If we can't see our students' strengths, how can we guide them to do their best possible work, both in school and later, in their life that will take place outside of school? Sometimes we have to look especially hard to see strengths that differ from the few ingredients that schools routinely praise.
Digging for Unrecognized Strengths
Mel Levine (“Celebrate Strengths, Nurture Affinities,” p. 8) asserts that schools emphasize correcting students' weaknesses “far too much” instead of affirming and sharpening each student's key area of skill. Consider and discuss:
- Might a student's exceptional talent, such as in designing and building structures, get overlooked if he or she shows significant weaknesses in areas schools tend to value more, like writing or even docile behavior?
- Have you ever seen a major strength discounted in a student you taught? Was that student's talent ever nurtured in school, or did it languish? Is there anything you wish you had done differently as a teacher to encourage that strength?
- Are there students like this in your classes now? How might you encourage them?
Robert J. Sternberg (“Recognizing Neglected Strengths,” p. 30) believes teachers often fail to appreciate knowledge and skills that students from nonmainstream cultures bring to school. Many standardized measurements assume all students possess similar background knowledge and may even question the intelligence of those who don't.
To put yourself in the shoes of a student who is expected to be knowledgeable about experiences that are foreign to their upbringing, get a copy of The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht (Quirk Productions, 1999). This book presents scenarios that require skills quite removed from those most of us need in our daily lives—such as how to escape quicksand or handle a charging bull. Imagine you've landed in a school in which this kind of knowledge is considered foundational and is frequently tested.
- In pairs, skim one of the book's scenarios: Test and grade your partner's knowledge of such “basic skills” as how to sleep outdoors in temperatures below freezing or start a fire without matches.
- Discuss how you might fare in a school where having this kind of knowledge was taken for granted. How might you cope? What would you want a teacher or mentor to do to help you?
Identifying What's Positive With Boys
Thomas Newkirk (“Media and Literacy: What's Good?”, p. 62) and Jennifer Allen (“My Literary Lunches With Boys,” p. 67) suggest that educators need to look at “what's good” about boys and popular media and consider boys' style of interacting—and of inhaling popular media—as pluses rather than problems in teaching writing. Allen discovered that providing a group of boys a place to be themselves, write whatever they wanted, and share their stories in their own unvarnished fashion led to hours and pages of enthusiastic writing.
Does Allen's account square with your experiences of teaching boys to write? Do you agree that boys and girls tend to behave differently in writing groups and may have different needs?
Try Allen's experiment for one or two afternoons: Ask each of the boys in your class what they write about for enjoyment, and invite them to share a piece with you. Ask those that show zeal for writing to meet with you for lunch as a group. Turn them loose to read their stories and watch what happens. Does the gathering take off as Allen's did? You might try the same experiment with a group of girls and compare. Report back to the study group.
Find Your Strength As a Leader
Look over the six leadership styles Daniel Goleman lists on page 78 of his article (“The Socially Intelligent Leader”). According to Goleman, strong leaders can tap into any of these styles when appropriate; poor leaders rely mainly on the last two (negatively motivating) styles.
- Which of these styles do you think you use most frequently? Which style is your strength? Are you able to draw on different approaches depending on the situation?
- If you dare, familiarize a colleague with the styles, then ask him or her to observe you in four different leadership situations and to take notes on specific actions, words, and gestures they notice that reflect one of the styles. Which methods of leading did the colleague see you using most and least frequently? Do you need to achieve more of a balance?