Turn around Tough Students: “Restorying”

Teachers can help “problem students” become positive role models in the classroom.

Have you ever wondered why some teachers never seem to have problems with students? Just as there are horse whisperers and dog whisperers, there seem to be “student whisperers,” too!

What is it that these exemplary teachers do to turn around troublesome students? I’d like to share with you a research study that illustrates how a teacher can “restory” a student to help him or her be a positive member of the classroom community.

“Fostering Academic and Social Growth in a Primary Literacy Workshop Classroom: ‘Restorying’ Students with Negative Reputations,” by Jo Worthy, Annamary L. Consalvo, Treavor Bogard, and Katie W. Russell (2012), is an academic, yearlong case study of second-grade exemplary teacher Mae Graham and two of her most challenging students, Lydia and Edward, as Graham restories the children’s negative reputations into positive ones, thus increasing Lydia’s and Edward’s productivity, peer acceptance, and positive classroom behavior.

The purpose of this case study is to give an in-depth, personalized description of what the bulk of existing research about culturally relevant teaching already says, thus giving a clearer picture of how exemplary teachers turn around problem students through a process of restorying. The authors highlight current research about the key components that lead to restorying: teacher qualities, beliefs, and expectations, as well as classroom environment, instruction, and curriculum. Then, through the case study of Mae Graham and her students, the reader is able to gain a richer understanding of how these components take shape in a teacher’s classroom. This study serves individual educators by giving examples of exemplary practice; according to the authors, the study also serves as a jumping off point to conduct future research in which many teachers across contexts could be observed in the process of restorying or a single restoried student could be followed across time in different grade levels (Worthy et al., 2012, p. 587).

Qualitative Research Methods

According to Worthy et al. (2012) the researchers from the University of Texas at Austin chose to study Mae Graham (pseudonym) because her students had exceptionally high test scores and because she used a literacy workshop approach in her classroom.

Varying forms of data were collected during that time from many sources such as ethnographic field notes, post-observation notes, video observations,three formal interviews with Mae, and many informal interviews with Mae and the students. Member checking with Mae was also employed. Two to three times per month, observing researchers wrote analytical and theoretical memos (p. 573). The reseachers met on a set schedule to share notes and ideas, as well as to open-code the entire set of data looking for patterns and variations, eventually leading to the idea of “restorying.” From the data, six students were identified as having been restoried in Mae’s class. After examining each student’s data in the form of video and field notes, student work samples, and Mae’s comments about them in interviews and follow up interviews, Lydia and Edward were chosen for case studies (p. 574).

Edward’s Story: An Evaluation of the Results

Worthy et al.’s case study (2012) about Edward paints a rich, in-depth picture of Edward’s growth as a classroom community member from the beginning of the school year to the end of the school year. Salient bits of transcripts demonstrate conclusions the researchers draw about Mae’s effect on Edward’s behavior through restorying.

The findings start with a description of Edward’s past as having been identified by his school and home community as being oppositional and unable to make or keep friends. The researchers’ observations and impressions of Edward are illustrated with anecdotes and transcripts of Edward’s problematic interactions with other students, with Mae, and even with the researchers themselves. Prolonged engagement from August to May of one school year allows us to fully view the transformation of the students. Classroom observations, transcripts, and interview quotes systematically document Mae’s gradual understanding of what motivated Edward (wanting to be a leader), what his strengths were (reading), and how Mae was able to positively restory Edward by using this knowledge to shape her interactions with him in a way that made the other students see Edward as a positive leader.

A Learner’s Reflection on Methods of Research

As I have only just begun learning about research methods, this case study opened my eyes to the narrative nature that is present in qualitative research, or at least in this case study. While reading about trends of best practices in culturally relevant pedagogy would have given me a framework of what teachers like Mae do, the case study format allows me to deeply understand the complex dynamic between teacher, student, and group as I journey through the narrative of the students’ changes over time.

A Substantive Question

I wonder if the researchers had not been so interested in observing the literacy workshop block, would they have so easily found instances of Mae’s restorying of her students? I guess this study is dual purposed: on one hand, it illustrates how teacher attitude and comments shape how a student is viewed by his or her peers and how this can positively influence behavior, while on the other hand, the study is a call for the use of the literacy workshop model in schools, as it clearly correlates aspects of the workshop model, such as read-alouds and individual student conference time, as being essential to allowing Mae opportunities to restory her students.

So What?

Reading this article as an English Language Arts teacher, I experienced a full gamut of emotion. At times, I was invigorated and inspired to try some of these methods in my own classroom. At times, I was reliving some of my past failures with students, in which I had failed to lift them up and restory them. Just as I became deeply enthused about the idea of literacy workshop in my classroom, the crushing reality of the oncoming PARCC test, the new teacher evaluation system, and all its implications for my teaching came rushing back, a reminder that I do not experience the freedom described in Mae’s class.

Affirming my feelings of dismay, Worthy et al. conclude that academic curriculum is central in “influencing students’ learning identities” and they reiterate that it is Mae’s workshop, social, and collaborative approach that plays a pivotal role in this (p. 586). Completing my rollercoaster ride reading experience, the authors end with the discouraging reality that they are “troubled by the trends [they] see in schools that threaten [workshops and read-alouds’] existence. As is the case in virtually all public schools, more and more of Mae’s teaching time was being displaced with testing and clerical duties intended to prove she was doing her job.” With all the time Mae now must spend testing her students, Mae’s time for personal attention and social collaboration was restricted. The authors warn that doing away with the workshop approach will result in environments in which the possibility for student restorying will be “severely curtailed” (p. 587-588). This study is important in illuminating not just how important are individual teacher interactions with students, but also it implies a call to action from the decision makers of our educational community, politicians and administrations, to think twice before mandating that teacher accountability through high stakes testing and cumbersome data collection take precedence over pedagogical methods and curricular choices that enable teachers to help change the lives of students.

Reference

Worthy, J., Consalvo, A. L., Bogard, T., & Russell, K. W. (2012). Fostering academic and social growth in a primary literacy workshop classrooms: “Restorying” students with negative reputations. The Elementary School Journal, 112(4), 568-589.

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