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Gateway Emotions to Reading

By Justin Stygles
 | Jan 24, 2018

shutterstock_210165379_x300In the face of high-stakes mandates and policies, the time has come to shift our conversations by balancing cognition—what a reader “knows” from reading (e.g., literary devices, themes, and vocabulary)—with emotions (e.g., perceptions, experiences, and the physiological nature of reading).

Over the past five years, I have jumped into the lightly tread psychology of shame. My work with members in the field, combined with extensive reading, has led me to believe that there is an opportunity to shed light on a hidden crisis in our schools and classrooms. Many psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists acknowledge the need for more school-based training and professional development focused on reducing shame among young readers.

When a person of influence deliberately imposes power or control to force a comparison or to create inferiority, the act of shaming occurs. For example, imagine a line of students in the hall.  Two students in the middle are talking. The teacher stops the line and says to the students, in front of the class, “Can you boys act like Sara?” In such an instance, shaming occurs because those students are being made to feel inferior.

Shame, on the other hand, is an embodiment; a conceptualization of self. Shame emulsifies from interactions, events, and other environmental factors—impacting a person’s confidence, competence, and self-perception.

What does this mean for reading practices? 

Although educators may not be able to control feelings of shame, they can control the act of shaming. For example, many readers feel embarrassment when they read passages aloud and make decoding errors in front of their peers. When a strong interpersonal bridge is in place, temporary moments of humiliation can be laughed off because we, as the teachers, can empathize. In order to build a strong interpersonal bridge, we have to show interest in the reader’s experiences and feelings.

If I call out a student’s poor reading habits in front of his classmates or tease him about his unending range of excuses for not reading, I commit shaming. Why? Because I am not looking at each day as a new opportunity, but rather, locking the reader in his transgressions. Through shaming, I destroy the interpersonal bridge between me and the reader for a sense of power, moral authority, or for the sake of “teaching him a lesson.” Reading becomes about me, the teacher—not about the student or his potential to interact with text.

So, what now? 

Unfortunately, there is no linear approach to addressing shame among readers. Believe it or not, much of our shame can be found, felt, or experienced through archetypal stories. To better understand shame, I suggest students read Parzival by Katherine Paterson—a story about a young boy who overcomes massive failure, finding redemption and self-actualization. In my opinion, the crucial moment Parzival faces is his failure to ask the ailing King, “What happened?”

I would argue that educators tend to overlook shame and readers’ emotions because of our high-stakes learning environments. If we take time to establish an interpersonal bridge and to ask the reader, “What happened?” the world will open wide. Within the reader’s own story, we can reveal the means to build resilience. 

Throughout the year, my job is to make young readers comfortable with their reading style and level. As their confidence grows, stress and anxiety declines, resulting in greater willingness to engage with text and to share perspectives.

Even before we look at the data, look compassionately into the eyes of the maturing reader and convey, “We’re in this together.”

justin-styglesJustin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, Maine. He's taught for 15 years in various settings. You can follow him on Twitter at @justinstygles.

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