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Book Review: Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture

Publication Date: 2010-01-01

Olson, Kristen. (2009). Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture. New York: Teachers College Press.

Pages: 222 Price: $21.95
ISBN: 978-0-8077-4956-2

Published in Education Review, the reviewer brings us to Kristen Olsen's profound questions, which nobody in the U. S. Department of Education is willing to ask, never mind try to answer.

For a small start on "healing," take a look at What Does a Good School Look Like?--and contribute you own ideas.

AND contribute a story about a small piece of joy you encountered in your school. See An Apple for the teacher. Send in your story!
Add to the lightness of being in the world.

by Laura Lloyd-Smith

Many professional educators will be stunned when they read Olson's new book Wounded by School. While the ideas presented are intellectually stimulating, many results of her hundreds of interviews detailing people's school experiences are painful to read. Olson, an educational consultant who holds a doctorate from Harvard Graduate School, discusses school "wounds" ranging from those that stem from the institution of school itself to those that are more concrete and experienced by students, parents and even teachers. The wounds that Olson describes are far reaching and include everyday losses of pleasure in learning, school ingrained beliefs that we are not smart or competent, painful and burning memories of shaming experiences in school that produce anxiety and as result, shut down the learning process, as well as chronic anger at teachers or other authority figures for not being "seen" in school (p. 19). Olson maintains that the most under-identified wounded children in our schools are those frequently labeled "average," and as a result receive no special attention or instruction in schools, but rather just blend in and demand little of educators.

Many of the cited examples, including those related to creativity, compliance, underestimation and simply being labeled "average", are described via a narrative interview with someone who had such an experience. In this way, Olson not only describes the nature of the wound but puts a face on it through the narrative example. Over a ten year span, Olson interviewed individuals about their school experiences; people of all different ages, races and professions, from all types of schools, and from all walks of life. She maintains that these experiences often have a consequential impact on the learning pattern. Moreover, such "injuries" may be the cause for underperformance and/or disengagement of many students, thus elevating the underlying wound to unique importance, not only for the parent but also for educational leaders and teachers.

Organized into two parts (Part I: "Broken" and Part II: "Healing") and nine chapters, the book initially discusses the essence of what Olson refers to as school "wounds." For example, in chapter 1 we are introduced to Delmar. Now a successful student at a charter high school in Massachusetts, Delmar had been arrested by the local police outside of his previous high school. "Traditional high school was largely a place of frustration and negative feedback for Delmar, in spite of his academic promise" (p. 16). He was frequently suspended for being tardy, even though he had to work part time to support himself. He credits the small size of his new school along with the caring teachers and social workers at his charter school for helping him find balance and realize the importance of staying in school. Another subject, Marcus, now a successful architect outside of Chicago, readily relays shameful school experiences from decades ago. After spending nine elementary years in a school building that Marcus remembers looking like a "penitentiary" and struggling daily with his inability to read, Marcus recalls feeling "edgy and nervous" about school, feelings that to this day still bother him (p. 23). These are the types of school wounding experiences that Olson suggests can have lifetime consequences.

The compilation of stories speaks to what is not only wrong with America's schools, but also what teachers and parents can do to heal those who are truly wounded by their school experiences. She dares to raise daunting questions: What kind of schools does society need? If we are still using an outdated, agrarian style of schooling, what are we preparing our students for? Does this style of teaching engage most learners? If not, why are we so faithfully committed to maintaining the status quo? It is not necessarily the author's opinion that the entire system of schooling should be scrapped, but rather that we need to engage in meaningful and reflective discussion on some of its "more glaring warts and flaws" (p. 7).

Part II of the book is dedicated to healing the wounds often created and experienced in school. Chapters four through nine explore the stages of healing: self-blame, changes in self-definition, grieving for lost school experiences and finally, committing to re-engagement in the learning process. She follows this chapter with a lengthy discussion of how schools themselves are wounded. David Rose, cofounder of the Center for Applied Technology asks "Who is disabled? The learner or the school?" (p. 114). As before, we vicariously experience wounded instruction when Olson relays her observations of an 11th grade math class in which "there was little chance for students to explore, interact with the concepts, try out their own ideas, or talk with one another about what was going on" (p. 115). Instead, quietness, orderly conduct, following precise instructions and lack of movement was "prized" by the teacher. She bemoans the lack of student engagement and stifling of intellectual curiosity and reports that students said "they didn’t really learn anything" and the class was "kind of a waste" (p. 115). She contrasts this with another class in the same building in which the class was engaged, busy, industrious, and not at all quiet.

Part II concludes with chapters dedicated to those who help wounded students heal and the important roles of parents, teachers and fellow students. Again, via narrative interviews, she conveys stories of the importance of teachers and how through their actions, they can either wound or heal. She notes that the "live connection between two human beings in the instructional environment--the emotional experience of this interaction--is the soul of educative practice" (p. 166). What teachers do with this power ultimately determines their effectiveness and may leave a lasting and even lifelong impression regarding the learning process.

The book is thought provoking and will no doubt provide valuable insight to educators, parents and students alike. The detailed research and countless interviews all seem to support Olson's hypothesis that today's schools are not justly serving our students. According to Olson, "Being denied passion is no longer acceptable in learning situations--it produces institutional despair and unacceptable educational underperformance" (p. 6). This is difficult and somewhat controversial ideology for educators to hear; we in education view teaching as a altruistic profession. To read in Olson's book the startling number of students, past and present who reflect upon their school experiences as educationally stunting, emotionally harrowing or otherwise harmful makes one question teaching as a career choice.

Regardless, the author dares to address the question that plagues many parents, educators and even students today: Where is the joy in learning? Olson desires school experiences for students that enable them to be actively thinking, engaged students. Essentially, she wants them to experience a joy of learning, both in and out of school. She speaks of the profound paradigm shift in education which must take place to move the emphasis from teaching to one of learning (p. 131). With most schools fundamentally structured as they were over one hundred years ago, one wonders how to go about making this change. As David Rose states, "Our curriculum is brokenâ€Â¦and most instruction today is like learning how to drive a stagecoach when kids really need to operate a Ferrari" (p. 117).

This book appeals to a wide variety of readers, including those students who experienced school wounds, parents whose children attended schools that left an undeniable and often negative mark as well as brave teachers and other educational leaders and reformists. It would stimulate discussion in any graduate education course or be an excellent pick for a teacher book club. Beyond the personal school wounding stories that Olson relays is a tremendous opportunity for readers to contemplate the direction our schools should take and ask ourselves the larger questions: If schools are wounded, how can they be healed? Upon whose shoulders does the responsibility for educational reform lie? How do well-intentioned teachers even begin to provide for the diverse learning needs in their classrooms? If indeed school wounds run deep and wide, how do we begin to change a system that is so ingrained in American history? Perhaps the best place to start is, as Olson suggests in her final paragraph, "to work to change the conditions of school that lacerate" (p. 202). By doing so, we will be taking active steps in creating educational institutions that will serve our students better.

Reviewed by Laura Lloyd-Smith, Ed.D. A recent graduate of the University of South Dakota and adjunct instructor of education, Dr. Lloyd-Smith is a former school counselor who has research interests in the foundations of education, fostering secondary level parent involvement and blended course delivery.

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