Journal of Secondary Alternate Education
In This Issue:
Rediscovering Hope in Alternative School Students: Rethinking and Redefining the Mission of an Alternative School, by Kevin Sheehan (Assistant Professor, Molloy College) and Sage Rose (Hofstra University) [peer-reviewed article]
You Have Learned to Think, by Dan Lukiv
Rediscovering Hope in Alternative School Students: Rethinking and Redefining the Mission of an Alternative School
Assistant Professor Molloy College
"Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.
- A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
There is no doubt that teachers and staff in alternative schools are heroic, knowing no limits to their determination and dedication in helping students reclaim lives that may have went off track in typical high schools. However, much like Edward Bear in the poem above, teachers in alternative schools seem to keep bumping down the stairs as they cajole students to pass mandated state tests, attend classes regularly, and to make up courses missed due to attendance issues. Though admirable, these dedicated teachers may be failing to address the elephant in the room. The students in their care have lost hope. When I use the term, hope, I do not mean the colloquial hope and change made famous in Obama's campaign for the presidency. I refer to the hope in hope theory made popular by C. R. Snyder. This article suggests that until schools redefine their mission to help students rediscover their lost hope, this lack of hope may be destroying our students' belief that they can achieve their goals and lead satisfying lives. The reader should be forewarned that this article might entirely change your vision and definition of alternative school education. In other cases, this article may simply clarify what you already knew to be true and, hopefully, provide a meaningful framework for dealing with that truth.
Lost Hope in Alternative School Students
Hope, as defined by C. R. Snyder (2000) consists of constructs known as agency and pathways to achieve our defined goals. Pathways are exactly as the name suggests; the avenues, roads and methods that will enable us to achieve our goals. Agency is the internal capacity to act and follow through on those pathways. Snyder defined agency as the will or energy to follow through on the pathways that lead us to our goals. Agency is energy that comes with goal setting but eventually feeds into our self-belief that we control the actions necessary to achieve our goals. Snyder's hope theory has been documented in numerous research efforts as part of the positive psychology movement. Research has shown that higher hope levels are extensively correlated with improved performance in academics, athletic performance, mental health, aging and the assorted domains that define our lives (Snyder, 2000). Students enter our alternative schools with all kinds of deficits, but the greatest deficit of all may be their lack of hope. In truth, this deficit may be at the core of other surface level problems (i.e. risk taking behaviors and academic disengagement). This is not an idle claim but a result garnered from a year of study at an alternative high school in Nassau County on Long Island.
The statistical basis of these claims is derived from a mixed methods study that was conducted during the 2011-2012 school year (Sheehan & Rose, 2012). The study measured levels of hope, grit, behavioral and emotional engagement, life satisfaction and happiness among the fifty-three students that make up the alternative school. The study compared these fifty-three alternative school students to sixty students from a typical high school. The results supported the proposed hypothesis that students enrolled in alternative schools were significantly lower in hope (t (51) = -2.873, p < .01) than their peers at non-alternative high schools. More interestingly, alternative students do not differ from other students on pathways, but they are lacking in agency (t(51) = -4.162, p < .01). Whether this agency deficit is due to the energy to act or is due to their lack of belief that they can attain their goals is not delineated in the instrument (Sheehan & Rose, 2011). What it does indicate is that alternative students may have the "ways" but not the "will" to achieve important goals.
These statistics reveal even more about alternative school students than teachers have been required to respond to in the past. In addition to hope, concerns regarding grit and engagement of alternative students arose. The Grit Scale, made famous by Duckworth (2007), indicated that the alternative school students were significantly lacking in this construct as well. Measuring grit uncovers a student's will to overcome tremendous obstacles. Grit, or what many of us would consider resilience in the face of adversity, keeps us going even when it is easier to abandon goals. It seems logical that the alternative school students lacking agency, the will to begin the steps towards a goal, would naturally be lacking in grit. This lack of hope based agency and grit translate in the classroom setting as low self-beliefs and to a lesser level of behavioral engagement (t(51) = -3.097, p< .01). If you lack the belief you can do it and the grit to say I WILL do it no matter what, the outcome is the diminishment of behavioral engagement in the classroom.
