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October 1, 2015
Vol. 73
No. 2

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Hope-Building Schools

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Children are hopeful by nature. But what adults say and do can either support a student's sense of hope for the future or chip away at it. For example, suppose you heard a student speak unkindly to another person. A common teacher response might be, "I overheard what you said. You need to fix that." We can imagine that the student would respond to this criticism defensively. But adding just two sentences could change the dynamic: "I overheard what you said. That's not the person you want to become. You need to fix that. How can I help?" Messages like this help students separate their actions from their characters and instill the belief that they can improve.
The point is that everything we do as educators, whether big or small, helps create a school environment that affects student hope and engagement. A 2014 Gallup poll of 600,000 students in grades 5–12 found that students who strongly agreed with two statements—"My school is committed to building the strengths of each student," and "I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future"—were nearly 30 times more likely to be engaged in school, and such engagement was associated with higher academic achievement. Here are a few of the purposeful strategies that the staff at Health Sciences High and Middle College (HSHMC) has developed to support student hope and engagement.

Building Hope

Impromptu conferences. When teachers talk one-onone with students about challenges they face, it's an opportunity to reframe the student's experience or situation in a positive light. For instance, we've been using the following script when talking with students who are having difficulty confronting an academic or behavioral challenge:
  1. When have you felt proud of yourself, inside or outside of school?
  2. Why did you feel that way?
  3. What obstacles did you overcome, and how did you do it?
  4. What obstacle is holding you back right now?
  5. Could some of those same strategies you used to overcome obstacles before be used in this situation?
  6. Let's make a plan to overcome that obstacle. I bet you're already feeling proud of yourself for tackling this.
Circles. Sometimes, building hope requires more than a brief individual interaction. In these cases, educators can use circles to facilitate discussions about hopes, dreams, and fears. Circles can also be used to address social or academic concerns. In the that accompanies this column, Dominique Smith, a social worker and HSHMC director of student support, leads a circle with a group of students at the end of the school year. These students had experienced some struggles during the year, and Mr. Smith wanted to help them reflect and make plans for the next school year. He takes notes during the circle so that he can meet individually with students to follow up.
Aspirations. Everyone has dreams. These dreams can be supported and molded, or they can be crushed. Last school year, in a Student Voice survey that our school administered, 81 percent of our students reported that they "know who they want to be." We quickly realized, however, that we didn't know who they wanted to be.
Since then, we've worked as a school to identify and recognize student aspirations. We posed the questions Who do you want to be? and What do you want to be? as schoolwide essential questions for the first quarter, and we're recording students' aspirations in the school's information management system.
Every adult in the school also makes a point of weaving his or her own personal aspirations into classroom conversations and discipline-focused conferences. In addition, adults integrate student aspirations into their lessons. For example, the math team writes formative assessments with examples drawn from student aspirations, including medicine, architecture, firefighting, and cosmetology. English teachers search for independent reading texts that directly relate to students' ideas about who they want to be, not just what they want to be.

Building Engagement

Engagement begins with an individual's sense of connection with the school community. We start the school year with a tradition called First Four Days. Rather than holding traditional classes, we weave an element of fun throughout the first week while also administering academic screening tests, teaching school procedures, and addressing the logistics of technology passwords and such.
But the real engine of engagement is the family groups that are formed. We assign each student to a mixedage family group (grades 9–12 in the high school; grade 6–8 in the middle school) that meets each day during the week, participates in team-building exercises, and competes against other families in a field-day event that Friday. The family groups continue to convene every 3–5 weeks throughout the year, building ties between older students and their younger counterparts. This engagement among students pays off throughout the year. Students get to know other students outside their own grade level, and older students have a chance to mentor their younger family members.
Student-directed conferences. Last year, we began A Day of Understanding, a schoolwide conference held at the local convention center. Students designed and delivered sessions on such topics as religion, gang violence, gender, and sexuality; and a committee of adults and students selected outside speakers. The family groups met to debrief the experience and continue the discussions.
A smaller group of juniors and seniors plan an annual conference in the spring, called TRUST (Teens Reflecting and Understanding Stigma Together), to promote awareness of mental health and wellness issues for 300 other high school students in the county. They receive training on mental health, create public service announcements, recruit national speakers, host sessions on mental disorders, and provide resources for addressing mental health issues.

What Schools Can Do

Even when students' living conditions outside of school are stressful, we have the power as educators to create practices and procedures that build hope. When students have caring adults who recognize and support their aspirations—and when they are part of a community that celebrates successes and helps them overcome challenges—they're likely to develop a sense of well-being that makes learning possible.
Instructional Strategies

Show & Tell October 2015

7 years ago
End Notes

1 Gallup. (2014) State of American schools: Executive summary. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

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