your strength and power to inspire.

    Also, this really reminded me of an article in Teaching and Learning where a boy refuses to read – his teacher provides him a way to learn without being subject to social mockery and bullying attitudes, and he manages to engage. You are NOT in the same situation, and weren’t, but the social environment of school is so powerful – your article reminds me that I need to be especially aware of social dynamics in and outside of my classroom.

    1. And this is where I think the added layer of Theatre can possibly help us in that. Theatre is by no means a perfect art for tolerance, but it is a medium for putting kids in touch with characters in a slightly different way. The fact of the matter is, I think we ABSOLUTELY need to, as teachers, be more in touch with the social patterns of the kids in our schools. We constantly have to stay in touch with how they interact in order to combat these situations.

      And thank you for the compliment. I am indeed very lucky to call you a friend!

      1. Suggestion for “staying in touch” with school social patterns: Eat lunch in the lunchroom with the students, and not in the faculty room. It gives you the chance to observe them in their natural habitat.

  2. This article is so perfect because it reminds us that classes do not occur in a vacuum. We send kids to school to learn (ostensibly), but when I reflect on my own high school experiences, the social preoccupations and stresses I dealt with (or rather suffered through) on a daily basis completely overshadowed the academics.

    I definitely spent a lot more time thinking about the school social scene than about my social studies test– and unlike the test, I didn’t forget it all two hours later.

  3. Beautiful post, Phil. I have to say, when I was in the classroom stories like yours haunted me. I fiercely protected my classroom environment and tried to make it a safe space, but I worried about the spaces outside of my walls–including digital spaces. Those words hurt too. I think English teachers have a unique opportunity to give students the chance to “climb into [someone else’s] skin and walk around it in,” and therefore to teach tolerance. Maybe we can give students different words to remember–words that remind them of different ways of looking at the world.

    I’m also struck by your thought that we “lump kids in together” in much of our classroom practice. This comment makes me think carefully about collaborative/group work. When I was doing my teacher training, we were really encouraged to create the groups ourselves, rather than allowing students to group themselves. The idea that I might be forcing kids who were bullied outside of my classroom into working situations with their bullies never occurred to me. I’m now wondering how we might structure classroom interactions that protect students but are also the most conducive for productive group learning experiences. We know students don’t learn as well when they don’t feel safe.

  4. Phil, I immediately knew this was you because of the “I remember.” I happened upon this blog/a photo of you on Instagram because I was searching tags on Instagram in bed this morning after an amazing conference I went to yesterday. Happenstance? 🙂 I want to talk more about this. I want to use these ideas in my classroom. I feel like maybe this same energy, and this same convergence of literature and writing are not so strong in post-secondary teaching circles. We split, we divide, we say writing can’t be taught through novels, but was that ever our own experience?

    My students resist group work. They love to share individually. There are a few who have spoken out against bullying, and a few who have been bullied even in college – one who has been made fun of in my own class, unbeknownst to me (silence, subtle, sneaky words that live in whispers and laughter disguised as something else). This is my reality too.

    Let’s be in touch, yeah? I would love to talk to you more in depth about this.

    You are doing great work.

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