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Incarceration of Shame for Young Readers

By Justin Stygles
 | May 30, 2019
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Have you ever felt anger because you had to take responsibility for something you couldn’t control?

Time to read independently is not always a guarantee for a maturing reader. Yet the reader can be subject to the consequences of being denied such an opportunity.

A student might develop shame after repeatedly admitting he didn’t read at home—but perhaps not admitting he didn’t read due to challenges or circumstances he couldn’t control. The student’s sense of self, his feelings about himself as a reader, his life circumstances, and the teacher’s reaction to the transgression are all factors that determine the extent of shame he feels.

Let’s consider possible responses to the reader who continually errs in his responsibilities.

  • Is our response to the student one of forgiveness? Or do we punish (detention, loss of recess, etc.)?
  • Do we leave room for the student to explain his circumstances or feelings? Or is our expectation final?
  • Do we believe the student is capable of changing his ways? Or is the student “like the rest of his family?”
  • What supports can we offer? Or do we leave the student to work through these challenges alone?
  • Do our responses leave open the possibility for future success? Or do we leave the reader feeling responsible for an existence he hardly has any control over?

Consider the different responses I have given students in the past:

“Ok. What happened last night? Can you try again tonight?”

"You didn’t read again? How is this going to look on your report card?”

The latter creates shame. My reply stifled the student and left him no recourse. If you’re like me, this was an automatic response intended to impose healthy shame by “righting” the reader. Instead, I inflicted negative shame. The terseness of “You didn’t read again?” implies personal failure on the reader’s behalf. I held little value for the reader’s circumstances outside of the classroom, alienating his being. Further, I transferred my shame about my failure to inspire reading by holding him accountable to my pedagogy.

Before any reader is “corrected,” we need to consider the following:

  • Does the student have a safe place to read? 
  • Is the student ridiculed at home for reading?
  • Is the student unable to read and comprehend the book without help?
  • Are the student’s parents illiterate, nonnative English speakers, or struggling readers who cannot offer any support?
  • What else might be going on?

There seems to be growing rhetoric suggesting that students need to be given time to read in school because they aren’t likely reading at home. In the rural communities where I’ve taught, I know this to be quite true. However, I have also realized that many students do not read at home because they genuinely do not know how. The expectation from parents and teachers is to simply read at home. With such a broad expectation, there is no doubt a broad range of interactions that can constitute reading, not all of which involve meaningful, personal interaction between the reader and the written word.

Our endeavor to teach students reading should never be about punishment or consequences. Blame creates shame, which later induces reluctance and even resistance. Learning to read, I have found, is a gift, and also a responsibility, from teacher to students. As a parent once told me, “I send my son to you because you can teach him things I cannot.” In many cases, the “cannot” includes not only fluency and decoding but also the circumstances that permit successful reading. Perhaps a student cannot read successfully outside of school. Should that be the case, I have the distinction or honor of creating time before, during, or after school to make reading possible. In turn, I help students become shame-resistant readers.

Justin Stygles, an ILA member since 2008, is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, ME. He's taught for 15 years in various settings. You can follow him on Twitter @justinstygles.

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