Teaching Hope: Connections between Life Expectancy and Academic Success

From 2008-2012, I led students in all my classes in a beginning-of-the-year activity called “The Life Inventory.” Students answered 100 who, what, where, when, why, and how questions in complete sentences and used the inventory to start personal essays, vignettes, or memoirs for the rest of the year.  (It cut down on the plaintive perennial, “I have nothing to write about!”)

During the first year I did this inventory, I didn’t notice any differences between my AP kids and my regular English classes.  All the kids in my mid-sized, southern rural high school seemed to respond to the questions about the same.  But then an answer from one of the students in my AP class caught my eye.  The question was: “When will you die?”

“I will die when I’m 30,” Lily had written in her neat, exacting penmanship. I knew Lily’s story even before she showed up in my AP class.   Her father was MIA.  Her mother had been killed in a drunk-driving accident. She lived with her grandmother who had signed her up for AP classes.  It was not the honesty and clarity with which the student answered the question, but the age.  I quickly flipped through all the other AP kid’s responses to that question. Without exception, the rest of the class had answered with 80-, 90- and even a half-dozen improbable 100-year-olds.

Then I pulled out the folder from my regular English class. I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed it before.  The ages they had given were similar to Lily’s:  58, 40, 50, 32, etc.  Only seven students in that regular English class anticipated living a standard American life expectancy for white males of 76.7 years.  (Interestingly, Kentucky, where I teach, ranks 48th for females (78.49 years) and 49th for males (73.40 years) in life expectancy compared to the national average.)

For the next four years, I tracked this question, and each year I had the same results.  I taught four AP classes and two regular English classes.  My AP classes ranged from 15 to 23 kids.  My regular English classes were large, always 30+.  During the four years of taking the inventory, 87.6% of my AP students indicated they would live to 75 years or beyond.  Conversely, only 18% of my regular English students believed they would live to see 75 years.

Was there a connection between long life expectancy and academic success, and contrariwise, in my low-level students between the powerlessness that comes from the fixed mindset of misery and low academic performance?  Maybe the students who believed a full, future life awaited them were more likely to invest in their present academic life. They signed up for AP classes, where they would read meaningful books, embark on tough writing assignments, have rigorous intellectual conversations, and work collaboratively in groups.  Maybe signing up for an AP class didn’t make sense to my other students, who saw their future life pretty much as dismal as their present with the exception that one day, around the time they turned 50, it would be mercifully over.

How do you motivate someone to get all hyped about a career or college when they can’t even envision themselves living 12 years past graduation?   Students will only be as college and career ready as they are life ready, and if life has shown them scary things – hunger, violence, addiction, impermanence in residences and relationships— they will react with fear, not hope.

Jessica Lahey in an article  recently in The Atlantic writes about adult mentorships providing huge benefits for students from poverty.  In the article, Lahey interviews  Valerie Maholmes of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s about the powerful impact that just one adult can have on a student by merely believing in that student’s ability to achieve. Maholmes, who recently published a book about fostering resilience in children of poverty, cites “positive relationships with adults appear to be the most important source of hope for children at risk for poor educational outcomes.” Maholmes suggests that hope is central to overcoming the barriers childhood trauma and dysfunction create. Hope, Maholmes defines, as “the ability to envision a more positive future, even when all evidence points to the contrary.”

The solutions, which cost nothing and seem obvious, are all rooted in positive relationships between the student and her parents, teachers, and other adult mentors. If students are met with more failures at school, more closed doors, more fear, their narrative of despair will continue, further narrowing their abilities to pilot their own course toward academic success.

Human connection is the most vital component of the educational experience.  All students need just one person in their corner 100 percent, giving them hope for the future, trying to help them see there’s a big wide world with many opportunities to live long, healthy, productive lives.

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What’s a Summer For?

In April, I attended an all-day writing retreat held at a regional university.  About three-quarters of the people in attendance were teachers; the other quarter, writers and poets.   The writing prompts were standard fare for these sorts of retreats – explorations into the past, clarifying values, cultivating gratitude.

As I looked around the room, the writers seemed engaged and serious about their art, but the teachers looked like they had just been rescued from a deserted island.  They were writing furtively as if their notebooks were dinner rolls about to be snatched out of their hands.  They were, to quote Annie Dillard, writing as if they were dying.

“Will I be able to scrape together enough of myself together over the summer to go back to the classroom again in the fall?” one teacher shared.

“Teachers are in a constant state of existential crisis.  We want to feel alive again,” another teacher read.

“Wow,” said one of the writers on the other side of the room. “I knew you teachers had it bad.  I didn’t know it was that bad.”

Perhaps he had caught us on a bad day.  It was, after all, about 25 days before the end of the school year. We were in the midst of the testing season.  Pink slips were flying about.  Nerves were frayed.

Now school is out.  The languid days of summer are upon us. We are given this gift of time in the summer. How do we scrape together ourselves? How do we feel alive again? How do we spend this gift?

Let me give you a single suggestion: Spend it on yourself.  The master teachers I know spend these precious eight weeks by investing in their selves, renewing and regenerating their personal and professional lives.  These investments might include participating in a hobby that renews their patience and peace, such as painting or cooking or it might include taking a class on a fascinating subject they want to teach next year.

Spending time on yourself is ultimately the greatest gift you can give your students.  Most teachers I know can’t help themselves.  We’re nerds.  We will be researching, studying, and becoming better at our craft. Or reading the professional material we’ve been bookmarking all year. A teacher who had called to tell me she had slept all day on her first day off also told me with delight and excitement about the Holocaust Educators Network seminar she would be attending next week.

Take a yoga class.  Pick up your dusty tennis racquet.  Read all day.  Build a pond.  Write some poems. Build a nuclear reactor.

Yes, teaching is a physically and emotionally demanding career that requires hours and hours of unpaid time spent developing instruction, assessing data, connecting with parents and students, but those sweet, sweet days of summer are important too for the longevity and the ultimate effectiveness of the greatest in the classroom.