How do we help disadvantaged youths remain resilient and hopeful while the long-term efforts of school reform proceed around them? Lost in many of the discussions about school reform is the impact of troubled schools on students who are unlikely to benefit a great deal from the changes being debated, planned, or initiated. Theodore R. Sizer, among others, has noted that students are watching and waiting for the adults around them to take the steps necessary to transform their educational surroundings. What can we do meanwhile?
The work of the psychologist James W. Pennebaker and the wisdom of the late philanthropist and financier Sir John Templeton may provide some answers. Pennebaker has found in his research that people facing chronic difficulties in their lives, such as traumatic losses or injuries, benefit greatly from telling stories about their experiences and feelings. In fact, a number of research studies have validated the fact that writing about difficult circumstances is therapeutic for those unable to change what they must live through.
Independent of Pennebaker’s work, Templeton came to believe that young people in our culture are influenced in so many ways, and from so many sources, that they have difficulty establishing a coherent set of guiding principles for living. Yet Templeton, who was a man of great spiritual belief and optimism, also felt most young people were getting positive messages from the caring adults around them, and just needed a vehicle for tuning in to their own deepest understandings. Thus, he created the Laws of Life essay, which provides students with an opportunity to write about the values and guiding moral principles through which they live their lives.
Urban youths, so often the object of remediation and subjected to the pedagogy of poverty, can have their learning energized by reflection and inspiration.
This idea taps in to the universally recognized healing and uplifting power of storytelling. As children begin to look deeply at their lives and put their varied experiences into narrative form, they also reflect on the life paths of others and their “laws of life.” This leads them to speculate constructively about their futures. The essay-writing process broadens students’ sense of possibilities. Equally important, the adults who hear students’ stories often revise their own narratives of the direction of these students’ lives.
The John Templeton Foundation has organized a worldwide program to help communities and schools engage in Laws of Life essay-writing. Much of its implementation in the United States has been at the high school level, and in communities that are not disadvantaged. But one New Jersey community has decided to embrace the dual perspectives of Pennebaker and Templeton and apply the “laws of life” process to schools in difficult urban circumstances.
Plainfield, N.J., is an urban district with a student population almost entirely African-American or Latino and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. It has many social and health-related problems and serious, persistent concerns about academics. It is one of the state’s 31 highest-risk Abbott districts, so named for the state’s long-running court case on educational equity, Abbott v. Burke.
Plainfield adapted the laws-of-life concept to fit its community’s needs. Fifth and 8th graders were the focus, so that they could begin this reflective process before the often-destabilizing transition to secondary schools. To encourage greater dialogue around cherished values and life principles, students were asked to discuss their “laws of life” with classmates and families. High school students and community members were enlisted to help screen and judge the subsequent essays according to rubrics established by the district’s Laws of Life committee.
Every child writing an essay received acknowledgment. Some received extra recognition for excellence through awards donated by local businesses, alumni, community organizations, or residents. Teams of staff members, parents, and students from individual schools also arranged celebratory banquets for participants, honoring the authors of each school’s best essays. A similar team then planned a districtwide banquet attended by representatives of the school board, clergy, community and parents’ groups, sponsors, guests such as the commissioner of education and the mayor, and, of course, many students and their families. The banquets have turned into extraordinary community-building events.
Students’ laws-of-life essays address themes such as love, responsibility, respect, relationships, perseverance, self-discipline, courage, honesty, and kindness, sometimes in combination. One student, for example, wrote of the fear he and his siblings felt when faced with immediate removal from their home by child protective services following the arrest of their mother, and of how their mother’s friend, whom they had never met, fought for legal custody of them when no family member appeared. His law of life was the importance of giving love even to people one does not know.
“Laws of Life are rules that I live my life by,” wrote another student. “I think loving others is the most important of them. A person must have love in his or her life. Love makes a person feel important.”
An 8th grader said: “I believe every being on earth faces problems, and every one of them lives by different laws of life to solve them. The key to success in my life is perseverance. My purpose is to continue to reach my goals, despite difficulties that I may face.
“[My great-grandmother] was a maid who worked extremely hard just to make ends meet,” the student continued. “She walked miles to get to work because she didn’t have money for transportation. After working in someone’s kitchen all day, she came home to take in laundry. Her driving desire to make life better for her children and theirs motivated her to persevere in a time when being black meant you were considered less than nothing.”
In recognition of Plainfield’s students’ diverse learning styles, songwriting, art, theater, choreography, poetry, graphic arts, and other forms of storytelling have supplemented the essays. Former Superintendent of Schools Larry Leverett credits the program with helping improve students’ progress in both literacy and character development. Students had renewed enthusiasm for writing, along with a deeper understanding of the long-term implications of their everyday decisions and actions. Outside the schoolhouse, deeper communication among diverse groups of people has broken down barriers and forged new relationships.
The Plainfield experience illustrates how urban youths, so often the object of remediation and subjected to the pedagogy of poverty, can have their learning energized by reflection and inspiration. When they can address their life circumstances and intense challenges and share these experiences with classmates and families in an open manner, it reduces the emotional barriers that often hinder their progress. For most students, in regular and special education alike, extraordinary obstacles have not irrevocably impaired their moral compasses; these can be recalibrated in part by writing laws-of-life essays, studying and taking part in the related readings, and entering into the resulting conversations in their classrooms, homes, and community.
Those entrusted with the care and nurturance of children should ask whether our current approaches to improving academic scores are in the best interest of students or are driven by adults’ concerns with accountability. To “leave no child behind” is not an adequate goal; there is limited benefit in being brought to the back of the pack. By relentlessly seeking the advancement of all children, we affirm our commitment to prepare them for the tests of life, and not for a life of academic tests.
While we are working on the long task of improving troubled schools, we can take immediate steps to give the children in them ways to explore and express their aspirations and to overcome the emotional barriers to learning born of difficult life circumstances. All academic success and social resilience is grounded in positive, caring relationships, and the Laws of Life process helps strengthen these in many ways.
A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as How to Foster Children’s Resilience While They Wait For Schools To Improve