You’ve heard this saying before, right?  “You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole.”  In other words, if something doesn’t fit right, don’t force it!  Yet that’s what we do too often in education.  Yikes!

I’ve been reading The Shut Down Learner by Richard Selznick (Sentient Publications, 2009) and I am fascinated by his information, stories and experiences.  I know the SDL.  I went to school with him in high school, had her in my 4th grade classroom and had a major crush on him when I was in fifth grade!  There’s a soft side for these kids in nearly every teacher’s heart, yet they frustrate us and too often get left behind.  This is not good!  (DUH!)

But let’s take a look at why this may be happening.  (Or at least look at some of the factors that really spoke to me.)  First of all, we work in a highly language based education system and this is not the best environment for many children who need more. (51-52)  Not all students learn well with this type of instruction.  And we know this!  But our teaching environment doesn’t always give us the freedom to teach in a way that will reach more students.

One point that @drselz made was that we start our children in an environment that fosters creativity and exploration, but then in first grade (FIRST GRADE) the focus shifts to a traditional method of reading and language.  Now this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but if you are a 6-year-old who is not ready yet or who is not grasping the concepts of phonemes, words and language, you are already at a disadvantage and start a long journey of feeling inadequate and discouraged.

Dr. Selznick, who has worked with many Shut Down Learners in his career, sees a commonality among them, one that saddens me each time I read this.  They have “daily experiences of failure and frustration”  (43)  that they are the “casualties of school.” (4)

The truth hurts.   I looked back at my own teaching, my students from the past and thought about how I have failed some of them, what I could’ve done differently, what resources I could have used, methods I could have tried.  It’s not to say I ignored those in need, but I can’t help but question if I did everything I could have.

Two things thus far have stuck out to me as ways to reach an SDL.  One is academic and the other is personal.

The academic approach seems so obvious but, for some reason I feel I can (and other teachers can) slack in this area for a variety of reasons: give direct instruction and daily experiences with the material that is difficult. (43)   It’s all about perspective (and a little bit about a slap in the face), but when you learn about how and why students act and learn the way they do, it makes it easier to find a way to help them.   Our hearts are always in the right place, we just lose perspective sometimes and therefore may also need a jolt of purpose.

On a more personal level, Selznick encourages the adults in SDLs’ lives to reach out to students and be the person in their lives “to counter the view of being dumb.” (59)  Take a walk with them, learn about their interests, show them that you are interested in them and, most importantly, acknowledge their strengths and talents.

A couple of years ago, I started a “Walk and Talk” time with my students where each student would sign up for a time during recess to take two laps with me around the playground (during my duty) to chat about anything.  I learned a lot about my students that year and the ones that needed that connection signed up repeatedly knowing they would have my undivided attention.  I can see this action as being more meaningful to me after again, putting into perspective how important it is to recognize and emphasize students’ strengths.

After reading about SDLs and putting them in the context of my classroom, it seems easier to get that motivation to carve time out of your day to really reach and teach these kids, giving them the attention they deserve and need both academically and personally.

My goal is not to force students through their learning.  I am not going to pound any square pegs.  Instead, it is my job to make sure I fix the hole and show all my students their true potential.