Teachers want to see their students succeed as learners and human beings

This summer, Gifted Matters is going to take a look at issues (informed by gifted theory and practice) facing students in poverty.

That’s why so many of us enter the field. In today’s Tribune, there’s a gem of an article on success at Fenger High School, “How Fenger High School Students overcame obstacles to reach graduation,” p. 6. Fenger should be proud. This year, there’s a 14 percent increase in students going off to college. That’s really good news for a school dealing with challenges like crime, poverty, and gangs. Tribune writer Bonnie Rubin credited student success to the “soft skills” learned at school, grit, conscientiousness, self-confidence and perseverance (Tough, 2012). Principal Dozier claimed success came from guidance counseling purchased with a 1.6 million dollar grant. Using that money, Dozier reduced “the counseling ratio from 1-300 to 1-50 or as Dozier put it, “I essentially bought them a parent.” Most likely, it’s a combination of both—plus some brainpower. Three of the four students profiled mentioned the pivotal support--emotionally, academically, and career wise--that a teacher, a parent, or a mentor provided.

Not surprising! Students need guidance; they need social and emotional support. The increase in college bound students at Fenger is direct evidence that when students are given an opportunity to collaborate with a supportive adult, they become more motivated to achieve.

Gifted educators, like Linda Silverman and Jim Delisle, have urged schools to focus on providing curriculum or counseling related to students’ academic, career or social and emotional needs. In my old district, we used some of Silverman’s curricula. At the elementary level, students studied the lives of eminent people to see (and compare to their own lives)
• How the eminent developed interests
• What they studied at school
• Who were supportive individuals in their lives and
• How they set and reset goals
To apply this learning and develop greater self-awareness, middle school students wrote autobiographies. This curriculum, focusing on the “whole child” helped students find their footing, deal with setbacks, and develop confidence.

Education reformers, like Paul Tough (his book, How Children Succeed, is a great read) and students of curriculum, like myself, are all trying to pull together programs and resources that lead to positive youth development-- success in school and beyond (all teachers should be doing this; it’s required under the terms of the pending gifted endorsement discussed in my last blog, “High Standards for the Teacher of Tomorrow”). Not every student comes to school in a condition to learn to his potential. Whether poverty, illness, or other issues interfere, we need competent adults to be available to provide the needed support.

The four profiled Fenger students are thrilled to be graduating, but they haven’t forgotten what they are leaving behind. “This community is all messed up. We all need help,” cried one student. Still another explained how the negative conditions motivated him to get serious about school. There used to be 21 of us—Three tables (in the cafeteria)…”Now the table is down to just one. All those people? They are locked up for life…or they are six feet under.”

Reminds me of the Victor Hugo quote: ”he who opens a school door, closes a prison.” My hunch is that the four Fenger students profiled in Rubin’s article won’t forget their not as fortunate friends and family in their community—they’ll give back someday.  We all bear responsibility for these students. Keep that counseling door open! Chicago, find the funds for social and emotional support of students.

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