Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tracking Lorena: Chapters 4 and 5 of Understanding Youth

Michael J. Nakkula and Eric Toshalis demonstrate how tenth grader Lorena Chavez comes to find her "flow" in chapters 4 and 5 of Understanding Youth.  What becomes apparent as the chapters unfold is that hope is the essence of what many high school students lack when it comes to the possibility of passing standardized graduation tests.  The questions lingering for educators in the subtext of these chapters become apparent: How can we foster hope in students who have "checked out" of school?  How can we provide support and a sense of possibility for students, even in areas other than academics, to foster confidence?

Lorena, a born leader whose "confidence" got her through elementary and middle school, finds that she is faced with having sub-par writing skills in high school that make passing a standardized test a seemingly impossible task.  Lorena acts out in inappropriate ways during school, but two teachers  who see possibility in Lorena advocate for her to receive counseling in lieu of expulsion.  Lorena is then steered down a path of self-development through the help of her school counselor, Maggie.  

 My nagging questions:  What happens to those kids who lack the athletic ability or charisma?  What happens to those "unlovable" souls who don't have an adult mentor to stand up for them?  How can we ensure that every child has an influential adult in the school setting looking over their shoulder?

Lorena confides in her adult mentors that her father was recently laid of and her mother was battling cancer.   Had those teachers not taken an interest in Lorena, realizing they were "losing" her , quite possibly to the streets, they may not have found out this crucial element of information.  This harkens back to Julian in the first chapters; when we take the time to get to know our students, we understand the many pressures pushing and pulling at them all day long.  How can we get our students to confide in us when crises are impacting their ability to learn?

Michael Nakkula's 1993 initiative Project IF: Inventing the Future and his subsequent research at Harvard's Graduate School of Education encourages educators to focus on students' strengths and possibilities rather than their weaknesses.  But, as the authors write, "Whether in the classroom or the counseling office, the shift from prevention and intervention to invention (also, at times called promotion) implies a great deal.  In implies that prevention work, although critically important and a key step forward from treating problems after they occur, is still a course of action fundamentally oriented toward student difficulties rather than their strengths" (Nakkula and Toshalis, 67).   

My question:  Is my own high school's "Freshmen Academy" and this year's brand new "Sophomore Academy", which are aimed at a small cohort our under-served student population, in fact mislabeling students who have a myriad of strengths, some of which are beginning to take shape academically? Or, would these two groups of students have been "lost" to dropping out had some concerned guidance counselors and teachers not advocated on their behalf?   From which side of the coin should we view invention and promotion?   And when exactly does that heartbreaking shift in adolescence occur from when nearly every student imagines he or she can be a doctor or lawyer, yet, later in high school, loses all hope of even graduating?

Nakkula and Ravitch argue that if students are presented with possibilities, their skills will ensue. It all comes down to educators fostering a sense of hope in our students.   We need
to show students how to view the world through the lens of possibility.  "We must nurture high-end skills just was we must help students develop in areas of relative weakness" (Nakkula and Toshalis, 70).   

As we see with Lorena, her involvement with a local college's crew team provided her a sense of pride, and her teamwork skills and confidence transcended to her academics.  She learned to "relate and negotiate," to "trust her teammates and her coach," and "to be in a relationship with her peers" (Nakkula and Toshalis, 80).  Subsequently, her academic achievement began to rise. She found her flow.  

Psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan argued in the late 1950's that the deep and emotional "bond of chumship"  could help adolescents reinvent possibly "damaged" childhood upbringings.  Selman takes the concept of "chumship" to the next level in asserting that counselors and therapists could even "utilize peer relationships and friendships to study moral development...and promote such development through these relationships" (Nakkula and Toshalis, 87). In this context, the role of peers as well as adult mentors become equally important in shaping adolescents.  While neither peers nor teachers should "replace" parental roles, both can become "mentors" to struggling adolescents.  

Toward the end of Chapter 6, Mr. Harrison, a true "mentor," helps Lorena and her lab partner, Steve, to come to a consensus about their lab project.   He listens carefully to their arguments, encourages them to list their own ideas, allows for a day of reflection, asks the two to reconvene and read each other's ideas, and ultimately, walks away as the two reach a compromise.   This was the highlight of both chapters for me, and it is an approach that I plan to take forward in my teaching experience.  Mr. Harrison, in effect, promoted a genuinely reciprocal friendship between students who were, in spite of appearances, not all that unalike.


  1. Amy, I wonder about some of the same questions as well. Where is the tipping point? Are there kids who are just unreachable? I saw a lot of my (teenage) self in these two chapters. I was not athletic or involved in ANYTHING at school, and I had no desire to be involved. I wasn't a great student and often flew under the radar. What can be done about these types of kids? Lorena was an obvious example because she stood out so strongly and was obviously struggling. What about the kids who silently struggle? What do we do about them?

  2. You two took all of the good questions. The unfortunate reality that I have seen is that those un-athletic, uncharismatic and unlovable kids get left by the wayside. I am certain that we are not trolling our schools looking for those children. Then if we do find those children how much of our resources/energy could we afford to give to them? @ Brittany. I do not think that there are kids that are unreachable, but there are plenty of kids who will go un-reached. At the end of the day the children who reach out or at least reach back will typically over shadow most of the kids with a tougher shell.

    Amy, I loved your piece this week. It reflects you well.