The most frightening of all the scores may be the reported differences in life satisfaction. Although alternative school students do not reflect any statistically significant difference when it comes to happiness, there is a statistically significant difference in the scores of life satisfaction. Students may be meeting proximal short term goals and achieving acceptable levels of happiness, but when asked whether they are satisfied with the course of their life (distal goals), their scores are much lower than the satisfaction level of the traditional school population (t(51) = -3.049, p < .01). The long-term effects of failing to meet hoped for goals today will become a self-fulfilling prophecy about achieving goals down the road. This unfortunate cycle will maintain low levels of hope and an underdeveloped sense of grit necessary to experience the satisfaction out of life.
The Good News: Hope Floats
What is truly inspirational in regard to hope theory is Snyder's core belief that hope is a way of thinking and not an immutable condition that we are born with or without. Snyder believes that if we can change our way of thinking, we can change our levels of hope. Hope is malleable. In short, our levels of hope float, up and down, from situation to situation, based on our thinking in the moment.
There is much research to support Snyder's belief that hope is malleable. Lopez, Snyder, et al., (2004) suggest that hope is not an attribute that we possess or do not possess, but rather an individual's capacity to clearly conceptualize goals, develop strategies to reach those goals, and initiate strategies and sustain the motivation to achieve those goals (p.389). What is implied here is that we can increase hope by influencing the agency and pathways present in an individual. Lopez et al., (2004) identify for us concrete strategies that we can employ to increase hope levels in individuals. The authors offer four essential strategies to accentuate hope. These strategies include hope finding, hope bonding, hope enhancing and hope reminding.
McDermott and Snyder (2000) further support the belief that hope is a malleable capacity that can be influenced by designed programs. They developed a five-session program, Making Hope Happen for Kids, to increase hope in fourth graders. This program involved active learning approaches in which students acted out scenes of hope, created hope cartoons, played a hope game and reacted to hope stories. Results on pre-post tests indicated significant increases in hope levels of the children involved in the program. Pedrotti, Lopez and Krieshok (2000) developed the Making Hope Happen program for seventh graders, a five week program involving many of the same components as the fourth grade program, but also included the concept of hope buddies to help students throughout the program. They also included a self-analysis scale, G-Power (goal power), to analyze the components of hope and the creation of a personal self hope story. When compared to students who did not participate in the program, students in the program had significantly higher scores on measures of hope. Programs designed to teach students about hope are effective at raising students' hope levels. It seems that knowing about hope and how hope happens in people actually has the power to increase hope in students.
If We Could Only Stop Bumping Our Heads for a Minute...A Hope and Grit Program
On a daily basis the social, behavioral and emotional problems that one deals with in any alternative school are enough to make teachers rethink their own career pathways. Perhaps our frustration is due to the fact that we are treating the symptom and not the real problem, a lack of hope in these students. Snyder (2002) proposes that low hope levels promote avoidance of difficult tasks, viewing difficult tasks as personal threats, low goal aspirations, and a weak commitment to the pursuit of goals. Individuals with low hope focus on the possibility of adverse outcomes rather than on the successful performance of a task and rapidly surrender to the difficulties they encounter. Failures and setbacks are the basis for sluggish recovery of efficacy. Failures are viewed as insufficient performances, deficient aptitude, and result in a loss of faith in capabilities. Is this a profile of your students?
With this in mind, the school in this study embarked on a ten-week program designed to alter student hope and grit levels. The study chose to emphasize hope and grit as the core themes considering grit to be an extension of hope. Our hope is tested when we face obstacles and how our hope holds up under these tests is the measure of our grit. When students lose hope, they give up. Since so many alternative students lose hope in the face of adversity, grit seemed to be a relevant and useful construct to strengthen when our will and ways are compromised.
