George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Creative Dissidents: Stop Shortchanging Talented Kids Who Challenge Us

Turning dragons into princesses

January 16, 2012

A few years ago I spent time at Eagle Rock School, a wonderful school in Colorado for so-called "at-risk" kids from all over the country. I noticed that many of the best students were highly creative kids with extraordinary leadership, presentation and communication skills. Exploring further, I discovered that many of these same students had been in and out of two or three high schools prior to coming to Eagle Rock; in some cases voluntarily, in some cases not.

Talking with the students, I became aware that each one of them could be described as creative dissidents, kids with high intellectual and/or creative abilities who were difficult for teachers to handle. The trouble they caused was not criminal but disruptive. This usually took one of two forms. One was active, such as sabotaging a class with wise-ass comments, or talking back continually to the teacher. Some, however, did it through relatively passive means, via sullen non-participation or other forms of quiet defiance. Not infrequently these students were also a challenge to their parents.

These were not kids who needed a psychologist. Most of them were articulate, self-aware and positively provocative in their thoughts and feelings about our society. If they lacked anything before Eagle Rock it was: a) a supportive environment that engaged, encouraged and rewarded their spirits and their minds; b) teachers and administrators who didn't react defensively to their confrontational behaviors; and c) the skills to effectively assert themselves. In schools that they found discouraging, they didn't know how to respond in an effective way to improve their situation.

Inviting the Outsiders In

Our schools are reasonably good at identifying intellectually gifted kids but still fall far short in understanding, reaching and strengthening creative kids who are defiant or unreachable. Importantly, in failing these kids we greatly shortchange ourselves as a society. Many of these students are leaders at Eagle Rock, with the potential to play a similar role as adults. In their former environments, they were often lost and angry.

There is usually an award for those who comply. High achieving, studious kids usually conform to the norms of the school and get rewarded. Our social leaders also usually do well, even when their academic work isn't quite up to par. Some creative kids don't do well in classes that they find boring and often hate rote learning, but their disengagement may not be coupled with defiance.

But we generally do poorly with kids who talk back or sullenly withdraw. I've lost count of how many times I've heard a teacher say, "He's really bright, but he's such a pain in the ass." And teachers and parents who play strong authority roles have particular problems with these kids.

Yet recent research shows us that teens who talk back and argue, if properly mentored, will emerge stronger than more compliant teens and better able to resist succumbing to peer pressure.

At Eagle Rock and similar schools, the answer is in teaching these kids to effectively channel their frustration with the world (or at least "their" world) into effective ways of changing it. And it's also tough love, an environment that is high on support but sets very strict limits. Most importantly, there is patience and genuine compassion for students even when they are angry or withdrawn.

Attitude Adjustment on Both Sides

Much of this has to do with how we as educators respond to defiant students. Can we get past our own defensiveness and reach these kids? Years ago a wise senior colleague told me that when a kid is sullen, angry and pushing you away, that's often the time they most need your arm around their shoulder, when they most need your compassion. That's quite a challenge and calls for real strength on the part of the teacher or administrator.

There are helpful hints about how to best reach these students in a number of books. Richard Curwin, Allen Mendler, and Brian Mendler's, Discipline with Dignity,3rd Edition: New Challenges, New Solutions, LouAnne Johnson's Teaching Outside the Box, and Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future, Revised Edition, by Brendtro, Brokenleg, and Van Bockern, can all be helpful.

I think the key variable is not methodology, but rather teacher attitude and the ability to genuinely care about these students. Here I'm reminded of a passage from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, in which he wrote: "How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are the beginnings of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave."

Most of the students I interviewed would laugh to hear themselves described as princesses, but almost all would acknowledge that they'd been dragons. And contrary to the way many teachers and administrators react, these dragons need to be cared for and tamed, not avoided or slain. The cost is too great and the potential payoff too rich to not reach out to and engage these students.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
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