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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Students Who Struggle: Focusing on Strengths

James Christensen is really a children's illustrator with profound depth and symbolism to his work. At times humorous, Christensen has created a universe of the absurd, full of characters in layered clothing, rich with ideas, ridiculous in execution. Occasionally, however, he has produced an image that resonates deeper.

Over my dining room table, I have a picture called Sometimes the Spirit Touches Us Through Our Weaknesses. My four year old asks about it occasionally and I tell him that it's an image of a muse, a spirit who whispers ideas into your head, touching a deformed man on his hunchback. The message, I say, is that something you may not be good at, may even be insecure about, or may be made fun of for having, might actually be your strength. At least, that's what I get out of it.

Which is interesting because I found myself thinking about this painting the other day when I was talking to some of my students.

One of them confided that he was on medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Another student said he was taken off the same medication because he couldn't concentrate while on it, and both complained about their lost appetite when on the medication. Other students asked what ADD and ADHD meant, and why they needed medicine for it. The two students, both of whom felt the need to confide in what was an entire classroom of tweens, went on to explain their symptoms, and the other students, who have lived for years avoiding these particular kids in their classes, understood a little more about them in a different way.

After all, one was the kid who never stopped talking. The other was the kid who wouldn't participate or pull his weight. Clearly, it's not that way with every child with ADD or ADHD, but it was with these. Anyway, by communicating a little deeper, the class understood more. Now, I'm not saying kids need to confide or should be outed for their difficulties. That has to come from the kid, and kids rarely feel that comfortable unless you have spent a lot of time building community in your classroom. This is something that I take time to do since I want my students to produce the best that they can. The by-product is, of course, unity. This incident, however, got me thinking of the painting.

What If...?

Studies show that in the next few years, our schools will see a wider spectrum of special needs kids than ever before. And these students will not all be segregated into some program. No. They will be in our classes, integrated with our mainstream students. And we must prepare them for their futures as much as we prepare the students we have now.

What if we could sell these struggling kids on the fact that sometimes their difficulties can become their strengths? What if ADHD became a student's superpower one day? What if the stigma of autism could be harnessed, at least in a child's mind, to be seen as the nymph phase of what will be a real talent one day?

How far off am I? What if adults who struggled with differences in their childhood came forward in a targeted campaign to speak as the voices in our students' own futures? See, child, this is what I became. What if that actor or author or scientist launched a campaign that admitted their earlier struggles in an attempt to help these students through their own chrysalis years? See, child, this is what you can still become.

Education needs the support of those we produced years ago. We need more than just the schools to be the muses to these children. We need teachers, families, and our community to be helping in any way they can to pitch the concept that Sometimes the Spirit Touches Us Through Our Weaknesses.

Comments (80)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Justin's picture

I think the eutopia you have created would make our jobs as educator a lot easier. That being said, it is still only a eutopia. I hate to take the sinister role, but having been a teacher in a very low socio-economic school district has made me a realist. I couldn't agree more with you on the fact that more parental and community supporters would be an amazing trend to start, but how can this happen in households where school is a waste of time? The fact of the matter is that we could play the "what if" game all day long but that doesn't lead to progress.

Educators can and should play on their student's abilities. This is atleast one aspect of education we can somewhat control.

LaToya's picture

I am currently teaching a young lady who is extremely ADHD. I appreciate the support I receive from her parents. I am trying to continue to be patient and understanding with her because I realize that at times she really can not help the things that she does. She doesn't use her ADHD as a crutch, and that is commendable. Great post!

Aaron Sweet's picture

Awesome points Heather. I have many students that are diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, Autism, and many other labels. I have never heard of any students making excuses for themselves saying that can't do the work because they have been labeled, which is great! But, I have heard of parents using it as an excuse saying their child can not do something because of their label. If students are comfortable and able to speak about their condition/label, then more power to them. I believe the more open we are as people the more we can live comfortably and happy. This will allow other people, as you state, to understand why a student is acting the way he/she does. Thank you for sharing and I love the painting that you have too! I'm jealous!

Katrina's picture

I think that you all may be on to something here. If we allow students to share what they feel are their weaknesses, they might find that that is exactly what their peers envy about them or like about them. They might also see that all people feel that they fall short in some way.