The program consisted of ten weeks of a mini-course taught by a Molloy University professor and Hofstra University doctoral candidate. The course took place during the lab period built into the school schedule was attended by in house faculty and all students. Sessions consisted of five major lessons: hope (lessons one and two), grit (lesson three), dispositional hope (lesson four), and final summary of goals, resilience and personal definitions of hope and grit (lesson five). Each of the lessons were followed by a popular movie (Rudy, Warrior, etc.) depicting hope and grit themes portrayed in the lessons. The design of the program involved multiple faculty meetings and was sanctioned and enthusiastically participated in by both faculty and staff. In addition to in-class lessons, students in the program visited a local hope-based catholic middle school for children of poverty and attended a day of classes at a near-by college. To show what long-term hope looks like, three successful adults who were at-risk as children and encountered significant adversity came and shared their stories of rediscovered hope and success as adults with the students in the program. Students and faculty concluded the program by sharing their personal definitions of hope and grit and the people in their lives who embodied those concepts. Quantitative results are still undergoing analyses but the preliminary findings described earlier are promising. It might be premature to suggest that the program definitively increased hope and grit based on this limited one-shot investigation derived from this ten-week experience. We are in the process of refining and duplicating the content of the course and the study itself. What has happened that can be conclusively reported is that the school and the students now share a redefined mission and core beliefs based on hope and grit. Students and faculty have a common language and understanding as they maneuver the school day.
How Did We Get Here: The Source of Low Hope
The numbers provide an interesting story, but qualitative interviews with eight of the students are even more revealing. What, in a sense, "went wrong" that led students to alternative schools as a last resort to graduation? Snyder and Hanley (2000) would suggest that low hope often begins with deficits in the primary care giver. All of the students interviewed reflected those deficits in biographies that are marked by lack in the primary care giving. When did the problems begin for these students? Nearly all reported a decline in performance that began in late elementary school and only got worse as they moved through the system. Lack of homework was identified as a common theme and ultimately may help us better define the best ways to help students rediscover hope, while also promoting agency and offering pathways to prevent others from losing hope.
The story is the same for every student interviewed. When posed the question of when you stopped doing homework, all alternative students reported a common answer, late elementary school. The most telling response was in regard to the question of who helped you with your homework. The answer was also universal; No significant adult helped or supervised the homework for any of the students. In fact, there was no real concern if the homework was done at all by parents or guardians, and in some cases, parents wrote notes making false excuses for the lack of homework. In elementary school, students could negotiate this lack of homework and sometimes receive acceptable grades despite this lack of effort at home. Middle school is when the issue started becoming truly problematic and students began to seek out other students who did not complete assignments. Grades tumbled and relationships with teachers became strained. By high school, this lack of homework left students unprepared for more complex and abstract learning and the students were acutely aware that their high school teachers now resented them for not complying with accepted contract of work at home. It was here that these students stopped going to classes to avoid teachers who were so frustrated with their lack of effort that they did not seem to mind if disengaged students missed class. Students felt the teacher did not care and generalized this feeling to a belief that the teacher and the school did not care for them as individuals. Before long, these students were failing all or nearly all of their classes and violating school attendance policies.
Here is where it gets interesting. Our statistics have revealed alternative students lack agency. Snyder's actual words seem to suggest to us that agency is not so much your self belief that you are capable of doing something, but your actual energy or will to do the required task. In other words, potential of success plays a lesser role than the motivation to be successful. If you have homework and know how to solve the problems (a pathway to success that you are clear about), but you lack the volition to put down the Iphone and do that homework, you lack agency. You may be aware that you can do the homework (self-belief) but you just do not do it. For many students there is need for an external locus, the parent, who ensures you do it. Alternative school students dealing with homework and even more trying situations at home are students in absence of this external locus. They lack the external motivation needed to rev up their own internal motivators.
