Survival Strategies Come First

Jenny HorsmanThe assignment was to make a graphic representation of the plot development in a novel we were reading together in class. To this end, I had assembled some supplies on a table in front of the room: various kinds of large sheets of paper, felt pens, pencil crayons, glue sticks, stickers and labels of the kind scrapbookers use, some collage materials, etc.

We talked about various possibilities, such as diagrams, time lines, and flow charts, and when I was sure everyone had a clear idea of the assignment, I invited them to get started by choosing the paper and supplies they would need for their project. There was a bit of a hum in the room as people came up to get supplies, cleared their desks to make room for their new project, sharpened pencils, and so on. I moved through the hum, touching base with students, answering questions, and trouble shooting if a student needed something that was not on the table.

I was brought up short by the sight of Mildred, still sitting at her desk, watching the other students from lowered eyelids. She had not moved to get supplies, she had made no effort to clear herself a space to work, she was not thumbing through her copy of the novel to get ideas–in short, she was not participating.

Me! Me! Me!

My immediate reaction was irritation. It’s hard for me when I’m enthusiastic about something and someone doesn’t share my enthusiasm. And always under the irritation I’m disappointed because my work is not 100% successful. “If I were a better teacher, she’d be hard at work right now.”

And then a spitefulness creeps into me. Someone must be to blame for my disappointment. “Mildred,” I say to myself, “You are an ungrateful wretch. Look at all the trouble I took to prepare this assignment. Did you see me lugging those piles of gigantic pieces of paper around, and begging secretaries for supplies, and my department head for petty cash to buy the stickers?

“I could have just asked you to write an essay or a book report, you know. Then where would you be?”

I was well on the way to working myself up into a gigantic state of righteous indignation, but I was saved by a flash of clarity. I found myself in a pivotal moment.

Too Scared to Learn

Jenny  Horsman had been at my college the previous week, doing research for her book Too Scared to Learn, about the effect of violence on learning. She talked about survival strategies that get transferred from incidents of violence to the school setting. They are useful, even necessary, strategies to survive violence, although they are often counterproductive in a learning situation. Still, such strategies may automatically come out when something in school reminds the student, even unconsciously, of other situations in which there is danger.

And equally the previous week, Mildred had disclosed to me that her husband often encouraged her, even forced her, to try something new–cook a new dish, go on a diet, come back to school–and then criticized and belittled the results, tormenting her verbally and physically for not being successful according to his standards. (I listened, and started the process of being a side support.)

So that day, when I asked her to step to the front of the room, choose materials, do an assignment of a type she was not expecting, her instincts told her to freeze, sit tight and hope the whole thing would blow over.

It was a survival strategy, but from the outside it looked like resistance, non-participation, disengagement, and lack of motivation.

So in that pivotal moment in the classroom, I was able to put the two things together–Jenny’s talk and my knowledge of Mildred’s situation–and the resulting flash of insight took me out of my own feelings of righteous indignation and into another place where I could act appropriately.

What Did I Do?

  • I sat down beside her.
  • I talked with her about the novel, and confirmed that she understood it, that her ideas about the plot were on target.
  • I said that the assignment was a little unusual, and often people were a little freaked out when I asked them to do something that looked like “art.” So if she was uncomfortable, she wasn’t alone.
  • I offered her the option to write about the plot of the novel, rather than make the visual representation. She said no, she’d rather do the assignment as I had outlined it.
  • I told her in some detail about the kind of resources that were on the table, and asked her what she would like to use for her work.
  • When she told me what she wanted, I got up and got her supplies and brought them back to her desk. As the class went on, I kept coming back to see what else she needed, and I went and got it. She stayed in her seat the whole time. She felt safer there.

Is there a happy ending?

Not that I know of. Not for Mildred. One flash of insight for me, one successful assignment for her–these things do not magically make things better. I wish they did. Mildred dropped out a couple of weeks later. We did not see each other again, Mildred and I.

As for me, I used that flash of insight, that pivotal moment, from then on, to slow down my rate of making assumptions about students’ motivation, to stand back a little and wonder what was going on, instead of leaping to conclusions. And that helped me make the room safer for some other students, less crisis driven, so they could be successful learners. But not a happy ending. Not enough…

What about ABE/Literacy Students’ Motivation?

