stephanie jones

working against assumptions about students…Kyle part 1

In creativity, justice, professional development resources, stephanie jones, teacher education, teaching reading on January 23, 2008 at 3:29 am

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.

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  1. I bet the teacher will learn some interesting things by opening up to what the art is about and listening.

    I think visual images are so effective in communicating and absolutely think that children have such rich imaginary lives that could be recognized and celebrated. I think of a student with a learning disability that I taught in a fourth grade class that had the posturing that went with feeling unsuccessful as a student. He was a fantastic artist, and I happened to know his family from teaching his cousin in second grade. This student once found a wallet with $20 in it at school and turned it in. You better believe I made a big deal about it. He needed that recognition about his art and achieved a sort of fame from that as well as children would engage in creative, collaborative projects throughout the year.

    If this student does have a learning disability or not his strengths can be documented and built on. If he has something going on in his life or not with regard to the violent imagery, it looks like art is a great outlet. It sounds like he’s creative and making up some interesting characters that of course could lead to dramatic storytelling and fiction writing. So many opportunities seem to be right there for someone willing to listen and acknowledge that student’s expression.

    I have to admit that I love comics and find them very motivating for young artists/writers. I would buy the Little Lit series of alternative comics edited by Art Speigelman and Francoise Mouly. The children in my fifth grade loved them so much, and I gave them all away at the end of the year. Comics is a narrative art form that combines words and pictures to tell stories. That student may enjoy reading and writing comics as a way to express his ideas, and comic writing may be something the teacher can introduce to the whole class.

  2. I love your insights Lori, and it’s great to know more resources to use with students (I’ve never heard of the Little Lit series). It’s so true that art is such a great outlet for so many people, including young children and adolescents. And it’s also true that in schools we too often ignore, or at least push to the side, creative energies put forth by students. Wouldn’t it be terrific if classrooms were places where creativity was expected? Where students’ creativity would be valued and cultivated?

  3. Oh my goodness, yes! There are a few places in San Francisco I love that are truly about this. One is called the SF children’s art center, and the other is Creativity Explored. When I worked at the former as a teacher, I grew exponentially in terms of my creativity and how I talked with children about their processes and their art. The latter is a place where adults with developmental disabilities work on their artwork at studio type classes and have art show where they sell their art. My friend who works there says it is such an amazing community. I really appreciate your advocacy for children and their creative potential rather than the pathologizing and reductionist that goes on in special education, a place where it sounds like the teacher was ready to send this student! I hope things work out well for this young person and the teacher.

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