November 27, 2013

Maine Voices: Adding hope to the curriculum empowers students in class and life

We need to engender hopefulness in a generation that faces formidable challenges.

By Brad Choyt, head of school at North Yarmouth Academy

YARMOUTH — Educators talk often about goals we hold for our students, the test scores, the grades. Rubrics of numbers and words, rigorous ways to capture results. But one of the goals we ought to aim toward is much quieter and harder to measure. Yet I’d argue that inculcating this word is actually the underpinning to our entire enterprise as teachers.

about the author

Brad Choyt is head of school at North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth.

The word is “hope,” held as Emily Dickinson did: “Hope,” she wrote, “is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul /And sings the tune without the words / And never stops – at all.”

The singing is what matters, as is the fact that hope, in its truest form, is never depleted. Taken in this light, hope implies a deep, generative belief in the world, its possibilities and in the positive elements of human nature.

New research corroborates what Dickinson knew intuitively. In a recent article titled “Making Ripples: How Principals and Teachers Can Spread Hope Throughout Our Schools,” Shane Lopez reports that only half of American children are hopeful, based on a Gallup Poll of 450,000 students. Just one out of every two students surveyed believes things will improve in the future. Of equal concern is that just as many students do not believe they have the power to make a difference in their current circumstances.

This sobering data says a great deal about the outlook of today’s students. And while the challenges our students face are formidable, ranging from climate change to a complex social and economic landscape, there are many good reasons educators should strive toward making the next generation more hopeful.

Lopez cites research over the last 20 years that demonstrates hopeful students are more engaged and higher-achieving. Hopeful students are also more likely to take greater strides in their studies and are more resilient as new challenges arise. Hope is also linked to attendance in schools, higher grade point averages and better results in college entrance exams.

In fact, the amount of hope students possess is one of the strongest predictors of future success. Hopefulness matters. Hopeful kids feel that problems can be solved. Hopeful kids feel that they can make a difference.

Hope is also a great equalizer. Studies over this period demonstrated that hope is not directly linked to inborn abilities or family income.

But there was a correlation with class size and the individual attention students receive in schools. According to the same group of studies, smaller class sizes help foster higher degrees of hope in students.

This may be particularly true when teachers are given the chance to know their students’ interests and help them cultivate and then achieve long-term goals. In a very real sense, support and success breed greater hope, which fosters further success. And individualized approaches to learning and goal setting help foster this process.

Fortunately, research also shows that with a focused effort and the right conditions, hopefulness can be cultivated. Even within a standardized curriculum and larger groups of students, schools can do much to nurture hopefulness.

One method is to emphasize innovative problem solving and offer the right level of support so challenges can be viewed as opportunities for growth rather than as insurmountable obstacles. Another is to design assignments that aim to create excitement about the future or encourage students to envision the world as the kind of place they want it to be.

Teachers and school leaders can also consciously model lifestyles that are optimistic and hopeful. And adults can provide inspirational examples about how challenges have been overcome in the past.

Finally, when students are empowered to make positive change in their own schools, it can help cultivate these qualities in their communities. The results may inspire a greater degree of hope in others.

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