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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

January 10, 2014 at 2:36 PM

Guest: How to inspire hope in today’s students


Mark Wenzel

While the world seems to increasingly focus on the technical aspects of improved student learning — Common Core standards, teacher evaluations, and “grading” schools — a quieter group of educators, researchers and parents continues to discuss the emotional well-being of students as they go through the education system.

Keep in mind that when Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues developed their now-famous classification of higher learning in the 1950s, the affective domain (feeling/heart) represented a third of the model, along with the cognitive (knowing/head) and psychomotor (doing/hands) realms of learning.

No doubt that all three domains remain important. But as an educational leader, I see a lot of students missing the “hope” train. In fact, the Gallup organization reports that only half of American children are hopeful — that is, they believe their future will be better than their present and believe that they have the power to make that future a reality.

A wide range of research shows that hopeful feelings correlate positively with increased achievement. In fact, part of Gallup’s research found that hope boosts a student’s school achievement by 13 percent after controlling for other variables such as grades, IQ, and psychological status.

So why the lack of hope?

Many students who lack hope are poor. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 16 million children in our country — 20 percent — live in poverty. Researchers such as Eric Jensen, who wrote the powerful Teaching with Poverty in Mind, have documented the social and emotional upheavals that face poor children.

Still other children are bored or unmotivated. They’ve yet to find purpose or passion in their learning.

Gallup researcher Shane Lopez writes that hope comes from many sources: having caring adults at school, engaging in meaningful and challenging classroom assignments, earning praise for good effort and good work, developing goals that matter, and attending schools that commit to building the strengths of each student.

In Anacortes, we’ve made hope and optimism a focus, and we’re implementing several new ways of supporting the well-being of all children.

Principals have made a habit of collecting the names of students who have worked hard or achieved a goal, then calling the parents while the student stands in the principal’s office.

Staff are having conversations about empowering language and how to create a growth mindset among students. Our educators are focusing on engagement strategies across schools, with teachers visiting each other’s classrooms to compare notes and learn together.

Donna Grethen / Op Art

Donna Grethen / Op Art

Schools are partnering with trained staff at Island Hospital to provide district-wide mental health services to children in need. We’ve also launched a clothing closet at the middle school, stacked with new clothes, shoes and accessories for anyone in need.

We still have a lot of work to do. Our Gallup Poll results on hope at the high school mirror state and national averages. Student representatives on the school board plan to do focus groups with their peers to dig deeper. They want to know — as do we — how to get high school students engaged, motivated and hopeful.

By intentionally focusing on the well-being of our students, we expect to see gradual increases in engagement and forward-thinking. Hope matters. Getting students excited about the future is the right thing to do.

Mark Wenzel is superintendent in the Anacortes School District. 

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