My colleague, Samita, and I thought we had finally emerged victorious after over 2 years of struggle to identify, assess, test and finally obtain a certificate for dysgraphia for Minali. The government had sanctioned a scribe for her.
Minali had been stigmatized and labeled by her classmates and teachers for over 4 years at the school. She was the sister of Pratap, one of the biggest troublemakers the school had seen. She couldn’t write and often submitted blank answer papers. She never answered a question; asking one was unimaginable. When an adult tried to engage with her, she waited patiently for them to go away. When Samita and I accidentally found out that she writes beautiful ‘shayari‘ (poetry) in Hindi, we took her writing to her Hindi teacher. The teacher dismissed us and the writing as plagiarism. “Yah ladki aise likh nahi sakti hain. Likhna chodo, aise soch bhi nahi sakti hain” [This girl *cannot* write like this. Forget writing, she cannot even think like this.”]
But, unexpectedly, the morning of her 10th-grade mock exams, Samita got a call from the school office: Minali was refusing to use the accommodations: she didn’t want a scribe. Exasperated, the office administrator asked her if she was okay with a failing score, the inevitable outcome if she wrote on her own. Minali stood unfazed as she nodded ‘yes.’
Thomas Newkirk calls this the “paradox of offering help” in chapter 3 of his ‘Embarrassment: The Emotional Underlife of Learning’: resistance to well-intentioned efforts to help. After she wrote the mock exams on her own and failed, Samita sat her down to ask: “Why don’t you want a scribe?”
“Is it not enough that everyone thinks I’m dumb? Should they now see that I can’t even write on my own?”
Stigma and such a reaction to stigma is a central theme in the lives of students with learning (and other) disabilities. In this post, however, I want to explore stigma in a writing workshop classroom. Statistically speaking, there is a good probability that your class has one or more students with learning disabilities, and stigma is probably an everyday reality in their lives. What’s probably not as evident is that stigma, its enormous weight, and the effort into its avoidance is an everyday reality in many of our students’ lives, learning disabled or not.
In an anonymous survey, I asked my students in what circumstances they experience either stigma or fear of stigma. Here are the top responses from my class:
- When they don’t know conventions and spellings that count as ‘basic’
- When they don’t finish/publish at the same time as the others
- When their writing is ‘terrible’ compared to others’
- When they are stuck on a blank page
- When they are unable to answer a question when the teacher cold-calls them
In most cases, in order to move forward in all the above situations, they’d have to first out themselves: let the teacher (or a friend) know that they are struggling. This carries the terrifying risk of being stigmatized.
On being asked if they would risk being stigmatized so that they move forward in their learning, the majority of the students said, “Yes, I would.” How many times in the last week/month had they taken such a risk? “Almost never,” they admitted. Even though students may be consciously aware that they must put their learning over their fear of stigma, very few are able to do it at the moment it matters. Isolation and ridicule are scary, especially during the teen years when the need to belong is paramount.
Stigma, chapter 3 of Newkirk’s book goes into thoughtful detail about what teachers do to reduce stigma. Here’s my humble attempt to piggyback on Newkirk’s work:
- Identify sources of stigma in your classroom: Asking students directly in an anonymous survey is a straightforward way to do this. Additionally, I suggest you observe your students and the dynamics of the classroom for a week with this question in mind: What do my students take great pains to avoid? It could be physical areas in the classroom, say, certain desks, or actions, say, raising their hands to respond. If you have trusted co-teachers, I’d encourage you to ask them too. A pair of eyes with an outside perspective can be invaluable.
- Eliminate as many sources of stigma as possible, or at least attempt to dampen their impact: A nice way to turn around the story of a child who gives a wrong answer is to be thoughtful enough to say, “That’s such a useful mistake! Thank you, Ramina. Now all of us will understand this concept better. Let me explain. . . .” One has to be careful here though; fake praise for not-so-useful mistakes will just exacerbate the problem in other ways.
I had a colleague who’d prioritize writing conferences with struggling students. While I understand her intentions, once her students realized what kind of students get called to the teacher’s desk, all of them, struggling or otherwise, didn’t want writing conferences anymore. Even if the original intent behind a classroom decision was noble, ditch it, or adapt it if it’s leading to the stigmatization of a few students.
- When you see what might seem to be illogical behaviour from students, add this to the list of questions you ask yourself: Is the student afraid of being stigmatized in some way? Better yet, ask them. Samita was able to provide Minali and her scribe a separate room away from the view of all other students while abiding by all the rules given by the exam authorities.
When Minali telephoned me to say that her phenomenal score of 76% in the board exams was possible only because Samita and I fought for her, I learned that stigma can be defeated. In conclusion, I’d like to share one of Minali’s shayaris which sums up what I want to say better than I ever could.
कमाल है यह दुनिया
मेरी खामियान ढूंढ़ना
बखूबी जानती है |
भीड़ में तनहा होना क्या है
यह बेशक नहीं जानती |
Here’s my weak attempt at translation:
What an amazing world that expertly knows to look for my flaws
It undoubtedly doesn’t knowwhat it is to be be alone in a crowd
Have you spoken with your students about the sources of stigma in your classroom? What were their responses? If you haven’t done it already, I encourage you to ask your students what they find scary and stigmatizing. Do share their responses with me in the comments.
You can also connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.
Newkirk, Thomas. Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann, 2017.
NOTE: All student names are changed to protect their identity.
Featured art by https://www.khidkiyaa.com/
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