Turning reluctant readers and writers into intrinsically motivated students isn’t going to happen when students are wondering where their next meal is coming from or if dad is going to beat mom again tonight. Those situations put kids into survival mode; no one learns anything new in survival mode. I work with students who are all in poverty and who all have a lack of intrinsic motivation when it comes to anything academic–well, we middle class people see it as a lack of intrinsic motivation, but in reality it’s survival mode. In addition to poverty, or sometimes as a result of poverty, my students have all experienced significant trauma in their first three years of life–trauma like that significantly inhibits a child’s ability to function emotionally and behaviorally “normal” because for at least their first three years of life their basic needs were unable to be met. Making reading and writing important is not a high priority (at first) for me; teaching my students skills to handle their emotions and building relationships with them is the highest priority I have. Every teacher needs to have a trauma informed classroom; here’s why: a student cannot learn if he or she is in distress; unfortunately, distress is the norm for students from significantly traumatic backgrounds. Until our country addresses the underlying reasons for kids living in distress (like poverty), then we’re always going to have kids falling behind in education. Raising the stakes and suggesting that Common Core standards create an equal playing field and produce children who can think the way corporations want them to think and will be ready for a career or college is absurd until we deal with the culprits that cause long term trauma in children.
The first thing I do is form a relationship with the student because that is what is going to be my “fall-back” when all else fails. Once the relationship is formed, then we can begin to work on reading and writing. To do that, I have to know the student’s interests so I can hook them in to the topic. I’ve had students learn to read books for younger siblings; I’ve had students write “instruction manuals” for younger students. Doing something for an authentic audience is the only thing that works with the population I have. When they wanted to complain about the lack of choice in the school lunches, we worked on letters to the director of food service. When they want to find out about something, that’s when they will read and write–it has to be important and relevant to them personally. That’s when I see something more like intrinsic motivation.