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The Extranormative Student in a Standardized Classroom

capitol buildingPeter Smagorinsky writes a compelling argument how to address students who he deems “extranormative,” in NCTE’s English Journal, Vol. 103, No.5, Who’s Normal Here? An Atypical’s Perspective on Mental Health and Educational Inclusion. Whereas these students are usually disciplined or placed in special education, he suggests teachers expand the environment in which these students move. He views mental health as a “multicultural and diversity issue. Those with extranormative neurological makeups both construct and act within unique cultures that fall outside the current emphasis on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, and physical difference.” Whether these students have Asperger’s or view the world through a creative, artistic lens, Smagorinsky believes that teachers can adapt their lessons and teachings to allow these students to thrive and feel comfortable.

He cites the work of Leslie Susan Cook who “studied young women with depression and found that they constructed their identities by means of art and digital fan fiction writing in online communities that were not available to them in their core schoolwork.” Smagorinsky emphasizes that “providing such unconventional means for schoolwork would allow for different potentials to emerge, rather than relying on restricted means of performance and assessment. This approach illustrates the ways in which changes in the environment provide alternative paths to performance that suit the unique interests, abilities, and trajectories of people outside the normal range.” He then cites his daughter’s “experiences with art as a medium of expression and identity formation, “ particularly manga, which John Lowe, who is chair of the Sequential Art Department at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, notes are especially popular among female students.

I know this from my own personal experience. Rather than write a critique of Romeo and Juliet as assigned, my daughter, a visual artist, rewrote the play as a children’s story. The teacher was impressed and graded her on her creativity and expression.

Sir Ken Robinson, author of Creative Schools, believes that that “education has to be recognized as a human business…We’re dealing with living human beings…not statistics or data points…These are living people with feelings and aspirations and hopes and ambitions and fears and talents…As soon as you recognize that education is not a processing plant, it’s about people, then the whole equation starts to shift around…we should be personalizing education, not standardizing it.”

Too often, though, teachers feel they have to follow the prescribed curriculum given the pressure of standardized testing and accountability and may not be comfortable allowing such leeway. Indeed, Jennifer Sanders and Peggy Albers write in Multimodal Literacies: An Introduction,

As literacy and language arts teacher educators, we continually struggle with the tension between the restrictive culture of political mandates that value traditional approaches to literacy and how we must work to develop a culture of possibilities that engage and build upon the new literacies that students bring with them to class daily.

Smagorinsky and Robinson agree in allowing students more freedom. By giving students the ability to highlight their strengths and differences, no matter through what lens they view the world, teachers engage the most recalcitrant and nourish their creativity and thought, particularly in written expression.