Please Come Back. This is YOUR Education, After All
Realizations from Using Hope Theory
By Jan Rog
Now, is this week #13 or week #14? I know my original syllabus has it listed, as does my book of daily attendance. In my mind, though, I am in an academic fatigue when the days and weeks swim together. Personally, I focus on the end of each day with a simple goal of just making it through. Retention for after Thanksgiving seems far away. If this is true of me – a tired yet still satisfied teacher – what is its truth for my students? I’m not even worried about next semester yet. I say that I’m focused on encouraging students to return from a week-long Thanksgiving Break, but my real concern is seeing students attend today’s classes, tomorrow’s classes, and then that next class when the next writing assignment is due.
Not only at this point in the semester, but also at this point in my profession, I firmly believe this unsettled, uncomfortable concern should not come only to professors but should nag, capture, and haunt the students. How do I get them to remain committed to learning? So much of our focus is bringing them back to campus, but how do we instill in them a focused, intentional academic professionalism? If nothing else, I repeat to myself, “Yes, the grand illusions are ideals, but how do I get them to come back?”
Currently, many other strategies comprise my pedagogy, but Hope Theory is foremost among my work with students. Simply, students begin with awareness. How do they set goals? What goals do they even want? Additionally, how do they use their resources (sometimes creating their own resources) as pathways and then apply inner strengths and motivation as agency in committedly working to accomplish those goals?
Three of my classes are concluding their Thematic Unit about Hope. At least this particular semester, this work with Hope Theory goes far beyond any of my strategies. Since beginning stages of brainstorming through these final stages of completing their hope essays, attendance has been stronger, class discussions have been more inclusive, I’ve received more office visits, and – I take a breath as I type this – students actually seem to enjoy writing their essays. Below are my personal reflections about these classes:
- Students struggle with a connotative definition of “Hope” that requires active work, honest internal reflection, and realistic goal setting. In each class this semester and in semesters before there were students who embraced denotative explanations which emphasized belief. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition that hope is “to want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true”.
First, I must say, I am relieved that many even utilize that dictionary rather than just typing the term and taking whichever first googled definition pops up.
I struggle to have them move beyond the simple reportage of dictionary definitions. Can they paraphrase the definition? What specific examples illustrate a definition? What are the limitations of the definition in question? Initially, a good many of the students simply want to stay within the comfort of the basic definitions.
- This wishful thinking philosophy has led many a philosophy of “If only we believe hard enough, we can achieve our dreams. Anything is possible if only we try hard enough.” While I appreciate the power and need for this at times, I also fear that this leads students – all of us – into false beliefs about attaining dreams.
Addressing this as the students have been writing their essays, I referred to a speech I introduced the first week this semester: Jackie Robinson’s “Free Minds and Hearts at Work.” This giant among us emphasized that there is no magical wishful thinking that guarantees success in life. At the beginning of the semester, they were initially impressed by his accomplishments, and then they were more deeply impacted by his realistic message of needing to work humbly and persevere even with no guarantee:
Free minds and human hearts were at work all around me, and so there was the probability of improvement. I look at my children now and know that I must still prepare them to meet obstacles and prejudices.
At first these additional words made my students uncomfortable. This time is a sobering one for my students, especially as they consider the violence and upheavals surrounding them. Such uncertainty early on in the semester highlighted the threats and fears many of them face. Come mid-terms, though, they take greater comfort in another of Mr. Robinson’s quotes: “I can say to my children: There is a chance for you. No guarantee, but a chance.”
Come mid-terms, this message resounds with them more than any promises that life will be perfect. Through critical judgment, cautious awareness, or simple fatigue, they may be a bit savvier about the realities that come with goals.
- Finding hopeful, active work exemplified in others is not a challenge for most of my students. True, they need to work on their academic rhetoric and style, but they get the concept that others they admire have integrated hope within their lives.
- The majority of my students have struggled to recognize motivation, goal-setting, and personal resources within themselves despite easily seeing goal-setting, use of resources, and inner motivation in others. Once we address this, student retention comes into play in my classes.
We engage in class conversations, dyad and triad teamwork, and individual self-talk in addressing these self-expectations. They have written, reflected, revised, taken new directions, revised yet again, and then arrived at their breakthrough realizations.
Initially, when writing about their goals, some students focused far into the future. Dreams of marrying rich athletes, having perfect children, and being highly successful in unspecified fields were their first “goals”. Such unattainable dreams seem to come with built-in “outs” for them. Simply, when they can’t achieve these, there seems to be a safety in failing. Through conversations, reflections, and ongoing writing, the goals and means of achieving them become more grounded. Dreams of marrying rich athletes transform into goals of returning to playing volleyball as they had enjoyed in high school. Confident dreams of having perfect children are recast as commitments to family members currently in their lives.
Best of all, dreams of being accepted into unnamed 4-year universities transform not only into ideas of specific schools or vocational programs but also into visits to the Writing Studio, writing sessions during my office hours, and homework plans. I also see an increase in office visits, higher numbers of Writing Studio appointments, and seemingly endless revisions.
- I look forward to more lessons about Hope in future semesters. How can it be? Did this rub off on me, too? I will use this feedback – this enthusiasm – the last day before Thanksgiving Break. I want them to leave with a feeling of accomplishment, pride, and resolution to come back to someone who’s excited for them, someone who values their work and goals.
At least in this Hope composition, the students keep coming to class. I’ve retained them for a day-to-day time period. Yes, I use many of the techniques and strategies that other teachers use; I need every single tool at my disposal to help these students. Oh, to have a guarantee that the students will return after Thanksgiving. Rather than simply wishing that they will return, I’ll make my regular goals of communicating with them: sending messages, assigning light review work, and outlining what they need to expect upon returning. Still, I sigh at this current idea that retention comes from teachers’ efforts, especially when I consider that we are teaching adults in college. Like many or even all of you other teachers do, I want to communicate to my students: “This is YOUR education. This is YOUR life.” There is no guarantee for them, but they have exceptional resources and strong inner strengths to pursue their goals.
Time to now prepare for Week #14 – or is it Week #15? Ah well. . . Onward!
Article – NPR, Jackie Robinson – This I believe