Nurture the Dreams, Not the Explosions

The other day, I had a student in my office and she asked about the quote I had set as my desktop background: “It’s much easier to nurture a dream than to deal with an explosion,” a line from Ernest Morrell’s speech at the 2014 National Council of Teachers of English’s Annual Convention. Over three years later, it remains a line that I quote often to colleagues and use to guide my work with young people every day.

Before I knew it, I was down a rabbit hole. I was talking about Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”; I was talking about the English teachers I have learned so much from yet do not directly know; and I found myself endlessly talking about why I want to teach, the safe space I want to create as an administrator, and how I can always do a better job of helping my school become the place where kids’ dreams are nurtured.

If we aren’t nurturing our kids’ dreams and sense of hope, who else is?

For some, no one.

So when I recently read Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind and Jensen’s comments about hope, I started to think differently.

As Jensen points out, “learned helplessness” is not a “genetic condition.” Rather, it is “an adaptive response to life conditions…” in which “[students] believe that they have no control over their situations and that whatever they do is futile” (113).

I think we can all point to a student in our careers who has lost hope, who thinks that he or she can do absolutely nothing to change their life trajectory. I encourage you to pause right now, and picture them. Remember their name? Remember how they used to frustrate and challenge you? You may have even blamed them for a gray hair or two. They never seemed to respond to what you would say, and they would tell you again and again that they “don’t care or “will never care.”

That kid needs our help finding hope.

Jensen encourages teachers to talk to students about their dreams, their hopes, and their aspirations. But this talk also has to go beyond the mistake that Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, shared in this podcast. If we only do surface-level work of just asking kids about their dreams and not really listening and talking, we can get—and accept—responses like that of the student she worked with, whose negative response ultimately became his outcome.

As educators, we also have to be aware that “Students raised in poverty are especially subject to stressors that undermine school behavior and importance” (27). This doesn’t mean that all students who live in poverty are subject to poor behavior, nor does it mean that that these students will perform poorly. They are, however, at a greater risk. If we really want to tend to those dreams, we, as educators, must be aware of that and teach students to recognize and overcome some of these stressors.

We must nurture those dreams, make relevant connections in our curricula, and continue insisting that students can take small steps to accomplish their goals. If we don’t, then we can find ourselves managing more of the “explosions” that Morrell talked about in his speech. After all, it’s easier for a student to realize that yelling, screaming, stomping out of our classroom will earn him or her a “pass” at the day’s work. But if we are truly serious about nurturing those dreams, we have to think in terms of empowerment and persistence. Like Jensen also argues, “Instead of telling students to act differently, take the time to teach them how to act differently” (30). We won’t accomplish it in a day or a quick lesson about grit or mindset. Instead, we have to be as hopeful and relentless as we can be.