A Word about Kids Labeled "Struggling Readers" Part 1

I teach those kids labeled “struggling readers.”

So do you.

My class was set up as an intervention, a remediation, a fix-it for students who have fallen behind, fallen off, or fallen out of favor, I’ve learned. It’s convenient to think we’re fixing problems, catching them up, helping them succeed.

It’s a nice game we play when we set up interventions.

I do not, however, see my classroom the way others might. I do not see a workshop for the broken, a repair shop where I take apart, analyze, diagnose, mend and put back together; a place where I patch and plaster, covering cracks and flaws and shining them up until they’re ready to be sent back to the world, sewn up, fixed, healed and good as new.

Instead I see my classroom as a haven, a safe oasis, a place where being you is the best thing this world could ever have. I see my job as cracking open, leading out, uncovering the lost humans who were buried under the avalanche of other people’s massively broken expectations. I see my role as a partner, a coach, a cheerleader even, finding talents, stories and dreams, and then coaxing, pulling, sometimes dragging, them out of the dark caves where they long ago retreated. I see myself as the luckiest teacher in the building, getting to see human beings waking up, voices scratchy from misuse, talents and skills emerging, peeking into the light of this bright, bright world, and finding that they do actually belong here.

The view I have of my classes and my students is totally in my control. I choose to see it the way I do, and as such, have just finished an amazing year with a fantastic group of students who I hope will come back and visit often.

As I have reflected back on why I love the work I’m doing so much, a lot of thoughts have come gushing into my head. I decided that I can’t talk about this year with these students who have been labeled “struggling readers” all in one blog post. There’s too much to say. So, I’ll break it into three parts. This first, is all about “starting with yourself,” the first rule, if you will, for successfully working with labeled students. In the next post I’ll talk about the classroom structures that I strongly believe we need more of. And, saving the best for last, I’ll finally talk about the kids, not so much my particular students, but more generally, those who tend to fall into the trap of being labeled.

I hope you’ll find this series helpful, or at least thought-provoking, as you wrap up this school year, or as you begin thinking about the next.

Start with your own attitude: One of the most powerful lessons teaching has taught me is that the only person I control is myself. I’ve read this idea over and over again in many books - in Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, in Teaching With Love and Logic by Jim Fay and Foster Cline, and in Becky Bailey’s Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, to name a few. But reading something and actually taking it to heart, accepting it, and living it are very different things, even when we are hit with a truth over and over again.

To move forward as a teacher of any students, the premise that we only control ourselves and not our students, must not only be accepted, it has to be lived. It’s the first building block of a good school year. And it’s not a secret to be kept from students, it needs to be shared. It’s not a scary piece of knowledge, it’s empowering to everyone around. If we truly know that we only control ourselves, we’re empowered and ready to begin.

Educate yourself. Yep, I know, you have a college degree, maybe even a master’s degree or more. Me too. It’s a basic requirement for the job, a generic requirement for teaching. But your real education begins once you get your teaching assignment in your school with your students. There’s no generic here; it’s real kids with real lives and they’re yours for your class period.

Getting to know kids doesn’t end with the college classes you took on brain development, but it builds on them. There are developmental truths about each age level and it’s your job not only to know these, but to keep them in mind with everything you do. Teenage brains are different from preteen brains which are different from the various stages of childhood brains. Any parent can tell you this. It’s hard to master parenting because suddenly the child in front of you is not the same as they were the year before, (or the day before). But with teaching, you’ve got a whole group of kids that are near the same age and near the same developmental stages and they deserve a teacher who is an expert, or at least has some basic knowledge of the age they teach. I teach teenagers. If I know teens and expect certain truths about where they are developmentally, a lot of frustration is eliminated.

But more than just human development, I’ve learned that getting an inside look at the emotional lives of the students I teach is equally important. This does not mean we require kids to pour their inner lives out in our classrooms (and knowing teens means they’re probably not going to tell you anyway). So, how do we educate ourselves about the emotional lives of teens today? The best way I know to do this is to read a lot of relevant young adult literature. The characters in books give us the inside look at the thoughts, emotions and inner questioning that happens in kids that often they don’t even understand.

When we read Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, I saw first hand the complex worlds Starr was balancing with a home life so radically different from her school life. When I read Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, I glimpsed the inside mind of a teenage boy with all it’s observations, insecurities and humor. Rainbow Rowell’s book Eleanor and Park brought me face to face with children living in poverty and abuse, as well as kids trying to balance their parents’ wishes and desires with their own.

This year reading Nic Stone's Dear Martin and Jason Reynolds' Long Way Down brought home to me the realities of being a black teenage boy in America in ways I’ve never experienced. Suddenly, there I was with Justyce in that parking lot, trying to get Mello in the backseat when those lights flashed, or with Will in the elevator, deciding whether or not to follow the rules. Through these and many more stories, I set aside my adult life, and even my own teenage years, and jumped headlong into the world of today’s teenagers. These books became a lens that allowed me to see experiences I have and could never experience on my own.

Build real relationships. Real relationships start with accepting what is, trying to closely observe it, question it, and, ultimately, to understand it. Our crisis counselor, Dana, says all the time, “All behavior makes sense in context.” So if I want a real relationship with students, I first have to be open to who they are, where they’re coming from, what their motives are and what is driving the behavior that I’m seeing.

