As a reading specialist, my days were filled with lessons for struggling learners—the kids who didn’t learn to read adequately in normal reading classes. Many of my struggling readers did learn in my remedial classes, which were full of basic fundamentals, extra practice, and fun.
But then, there also were the problem learners. When I encountered them, I always looked to Maslow’s list of basic needs. Like many other gems I encountered in my educational reading, I kept it on an index card
under my desk blotter.
As a reminder, Maslow’s list:
I would look at each element in terms of that troubled individual learner. Unfortunately, many times I couldn’t get past #1(Physiological). Some of my children were hungry. I bought generic Cheerios and gave them a bowlful to eat like chips, telling them to drink at the water fountain afterwards. I encouraged members of the school board to institute a breakfast program; many of them felt that breakfast was totally a parental responsibility. I can’t say how many times I said this:
“You can’t teach a hungry child.” True. True. True. The board did, eventually, initiate the federal breakfast program.
Some kids had only light coats in the dead of winter. I contacted the local TV station that provided a coat drive, and much to my dismay, found that there was a year’s wait for a coat.
Homeless? Second graders who stayed home 1-2 days a week to babysit? Children who wore the same clothes almost daily? We had a social worker for a year or two, but funding was always a problem. Ultimately, the position was cut from the budget. Forever.
Eventually, I decided that, in order to survive emotionally in this job, I would have to mostly ignore my students’ home life. I found the “serenity to accept the things I could not change.” Besides, I told myself, I have more important things to do—like teach them to read—so that, at least, never holds them back from accomplishing a goal that they want to achieve in life, at whatever time of their lives.
I was also encouraged by reading an article that said that young people who struggle often can face life’s challenges as adults better than kids who have had everything handed to them.
My conclusion to mostly ignore things outside of my classroom walls, however, did not keep me from referring to Maslow’s hierarchy. I still analyzed struggling learners within the confines of my classroom. No matter what was going on outside, I had something very important to teach them inside—READING.
#2 Safety was not as big a concern in those not-so-long ago days. Our urban school and our class were reasonably safe. Their homes? I decided not to think about this. (See previous conclusion.) Only one time, when a student threw a desk, was my concern for in-classroom student safety elevated. I cry, literally cry, because of today’s school shooter drills and also for the psychological damage they produce. Bullying in our classroom was always nipped in the bud.
#3 Love is one need that all students require, maybe more than others. So much so, that I decided to give up about 3 minutes of my very valuable 25-minutes at the beginning of class to talk to them about their wishes and dreams. This was difficult for me to do because I firmly regulated my instructional time, or I would have been unable to accomplish my goals for them, and the tenth class of my day would never be seen. Nevertheless, I did give them this time because I felt it was very much needed. I let them talk—not solving problems, just listening. Many children are never listened to. This did reap the great benefit of their trust.
#4 Self-esteem is based in truth. Kids are not stupid. They know when they accomplish something meaningful. Fake praise is useless. I was always lucky to have supervisors who let me have 1-2 weeks of September time to analyze each of my 75 students’ strengths and weaknesses, so I was able to give them “Goldilocks Instruction” (Not too hard, not too soft, just right!) at their own individual instructional levels. They thrived with true self-esteem and an honest 80-90%, as they learned with only a sprinkling of discouraging mistakes. I always used as many checkmarks on their papers as possible, imaging how encouraging that would be for struggling learners’ psyches as I visualized how many X’s they had probably seen on their test papers in other classes.
For a list of different words to praise students, see my Free Tip
#5 Self-actualization The perception of true success leads students to wonderful heights. In my experience all children want to learn to read. Then they can improve their grades themselves. Then they can choose books that appeal to them. I spent considerable $ for a classroom library in which the reading levels were tightly controlled for readability. I wanted struggling learners to feel the thrill of being able to read books that they wanted to read, all by themselves. Eventually, they can begin to believe in the accessibility of a career in a field of their own real interest.
Using Maslow’s list, I have been relentless in working to accomplish the goal of learning to read for each and every struggling reader of the thousands I have encountered. Some are a more difficult challenge than others. The smiles of accomplishment of the particularly troubled learners have been my gift to myself.
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