Good Stuff: Wounding and Healing

By Herb Kohl

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

By Kirsten Olson
(Teachers College Press, 2009)
240 pp. $21.95

Manga High: Literacy, Identity, and Coming of Age in an Urban High School

By Michael Bitz
(Harvard Education Press, 2009)
240 pp. $29.95

Kirsten Olson’s Wounded by School brought back painful memories of the time I hid behind my textbook in the 5th grade, hoping not to be called on, and the day in high school when I failed to make the National Honor Society and ran into the bathroom to hide my tears. These are some of the wounds of school that Olson writes about. She provides a list of wounds that, in condensed form, give the flavor of her argument against current practices:

• “Everyday” loss of pleasure in learning.
• Belief that we are not smart.
• Belief that our abilities are fixed and cannot be improved.
• Painful, burning memories of shaming experiences in school.
• Low appetite for intellectual risk taking.
• Tendency to classify others and ourselves into dualistic categories like smart/dumb.

Olson rightly places responsibility for these and other humiliations and blows to self-esteem on the nature of school in our society. She brilliantly analyzes the ways in which these wounds affect and damage teachers and parents as well as students, providing dozens of specific examples.

This litany of sorrows, however, is just a small part of her book, which is as much about healing wounds as about experiencing them. This is what makes the book valuable. Olson suggests ways that parents can support their children, that teachers can help change their schools and support their students, and, especially, that students can develop support groups for each other as they develop survival strategies and advocate change. Her ideas provide a vision of transition to democratic schooling. Just about every teacher, parent, and student should benefit from reading this book.

Manga High provides an unusual and compelling antidote to the wounds of schooling. Manga are Japanese comic books that developed after World War II. The genre ranges from superhero tales to romance and adventure stories with personal, social, and political content. Many manga are written by Japanese women, and female characters are as strong and dominant as the males. The first-person narrators are often teenagers, and almost everyone wears chic clothes. It is not surprising that they are attractive to adolescents in our culture; I know many young people who develop their own manga stories.

Michael Bitz describes a manga after-school writing class at Martin Luther King High School in New York City. The students at King are overwhelmingly African American and Latino. The goals of the program are to help students increase their literacy skills and decrease their alienation from school and society.

Most comic book writing programs are aimed at K-8 students and use American comics as models. But manga, with its complex psychosocial tales of the lives of contemporary adolescent heroes and villains, has a much stronger appeal for older students, including the students at King. This lively book is full of their manga illustrations and plot summaries. The portraits of individual students illustrate dramatically how creating manga can lead to personal insight and even transformation. I came away from reading this book refreshed and delighted. I went right online to buy some manga myself and to begin planning to set up a similar program. I suspect other teachers will want to do the same thing.