Homework and agency are soon intertwined in a symbiotic manner. If you do the homework, generally you get a satisfying grade, resulting in feeling pretty good about yourself in spite of the fact that you may have been forced to do the work by a demanding parent. Not doing the homework, students generally receive grades less than satisfying and do not feel all that good about their performance. When Snyder's hope scale for children (2002) asks: how satisfied students are with how they are doing, how they feel they are doing in comparison to others their age, and how satisfied they are with what they have done in the past, the results will certainly be low in agency after years of not doing the homework. After a pattern of performance absenteeism over the years, it becomes unclear whether your poor academic results are because you cannot do the work or you do not choose to do the work. Snyder and Hanley (2000) contend that students go through stages in their demise of hope that involve rage, despair and eventually apathy. Many of the students at alternative schools are at the stage of apathy, and with this apathy, they have not only lost hope, but they have also abandoned their goals.
Redefining the Mission of Our Alternative School: A School for Life
Students in the alternative schools do embody and truly understand grit. These students come to school every day in the face of family complications that would leave many paralyzed. They know hope and grit on a daily basis in the social conduct of their lives. While life provides obstacles all its own, does the graduating alternative student have what it takes for success in their academic careers? Do they have academic hope and grit, the dispositional grit needed to the specific demands of academic life?
In many student interviews, the alternative school is referred to as family. This is not a trite or insignificant expression of their feeling. Students express how the school has helped them to get it together and now they will graduate; a feat that seemed unapproachable before coming to the school. The alternative school has truly built hope for them. Students report feeling that after graduation they will handle life's problems and many will leave the school and enter local community colleges. The students report that they have it altogether now. But do they?
Research would suggest that without continued support, we may be setting these students up for failure. Some suggest that minority students entering college deal with facing environments that may be outside of their cultural experience. The concept of the resiliency, necessary to maintain hope in the face of adversity, is investigated in a qualitative study by Erik Morales (2008), who finds that hope must be channeled through a support cycle if individuals are to retain and strengthen hope levels. Morales (2008) conducted an investigation of 50 at-risk minority students who had successfully navigated college coursework to complete at least thirty hours of study with a 3.0 cumulative average. Morales (2008) propose that minority at-risk students need to develop five spokes or reinforcement sources to develop a resiliency to maintain hope in the face of the academic challenges that a college education requires. In a contextual analysis of the problems that face minority students in a college setting, Morales suggests that resiliency may also consist of components that do not fit into their cultural patterns naturally and that in order for these students to develop resilience, they must be become in effect "bicultural" or learn the ways of a new culture (Morales, 2008, p. 24). This same cultural navigation is also required of students coming from alternative school backgrounds.
It is for this reason that alternative schools cannot end for these students at grade 12. These students, who report that school is their family, when graduated and without the structural school supports, are in effect now dependent again on the same system that was insufficient in the first place. Alternative school students, as do minority students from underserved communities, will enter an academic culture that is often foreign and unfamiliar to their backgrounds.
If our goal is to have students graduate from high school, we can conclude that our work is finished at the high school graduation of these alternative school students. If our goal is to have these students rediscover hopeand have students live out their dreams, then we must rethink our vision of an alternative school. Next year, the alternative school in this study we will seek funding to have the graduating students return one night a week for support from volunteer college graduate student mentors, current teachers and volunteers to help navigate the new frontiers of college work and life beyond high school. The plan is to have current students sit right next to these most recent alumni and for forty-five minutes to an hour of support, both groups will receive support, advice and direction about homework and requirements relating to college or new job environments. We are hoping that our alumni can serve as vicarious examples to our current students to share lessons of the world beyond high school. Following the hour of academic and life skills work, we are hoping to build into our program what students truly love, an hour of student-teacher basketball. As off track as this might seem, both for players and spectators alike, this maintains the familial bond between student and faculty that doesn't end after students graduate.
