08/29/2017 by Michael Brosnan |

On Student Resiliency

The word impossible written on a chalkboard with a heart drawn around possible

On the train ride to Philadelphia and back recently, I read “Schooling for Resilience: Improving the Life Trajectory of Black and Latino Boys,” by Edward Fergus, Pedro Noguera, and Margary Martin (Harvard Education Press, 2015). While the focus of the book is mostly on students in public schools, there are lessons here for all schools, including independent schools.

“Schooling for Resilience” is essentially a study of seven single-sex schools (public and charter) for black and Latino boys. While the profiled schools have met with mix success for a variety of reasons, the authors were able to draw valuable lessons from the schools’ experiences — lessons that make it clear that at the heart of just about every student of colors’ success is a single quality: resilience. After establishing this point, the authors offer teachers insights into how they can help students, especially boys of color, develop resiliency.

In essence, the authors write, “in order for boys of color to successfully negotiate the structural and cultural obstacles that exist within their communities and society generally, schools must create environments that are deliberately designed to protect them and to promote resilience. These protective factors include strategies, programs and interventions that are based on an understanding of the ways in which race, ethnicity and gender shape the identities of the students served.”

To this end, they say, schools that want to instill resilience in students need to focus on “agency.” In the classroom, this means that teachers should help students develop the capacity to make choices and the capacity to adopt coping strategies. For school leaders, it means examining the degree to which schools actively support or inhibit agency. In particular, the authors argue, schools need to collaborate with parents and the community to “design positive learning environments” that enable students to build agency.

Among the strategies that work in schools:

  • Develop a culturally relevant curriculum.
  • Help students establish positive adult relations.
  • Create peer academic support networks.
  • Help students explore and understand their various identities.
  • Ensure that teachers pay close attention to student social-emotional development.
  • Develop concrete strategies to help students plan and prepare for college.
  • Create a school climate that encourages fairness and belonging.
  • Focus on high academic expectations all around.

These are all strategies that most independent schools employ to varying degrees. But I sometimes think that independent schools rely too heavily on high academic expectations without doing enough of the other work that will ensure success — especially for students of color and others who might feel on the cultural fringes.

There’s a mantra here worth repeating daily:

Cognitive Engagement + Supportive Relationships = Resiliency.

Michael Brosnan is an independent writer and editor, with a particular interest in education and social change. He can be reached at michaelbrosnan5476@gmail.com.

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