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March/April 2014

Instilling resilience in students of poverty
By Diallotelli Brown

Diallotelli Brown is an administrator for Round Lake Area School District 116 in Round Lake Illinois and a doctoral student at National Louis University.

Not every teacher or administrator knows what it’s like to be a socially and/or economically disadvantaged student with an impressionable mind living in over-crowded conditions, with more than just the immediate family. This type of mental baggage can be compared to a typical student weighed down by a bulging backpack. Overcrowding at home can impede a student from being even remotely successful at school. Then add extended- family problems that may include drug dependency or mental health instability, which clutter and distract a student’s academic environment.

Likewise, educators do not accurately consider that the student is inundated with realities of poverty, like hunger pangs and neighborhoods littered with families in the same conditions — some only slightly more optimistic than others. Education does not seem to be a viable weapon to battle problems. Instead, education resembles a series of complex requirements that will not help the immediate situation. These conditions are the norm for many urban students who are not entirely engaged in learning.

Single-mother families with multiple children and absent fathers also can damage a student’s acceptance of academics. These students are conscious of how they live and subconsciously may see this as their adult life, too, even if they push hard to succeed in school. Good teaching can help these students be more resilient.

So how can teachers sell resilience and optimism to students who may be complacent? They can share stories of what works. As stories of successes are duplicated and retold, other students may eventually buy into becoming independently resilient in regard to both academics and overall optimism. Addressing these challenges in the classroom requires identifying the context of the problems students face prior to the first bell, understanding the different systems associated with educational resilience, navigating narratives and practicing best strategies with sincerity, fidelity and purposefulness.

Identify masquerading students
Research by Erik Morales in 2008, conducted for the Educational Forum, found that academic resilience is a learned process and not something instinctively perpetuated by teaching strategies. As they learn resilience strategies, lower socio-economic status students may face a sense of cultural disconnect. They may need to take on a new self when they practice what is learned in the classroom, while struggling to maintain the cultural norm of the neighborhood where they live. Students may hide that they are studious around their peers in order to be accepted.

As they shift between identities, they fight to comprehend, accept and produce what is academically expected. These are what I refer to as masquerading students. They take on two identities and at times the lines between the two may blur.

Paradigms in progress
Morales’ view is put into greater perspective and challenged by observing what Stephen Sterling identified in 2008 as sustainability in learning. This idea takes on two separate theories of resilience in learning. At one end of the spectrum is the belief that resilience is not natural and must be learned. This perspective promotes the concept that a consciousness of environmental issues from the local to global perspective will rationally lead students to more social awareness and a materialistic mindset which, in the case of socially and economically disadvantage students, helps them realize what academics will do for them as a means to dumping the surroundings where they feel entrenched. According to 2008 research by William Scott and Paul Vare, the other perspective is intrinsic value, whereby students become embedded in a process that tries to help them make sound decisions.

Familiar narratives
When I taught sixth- and eighth-grade language arts, I came across many of these students as well as those who enjoyed being in school, some for non-traditional reasons. One Hispanic eighth-grader was academically sound. During class he would quietly and meticulously complete his work. Through differentiated instruction, I soon determined he would be a good class ambassador and that I would use alternative assessments on him prior to releasing him to work with other students who might be struggling. As we discussed what I thought would be a great leadership opportunity, he candidly asked me not to assume he would be willing to help other students.

He explained that other Hispanic students would treat him differently if he was perceived as more intelligent than his classmates and that it could have tremendous impact on how he would have to navigate his neighborhood. He also asked me to limit how often he was called on in a week so that he could maintain his identity among his peers. In that same conversation, we confirmed schedules so that he knew I would be available for lunch in order for him to work on assignments from other teachers so that his backpack would not look overloaded as he walked home from school. I see him every now and then in the learning center at the community college where I teach.

Yet another student’s story in regard to resilience required more transformation. He was a student I did not teach, but saw every day as I entered the building. I would often arrive 45 minutes early to think my day through and most times I would be greeted by this young man. He would consistently be there 20 minutes before free and reduced-price breakfast was served.

Often the janitors would open the door to allow him in, especially on cold days. Teachers took an intimate liking to him, assuming what his home life was like. After speaking with his teachers, I learned he was not entirely committed to learning, but he was hungry. Just as he arrived early for school, he was also among the last to leave — attending any after-school program that involved a snack.

Collectively, the school used this student as a model in terms of resilience. When a student needs to be at school for whatever reason, we need to give them a corresponding responsibility and expect something to happen as a result of that responsibility. We decided that he could be the morning gatekeeper and with this responsibility— which he enjoyed immensely, came a commitment to two mornings a week before school and two days after school for tutoring. I am not sure what became of him after I left that building but I do recall him being a more engaged student that year.

Setting the standard
Selling resilience to children of any socio-economic level cannot be taken lightly. In the case of urban students, the task involves one particular concept that may not be recognized yet as best practice. An educator must be committed to helping students believe they can do it. The teacher must be able to sell students on the idea that they are capable regardless of circumstance at home. The teacher must commit to learning more about how the student operates on a macro level. Engaging students in conversations about their interests, and connecting that topic to the student’s school work makes a difference.

As in the case of the eighth-grade Hispanic student, the ability to have a connection and to help that student navigate between two identities did not come easy. Trust and respect had to be created for the student to feel comfortable asking me to relax my desire for him to be a leader even though I meant well. We also had to respect the other’s cultural identity in order to improve the resiliency that did exist in order to be more effective later on in school

With the second student who literally needed to be at school for nourishment, a group effort attached to responsibilities provided him with two specific needs — education and food. During tutoring sessions, we started by simply telling him the road would be tough, but he could do it. Later, he believed because we believed. Sometimes all academic resilience takes is for the teacher to whole heartedly believe students can do it.

Author’s note
I would like to acknowledge the contributions of Jeff Pickett, principal, and Raymond Porten, assistant principal at Round Lake Middle School.

Scott Larson,“Teaching for Transformation in Today’s Challenging Youth,” Reclaiming children & youth. Spring 2005

Morales, Erik E, “The Resilient Mind: The Psychology of Academic Resilience,” Educational Forum, 2008

Scott William, and Paul Vare ­“Education for sustainable development – Two sides and an edge,”, 2008

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