We also hope that alternative students can learn the dirty little secret about hard work and that grit and persistence are needed if they are to live out their goals. Students can never really develop grit until they are faced with challenges that create new platforms for effort-based advancement in their lives. Homework, grades, and standardized test scores are staples of the school environments. Pulling back the curtain on working hard, dealing with failure, and what to do when faced with overwhelming desires to give up is what alternative students need to meet the challenges of life before and after graduation.To support this initiative, we are seeking to compensate the faculty and staff through non-profits, grants or fundraising. We know that the public education funds will not be readily available in the current reality of declining resources. However, the societal cost for abandoning these students when they are so close to breakthroughs in their lives may be greater than the meager funding we seek. Proposing that alternative schools become schools for life must be the mission if we want to fully facilitate rediscovery of lost hope.
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
Edwards, L. M., & Lopez, S. J. (2000). Making hope happen for kids. Unpublished protocol, University of Kansas, Lawrence.
Lopez, S.J., Snyder, C.R., Magyar-Moe, J.L., Edwards, L.M., Pedrotti, J.T., Janowski, K., Turner, J.L., & Pressgrove, C. (2004). Strategies for accentuating hope. In Linley, P. A. and Joseph, S. (Eds.) Positive psychology in practice (pp. 388-404). Hoboken, N. J.: John Wiley & Sons.
McDermott, D. & Snyder, C.R. (2000). Making hope happen. Oakland, CA.: New Harbinger.
Morales, E. E.. (2008). A focus on hope: towards a more comprehensive theory of academic resiliency among at risk minority students. Journal of at Risk Issues, 14(1), 23-31
Pedrotti, J. T., Lopez, S. J., & Krieshok, T. (2000). Making hope happen: a program for fostering strengths in adolescents. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Hanley, A. R. & Snyder, C. R. (2005) The demise of hope: on losing positive thinking. In Snyder, C. R. (Edit). (2000), The handbook of hope. Orlando Florida: Harcourt Brace.
Sheehan, K & Rall, K, (2011). Rediscovering hope: Building school cultures of hope for children of poverty. Phi Delta Kappan, 93 (3): 44-47
Sheehan, K. M., & Rose, S. (2012). Descriptive statistics for alternative school students. Unpublished protocol, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY.
Snyder, C. R. (2002). ‘TARGET ARTICLE: Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind', Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249-275.doi: 10.1207/S15327965PLI1304_01
Snyder, C. R. (Edit). (2000), The handbook of hope. Orlando Florida: Harcourt Brace.
Kevin Sheehan is an assistant professor in the Education Division at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, N. Y. Kevin worked as a teacher and school administrator on Long Island for over three decades. Currently, Kevin is in the final stages of compiling this research to complete his doctorate at Hofstra University , N. Y.
Dr. Sage Rose is a professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, NY. Her research focuses on hope theory and how it impacts students at all levels of education. Of primary concern is the promotion of hopefulness among students who struggle, whether they are at-risk, on academic probation, or lacking the academic resources necessary for success.
Column: Lukiv's "Place" for Educators to Think About Teaching Previous column: http://journalsecondaryalternateeducation.20m.com/blank_6.html You Have Learned to Think (from The Master Teacher. . Vancouver, BC: y press and BCTF Lesson Aids)
What do you do, as a teacher, a math teacher, in this case, after you've completely blown a lesson, after you've thoughtlessly humiliated a student, after you've angered the rest of the students in your class, even losing credibility in their eyes, after you've attracted powerful criticism from parents, and after you've received no help or support at all from your principal?
What do you do? For now, you "drop" back in time, remembering that you had admirable motives. You wanted to "diminish [fierce] individual competitiveness" (Wassermann, 1993, p. 171) in an environment of "[hardened] parental expectations [that] were excessive" and that, you were sure, helped explain why your "students were troubled...[You were] quick to recognize that their feelings of insecurity were at the root of their cruel aggressiveness to each other" (p. 170). You "wondered if arranging the class into cooperative learning groups on advanced algebra problems would diminish individual competitiveness,...and give students a chance to work with Fred1 [a shy boy (a 'minority kid[ ]' and a 'foreign student[ ]' [ p. 172], as a parent would later call him) from Korea]" (p. 171). You hoped "the bridge between the two cultures could be crossed naturally." You "dared to hope that maybe, just maybe, [you] could help [your] students find their humanity" (p. 171). Your motives were noble!
