Making Ripples of Hope

At John Oliver we continue to create our community by building trusting relationships, co-developing a vision to guide the sustained direction of our learning community and creating a culture of inquiry mindedness.  In doing all of this we are engaging in the form of good work that will improve the life chances of the students we serve.

As the first term comes to an end I think about the importance of improving these life chances and begin to reflect on the importance of hope and its impact on the lives in our community.  In a recent article, “Making Ripples: How Principals and Teachers Can Spread Hope Throughout our Schools,” Shane Lopez makes the case that when students (and teachers) are hopeful they do better in school and in life:

Hopeful students have better grades and score higher on assessments. The Gallup Student Poll finds that about half of U.S. students are hopeful. Principals and other adults in a school should spread hope among students by creating excitement about the future, teaching students the ways to get good grades and to solve problems and knocking down obstacles to big goals.

Let’s be clear: hope is not a non-funded Ministry add-on like ‘Daily Physical Activity’ or ‘Grad Transitions’.  Its fundamental importance is embedded within this simple fact: over 10 months a year, 40% of the waking hours of that child sitting in that desk will be spent with you.

What a daunting reality; however, leave it to Joe Paterno, 85 year old football coach at Penn State, to succinctly and ‘as a matter of fact’ lay out our responsibility in his ‘take’ on being a “moulder of young men”:

…once you have kids, life changes.  You’ll find that your happiness is defined by your least happy child.  You’ll understand.  Every player we have, someone – maybe a parent, a grandparent, someone – poured their life and soul into that young man.  They are handing that young man off to us.  They are giving us their treasure, and it’s our job to make sure we give them back that young man intact and ready to face the world.

Paterno’s comments remind me of the words spoken over 10 years ago by author and educator Herb Kohl in an interview with Marge Scherer. Kohl talks of how as educators we all “grapple with the challenges of creating environments where kids feel they belong and where they learn to love learning.”  At the core of this “environment” is the central premise behind what we do, the reason as to why ours is the noblest of callings:  

A teacher’s task is not only to engage students’ imagination but also to convince them that they are people of worth who can do something in a very difficult world.

Central to this belief is our responsibility to instill in our students, and our colleagues, the sense of hope.  However, how do we and our students remain purposefully focused on this when, as professionals, learning experiences take place in a 750-square-foot ‘office’ with 30 different ‘co-workers’ every 80 minutes; a learning experience that asks one to make over 300 decisions a day?  How do students, with their varying degrees of ability, their personal stories and their difficulties in navigating the tumultuous waters of adolescence, even remember what hope feels like?

As I was thinking about these questions (and quite honestly looking for a reprieve from them!), I came upon a passage from Nino Ricci’s novel, The Origin of Species, which seemed to capture the essence of our challenge.  The description of the fictional “K’s” circumstance led me to laugh:

He had gotten an idea for another of his projects, about a character, K., who woke up one morning to discover he had somehow got trapped in a novel.  Suddenly the most casual objects became meaningful; conversations, rather than the wordy things they had been, became aphoristic and terse.  It wasn’t long before K descended into paranoia wondering at the menacing haze of significance that seemed to surround the smallest act.  Bit by bit his life was stripped down to its most basic elements, parent, antagonist, spouse, the blood-stained dagger, the smoking gun; all the rest, the hundred meaningless people he might have met in a day, the endless hours in front of the TV, replaced by disorienting jump cuts and elisions, action piling on action until it seemed the whole of creation had become a flood tide whose sole aim was to raise the frail vessel of him to some monstrous height in order to smash it.  Then, out of the wreckage, just as baffling as the rest, came the ray of light, the not-so-distant shore.  Hope.  

At this time of year, the demands of our daily learning experiences (students’ and teachers’) can sometimes feel intensely magnified with all of their nuances and challenges.  However, as it is for ‘K’ in his fictional conundrum, so it is for all of us in reality: the ‘sight’ of hope. It is a hope that is not fictional and although it’s appearance may be baffling at times, it arises because of our sensitivity in understanding that interactions with students always have a significance beyond the immediacy of a particular situation; it arises because we design classrooms that encourage reflection, introspection and a sense of belonging; it arises because, in the end, every learning experience at our school builds understanding within the context of human relationships.

Hope makes ripples: it isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game.