Mildred was motivated. She was motivated to survive. She was motivated to do well in school, either because she would be ridiculed at home when she failed, or because she saw an education as a way to a better life. She was motivated to deal with the fact that she was tied to a predator.

Nothing I could do would make her motivation stronger. No song and dance about a novel, no enthusiasm of mine for grammar or good writing, no field trip, or introduction to the internet, or mobile device could make her more motivated. (Of course, I can make it easier or harder for her to get what she wants…)

But her motivation is hidden behind behaviour that she uses to keep herself safe. Her motivation is hidden behind what looks like lack of motivation, lack of care, lack of engagement.

Instead of assuming there is no motivation behind her behaviour, I have to assume that she is motivated, and create the conditions in which she can learn.

When we think about attrition in ABE/Literacy/GED courses, and blame drop-out rates and failure-to-complete statistics on students’ lack of motivation, we are willfully blind. Plans to improve completion and retention rates must include attention to the effects of violence on learning.  Every Student Cares. If They Come, They Care.

Jenny Horsman


Jenny Horsmant



8 thoughts on “Survival Strategies Come First

  1. Pingback: Wrong Problem, Wrong Solution | Working in Adult Literacy

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  3. oh and I have another thought – you may never know how much difference even that one successful activity may have made for Mildred – even though you didn’t get to see it – and there wasn’t “success” as we would like to see it. I have been fascinated by the power of the affirmation of a different reality and respectful communication.

    A couple of examples from published memoirs: Pat Capponi Upstairs in the Crazy House (and many other books) writes that she is still alive today because an English teacher spoke to her with respect – when nothing and nobody else in her life suggested she was anything but worthless. Elly Danica, author of Don’t! A Woman’s Word and Beyond Don’t even wrote about the difference it made that her grandmother said the abuse Elly was experiencing was wrong and she would stop it. Even though her abusive father then moved the family from Holland to Canada and she didn’t see her grandmother again til she was a grown up, I am struck by how what must have seemed like total failure for the grandmother, made a huge difference for Elly.

    For me those examples give me some hope that even minute interventions can have more impact than we ever get to see.

  4. Thanks for the reminder that what looks like rejection of my lesson is often NOT a critique of my lesson. Like you, I sometimes take it personally, and I should learn to back up and try to understand why a student isn’t participating.

    • It’s hard not to take it personally–we are persons, after all. How else would we take it? 😉 But, as you say, to recognize that personal reaction and back up a bit and look outside ourselves…

  5. Thanks Kate – i love this post as you can imagine. And Barbara i love your plan to put Kate’s sentence up as a sign (and of course loved the sign you already have at your desk!)

    Your post Kate got me thinking about the time i ran a workshop with a group of adult educators – many were a little sceptical about my approach of focusing on the impact of violence on learning – and leaving behind frames like not motivated, but one teacher stays in my mind. He kept telling me he didn’t have any students who had told him about violence in their lives so he didn’t think that was the problem, but he did know he had a bunch of unmotivated students and when they dropped out after a while he felt he could really settle down and teach the ones who wanted to learn.

    It didn’t seem to matter how many times or many ways i explained that from my research it seemed really clear that the impacts of violence LOOK LIKE lack of motivation and that if he behaved differently and created different conditions for learning some of those students might not have to drop out blaming themselves again – instead they might actually get a chance to learn, even to celebrate their strategies that helped them survive unbearable violence and now begin to see ways that they could take control over how and when they use them and learn new strategies for new conditions in the classroom. Well that is if the classroom is a new situation not another place of subtle violences, of judgement and diminishment…. that relentlessly triggers old survival mechanisms.

    oh and one last thought – i have noticed too what an enormous difference it makes to students to have another frame for thinking about their (our) difficulties that lack of motivation – i’ve heard so many students so down on themselves for just being lazy….. and so relieved and excited by the idea of a new way of thinking and new things they can do to support their own learning.

  6. I’m planning to put that last bold sentence (“Instead of assuming there is no motivation behnd her behaviour, I have to assume that she IS motivated, and create the conditions in which she can learn” on my desk. Right beside the one that says “Find a way to say YES”

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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