But the cooperative learning groups-lesson went bad. "All the groups had been assembled [without your input. Such had been your (naive?) choice]...Fred Kim [the foreigner] stuck out like a sore thumb. Not only had he not been invited to join any of the groups, he had been explicitly rejected when he had taken the initiative by approaching one of the groups" (Wassermann, 1993, p. 171).
Then the lesson went to worse. You reprimanded them indignantly. They insulted Fred. "Nobody likes him, and he smells bad" (Wassermann, 1993, p. 172). "[You, as they had,] began talking about Fred as if he weren't there, while he listened quietly and took everything in" (p. 172). You, like an authoritarian from Victorian England, argued. You lost your credibility before them and you humiliated Fred.
The incident is now part of your past, but it certainly hasn't left your mind. What are you going to do? Are you going to apologize to Fred Kim for "talking about [him] as if he weren't there," and for pushing your cooperative learning groups-plan (now there's the pun!) to such a degree that racial prejudice took a bite out of Fred's dignity? Doing so might help him not grow a skin of bitterness to shield him from his thoughtless classmates, and doing so might help him see that at least someone in Marine View High School,1 you, feels concern for his welfare.
Are you going to apologize to the class for forcing a learning environment on them that they weren't prepared to accept? Now there's the test of your humility. Such an admission--even given your correct insight that excessive competition and demeaning racism were making your students less than they could be--provides "human" conduct, exemplary conduct, that might actually encourage "hardened" students to re-evaluate their stone-like attitudes. Or such an admission might simply encourage them to return to their customary, teacher-directed, drunkenly competitive education with their usual "arrogance" (Wassermann, 1993, p. 170).
At any rate, assume the class is back to Marine View High-normal. You, Fred, and the rest are back to "business." You might want to post your student's scores after their next math exam (assuming you don't generally post such an expose, you could make an exception here). Then enjoy basking in how impressed the students are by Fred's mark, which will likely outshine most of his classmates' ("his math skills [are] excellent" [Wassermann, 1993, p. 170]). You might tempt them, then, by asking:
"Would any students like to form co-operative learning groups? If you would, and if you wouldn't mind that I make up the groups, please tell me at the end of this class, or the next." You might want to elaborate on what good benefits some students have seen from working in groups.
If you get everybody's name, you're in business to start cooperative learning groups. If you get enough names for one group, or more, then make such a group, or groups, and consider running the rest of the class as usual (teacher-directed, lecture-style).2 That might require some interesting planning, but you can do that, can't you? You can do that because you have learned to think through your actions rather than simply digging in your heels to get your own way. Certainly you've learned the value of planning ahead to deal with anticipated problems.3
Now that you have learned to deal with such problems, which means you have learned to avoid drawing unnecessary, mean-spirited criticism from students, you might enjoy some related fruits of labor beyond classroom peace. You might find your contented students won't complain about you to their parents, and therefore, those parents won't complain about you to your principal. You can go about your business of teaching without having to endure unencouraging conversations with your (in this particular case) bland, unsupportive principal, and without having to endure "parents [who religiously] model[ ] that to be on top [is] everything, [and] that second place [is] second-rate [and consequently for losers]" (Wassermann, 1993, p. 170).
You might even find a spirit or spark of cooperation growing from that "cruelly competitive bunch" of students (Wassermann, 1993, p. 170-171).
1 A fictitious name.
2 Successful groups, which might involve Fred's voluntary participation, will likely encourage non-groupers to eventually change their stand.
3 Some call this professional judo--looking ahead for potential trouble and preparing for it. If that trouble arises, the teacher has a reasonable plan, tucked away in his mind, that should allow everybody concerned to walk away with his or her dignity intact.
Wassermann, S. (1993). Getting down to cases. New York: Teachers College Press.