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December 14, 2012

The most powerful statement I have heard thus far in the discussion surrounding the devastating events in Connecticut comes from the former Superintendent of NYC Public Schools, repeating something a teacher told him she realized as she was evacuating her class, located 100 yards from the South Tower, on September 11, 2001: “In that moment, I knew I was only as fast as my slowest child.” Teachers and staff in Sandy Hook Elementary are now faced with trying to teach children who are going through trauma; research shows that this is next to impossible while those students are still grieving and living in fear. Regardless of how good those teachers are and how hard they work, learning is on the back burner for the unforeseeable future. As shockingly awful as the situation is, particularly with the age of the students, I think it is also important to remember (or realize) that students across the country are being asked to come to school daily while dealing with the stress of either acute or continuous trauma, and they are expected to learn and achieve at the same level as their non-traumatized peers. I say this not to minimize or ignore the heinousness of this most recent and publicized event but rather to shine light on a reality that we often don’t take into consideration when discussing education reform or setting curriculum standards or other things that adults do.

One of the best episodes of This American Life I have ever heard is one titled “Back To School” which aired September 13, 2012. Host Ira Glass outlines a different approach to the discourse surrounding school reform, based largely on the research of Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed. The totality of Tough’s research, and episode, brings into question the traditional ways in which we measure and encourage abilities, intelligence and, by an extension, success in our schools. Glass and Tough hold a holistic and illuminating conversation about the role and importance of what the people in this emerging field of educational psychology call “non-cognitive skills” – that is, qualities such as resilience, tenacity and impulse control. Economist James Heckman, who was blown away (from a number-cruncher’s standpoint) that all the content learned in high school can be taught in a matter of weeks, and Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who has done exhaustive research on the effects of poverty-related stress on brain development, join the interdisciplinary discussion. The overarching thesis: More important in the long-term and more achievable than magically raising test scores every year, these non-cognitive skills not only set up young people with a better chance to be successful in life but also are teachable.

Moving out of the world of theory and research and into the tangible, we get to hear how this emerging philosophy impacts a teenager named Kewauna Lerma, who has transformed herself from an impulse- and anger-driven life to success, and how it has informed and defined a program in Chicago that helps teenage mothers develop greater bonds with their children, despite the fact that they are children themselves. The biggest takeaway from hearing their stories was the resiliency and commitment of young people to overcome great odds and, for me personally, the renewed sense of hope I have in my ability and responsibility to teach these “life skills.”

I was watching the Melissa Harris-Perry Show this morning and one of her guests shared a story about an elementary school he had visited in New Orleans. He posed the following questions to one of the classes:

1. How many of you are related to or know someone who died because of guns? Three-fourths f the students raised their hands.
2. How many if you are related to or know someone who is incarcerated now? All students raised their hands.

The process of healing for the Sandy Hook community will be laborious and painful; there is no doubt. And the mix of outrage and compassion we feel for those students needs to be expanded, expounded and/or at least considered when thinking about the issues facing the people serving our future generations in our schools. In the aftermath of such trauma, I pray for the resilience of the children and for the patience of the adults tasked with helping them still be excited to grow up in a world where something so senseless can happen.

Against all odds.

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