Kyle: Learning from a fifth grade reader who can’t find space for his interests
Kyle, a quiet and thoughtful fifth grade African American boy in an urban public school, drew in his writer’s notebook every day. In fact, while the other thirty-three students in his classroom were busy writing something in their notebooks each day, Kyle continued to draw page after page of human-like figures in various poses and wearing various kinds of attire. He was a prolific artist and demonstrated so in his notebook without a single written word accompanying his drawings. His fifth grade teacher was frustrated with him and his lack of engagement in writing (which crossed over to reading as well) and in a conversation with me as a staff developer in her school she reported that Kyle was “resistant” and was probably trying to mask a “learning disability” by focusing on his artwork instead of writing because he also “struggled” in reading. Additionally, the teacher reported that she was considering reporting Kyle and his artwork to the principal because she perceived them to be violent in nature. Kyle was drawing semi-human, cartoon-like characters with swords, blood dripping from the occasional wound on a body, and the characters were often in sparring-like stances with fists clenched and feet ready to kick. The teacher said that though Kyle had never exhibited any violent tendencies in class that this artwork may be the workings of something going on inside him, and that these terrible thoughts should be officially reported to the principal, the psychologist, his family, and maybe to the local police. In addition to Kyle not writing a single word during the first month of school in writing workshop, he had drawn himself into a pathology – one that was being read by his teacher as struggling academically, resistant to reading and writing, an unidentified learning disability, potentially dangerous, and reason for official reporting.
And then came the turn-around for Kyle’s teacher…
When that concerned, well-intended, frustrated teacher finished telling me about Kyle she waited with wide eyes, hoping that she had found the person with a magical answer to all the problems she saw in Kyle and his classroom practices. Instead of offering a solution I asked the first question that came to mind: “What does Kyle say about his drawings?”
The young teacher looked at me quizzically, “I don’t know.”
Genuinely surprised I asked, “You haven’t asked him?”
The teacher responded, “No. Should I?”
“Of course. We can’t know where to go from here until we start to understand what this artwork is doing for him.”
Kyle’s teacher agreed to have an open-ended conference with him during the week and bring what she learned back to me the following week.