Someone who things they work to slowly might be told that is a strength because they are able to slow down enough to think through a problem.

Andrea Rivera's picture

I think that this post is excellent. I agree with you that the number of special needs students will be increasing exponentially over the next years. This in addition to larger class sizes will inevitably lead to more and more students falling behind. In my co-teaching class, with two teachers, it is still difficult to give the special needs students the attention they need. In my social studies class just this year, I had the students figure out their multiple intelligence rankings. I talked in length about how their number one was a strength and their number seven was not a weakness, but an area where improvement is most needed. I have used the rankings to assign groups throughout the school year so far so that students can see that someone who is different from them, still has something to offer. The groups have worked extremely well because of the different perspectives that each student has been about to contribute. The collaboration that has occurred based on these groups have produced excellent work with participation from all members because they are feeling confident about their role. I'm hoping to try to assign them roles in areas that are not their strengths so that they can work with others who are also in the same position (as far as comfort zone is concerned) and they can help each other out. This is such a simple thing that students can learn so much from.

Tammi B's picture

I agree with the idea that collaborative groups based on the intelligences can produce a greater degree of participation. I have seen that in my classroom as well. I have also tried, in my sixth grade classroom, assessments where the students may choose from a "menu" of projects based on the multiple intelligences. Each child must chose and complete one activity but they are given the option of which one. Each project assesses the same essential learning, just in an different way. However, with each subsequent assessment, the students cannot duplicate the intelligence category they have already chosen. It is very exciting for me to see the students showing appreciation towards their peers with a different intelligence strength. This has worked very well in my classroom. Everyone gets to choose a way to demonstrate what they have learned in a style that suits them. They all get to shine in their own way.

Thank you all for your thought-provoking posts here. It has given me much to think about.

Weidner's picture

As a newer teacher I strongly believe that not enough PDE or PLC is giving to teachers in general. Students who don't fit the "norm" are quick to be considered "special" but to me they are still students. They are all children that want to learn and give us there all. They are all students that we show how much we care for them, get to know them, and want them to be successful. Students that learn differently than other students just look at the material we teach a little differently. As a teacher who wants each child to succeed we have to be willing to address those outlets of learning and meet each child's learning need. This is where PDE or PLC comes into consideration. When school's allow teachers to work together collaterally they are not only benefiting the school and teachers, but most importantly the students.

Weidner's picture

As a newer teacher I strongly believe that not enough PDE or PLC is giving to teachers in general. Students who don't fit the "norm" are quick to be considered "special" but to me they are still students. They are all children that want to learn and give us there all. They are all students that we show how much we care for them, get to know them, and want them to be successful. Students that learn differently than other students just look at the material we teach a little differently. As a teacher who wants each child to succeed we have to be willing to address those outlets of learning and meet each child's learning need. This is where PDE or PLC comes into consideration. When school's allow teachers to work together collaterally they are not only benefiting the school and teachers, but most importantly the students.

Rachael's picture

I think it is important for students and teachers to try to understand ADD/ADHD. Having a community established in the classroom is important so students will be comfortable discussing personal issues and opinions. If the class can openly discuss problems and gain some insight into what is going on and how other's feel, maybe they won't be labeled as the kid who's always in trouble.

Jessica Walker's picture

Heather, I completely agree that our society focuses too much on peoples' weaknesses. I believe the reason society views people who learn, function or perform differently as having a weakness is because life as we know it revolves around the "norm". People are expected to function in a particular way and if that is not cohesive to a particular person's traits, then they are considered to have a weakness. Society as a whole, expects people to conform or be labeled as weak. This is especially evident in our schools. We wouldn't expect someone in a wheelchair to stand up and run a race, yet we get frustrated when a student who has ADHD can't sit in one spot and write for an hour. Why do we have unrealistic expectations for students and then label them as having weaknesses? I think our greatest assets is gaining knowledge about these "weaknesses". If we equip ourselves with information about each student, then we can capitalize on their strengths instead of patronizing their weaknesses. Let's create an environment where students are praised for their strengths, not labeled for their weaknesses.

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