This means that instead of starting the year from a teacher stance, I choose to start the year from a learner stance. I do everything I can to get a clear, multi-dimensional picture of who each student is. And that means that reading tests are about the least useful tool I have. The second I pull out a test, the kid is right back in every other experience they’ve ever had with testing, and for my high school kids labeled “struggling readers,” that is not a happy, warm or welcoming place to be; it’s a place of failure.

Knowing this, and being a crafty, cunning fox of a teacher, I find out what I need in other ways. I watch the books the students choose, I see how they hold a pencil, what their faces look like as I announce they’ll get to read and write, watch their thoughts tumbling or stumbling on to the pages of their Writer’s Notebooks. I slide up next to them while they’re reading a chosen book and talk and listen as they share a part of it. I see who talks and craves the attention of others, and who cowers, shoulders rounded, trying to disappear into their seats. I listen as they talk to classmates, watch their body language as they listen (or not) to others. I see how tightly they hold their phones.

And through all of it, I smile and accept everything I see. This is our real starting point. It’s rich, valuable information, that is going to lead everywhere I want it to lead. I want to see strengths more than I want to see weaknesses, because I know that making others feel good about themselves is the way into a year of learning together.

It is my attitude of joy, welcome and genuine curiosity that will set the tone for the year ahead, not the personalities that are in the class. If I am eager to get to know them all for who they really are, then we will build a foundation that has a chance of standing.

Accepting also does not mean that we will stay in the place we start. We will build a community with a productive learning environment. I’ll talk more about that in Part 2 of this series.

[A side note: Despite teachers’ best intentions, this does not always go well. For real. There are students with such profound problems, that a smile is not the answer. When I run into situations that feel insurmountable, I call on every resource available to me, starting with a chat with a counselor. I find out more about the student, I confer with others in my building who have had success with her. I’ve had restorative circles that worked well, behavior plans, one-on-one conferences, parent meetings. Whatever it takes to get to a place where the student and I can see and value each other enough to work together. I’d love to say that 100% of the kids who severely struggled have came around, but the reality is that sometimes they do not. I’ve had kids transfer to more appropriate classes, to treatment facilities, to alternative living situations. The important thing is to do what you can do, what you know to do, to build strong relationships, and then to reach out to others when you’ve exhausted your tools.]

Stop valuing compliance above all else. I have sat through awards ceremonies where students are praised for completing all their homework and being good helpers to classmates and the teacher. And, really, I always want to vomit in those moments. What on the surface looks like kindness is really thinly veiled compliance and people-pleasing. The student has fulfilled the teachers’ wishes, made life more pleasant for the teacher. What’s missing is that compliance isn’t about personal growth. Or creativity. Or independence. Or leadership. Or innovation. Or education. It’s solely about others and nothing about the self. And education, if nothing else, should be primarily about growth of the self.

When we value compliance above everything else, we value following instead of leading. We value staying quiet over choosing to speak up. We value meeting guidelines instead of forging new paths. We value do as I say over think for yourself.

These messages are incredibly harmful, destructive and flat out wrong. Our society needs thinkers, it needs diverse opinions and healthy debate. If our classrooms value and foster compliance, we privilege those who quietly acquiesce their own views to those who are stronger. We privilege accepting the ideas of others who are in authority. And, we privilege weakness over strength.


Our society values leaders.

Our society needs creativity, innovation and outside the box thinking.

Our society demands people with strong voices who are willing to stand up against injustice
and hate
and oppression.

We do not need mice who smile politely, and say, “Whatever you wish" to the fat cat licking his paws.

In this way, valuing compliance above all else is too high a price to pay. It cannot be the way we determine who is succeeding at education and who is not. It cannot be a basis for the label “struggling reader” or any other label we want to slap on a child who chooses to use his strong voice and say, “No.”

Instead we could choose to see that there are many ways to be successful, many personalities that have value. We could choose to pay attention to our own biases and question whether we're helping kids be their most successful with the views we hold. Is getting kids to silently comply, to follow our directions what's best for them in 2018?


While my class might have the label “struggling readers” firmly fixed, don’t let it fool you. Every student assigned to me is bright, has strengths, and has the ability to learn. I’d argue that our attitudes, our classes, our schools and our system need more fixing than the students in my classes.

Our students’ bear the heavy weight of years of a system with a narrow definition of success, one that doesn’t hold up outside the school walls. They also bear the weight of reading tests designed with this same narrow band of intelligence as the measure of success. According to these tests, only certain skills, vocabulary, topics, and processing speeds are markers of intelligence and education, while others are not. They are just more labeling that sorts and separates; they do not accurately describe the actual abilities of our students.

If we truly want education to be about creating humans who become their best selves and contribute to the richness of our diverse society, we have to examine processes that limit people instead of push them forward, processes that call their individual strengths weaknesses, and processes the keep success in the hands of a few.

And this all starts with us: the teachers and the beliefs and attitudes we bring into our classrooms everyday.

I hope in this post I’ve raised some questions. I hope I’ve caused you to consider, to reflect, to think. and to question. In Part 2, I’m diving into classroom structures that every student (not just those labeled “struggling readers”) deserves to experience as they journey through their ELA classes.

Happy Memorial Day!


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