“Hope” is the thing with feathers - That perches in the soul - And sings the tune without the words - And never stops - at all - And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard - And sore must be the storm - That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm - I’ve heard it in the chillest land - And on the strangest Sea - Yet - never - in Extremity, It asked a crumb - of me. —Emily Dickinson
At 17, hope was simply the air I breathed. It didn’t even feel special. It was just an effervescent wellspring that bubbled happily inside me and felt natural. Surely only good things were coming my way. I would graduate high school, go to college for a few years, find meaningful work, build essential relationships, and the proverbial sun would shine. There would be a home, a family, a future – I could see it all unfolding in front of me. It felt like a birthright; full of optimism and a sense of inevitability. It also felt like God’s blessing. I was working toward the right things, and I would live a life that would make logical, if not theological, sense. Sure, there would be some difficulty and unexpected challenges, but nothing that couldn’t be handled with faith and determination. Now, of course that was an overly naive take on things, but life felt predictable and steady, and everything I was working for academically was building toward that bigger picture, which I could vaguely define as the hope and promise of a successful life. A story was being told to me that made sense and fit into my context, and it motivated me to keep working toward the hard-won goal of an educated mind. Just a necessary, natural thing I had to do.
But how are things for students today?
What I am hearing from colleagues is just how flat, how lacking in engagement many students seem to be in the classroom. Behavior and social-emotional needs are higher, academic performance is unpredictable, follow-through on homework, class participation, and other things we looked to in the past as indicators of success are troubling. We all hear reports and know anecdotal stories about the state of student mental health. What mobilized and energized me way back then, and even students from as little as five years ago, just doesn’t seem to matter in the same way. What, exactly, are students today working so hard for? What are they hoping for? What are they getting out of bed for? Good grades (what do those even mean anymore)? Getting into a good college and later a good job (both of which might be done entirely online in your basement)? For a future doing what and with who? What is motivating them? They are not necessarily reaching for the stars; I think they might be just hoping for as little pain as possible.
I wonder if the value proposition of an education has fundamentally changed for our students. And what does the hope of a successful life look like to them, anyway? Everyday safety? Basic health? A stable democracy? Having a day where they feel mentally okay and not overwhelmed by the unknown? Of course they are disengaged. Do they have hope? Has the storm been so sore, the little bird has been well and truly abashed? I don’t know, but it has gotten me thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
One of the first things we learn as educators is that we are to aim for the pinnacle of self-actualization in our students, and in order to get there we must create a climate and context that encourages trust, risk-taking and community. Once we have that, surely they will feel that intrinsic desire to take up the mantle of their own learning and grow, right? That was my presumption and my experience. For most of my students, it meant starting at level three (Love and Belonging) and building from there. As someone who spends a lot of time in classrooms, I regularly see teachers striving to create optimal learning environments for just this very reason.
But now I think that sense of safety and well-being has been impacted far beyond what we imagine. COVID-19 has disrupted lives to a degree we are only beginning to understand, and our kids are growing up in a world where their sense of mooring has been shaken to the core. Our highly connected students are bombarded with messages everyday about how uncertain and dangerous the world is, whether real or perceived. They are not sure who to trust anymore. They struggle with identity and self-worth. Educators are not starting off at Maslow’s third level anymore. My suspicion is that many students are now coming to the classroom distracted, consumed, and concerned about basic daily needs. Learning facts and figures can feel meaningless when uncertainty lurks around every corner. Every step of the way, these competing stories eat away at the foundational levels Maslow suggests lead to motivation and growth toward true purpose. Here are just a few examples of some of the stories our students are listening to:
The pandemic, and now inflation, have created a new wave of housing and food insecurity in our nation. Climate change has also begun to impact us in meaningful ways, which in some regions could actually be impacting water and air quality. Students are very aware of how precarious it feels and how little is being done to improve it, leaving them with serious questions about the world they will inherit.
You may not have what you need: This is a story of injustice and lack of agency
While we have every indication that students are the demographic least affected by COVID-19, a recent poll by The New York Times found that they are actually among the most concerned about getting the virus in the next year. Additionally, consider our students of color and how their sense of safety and security has been utterly shaken by the events leading up to, and since, George Floyd. The exhausting burden of concern is something they don’t have the luxury of laying down.
You may not be safe: This is a story of fear and uncertainty
Love and Belonging
Students have been living behind masks, set apart, or on the other side of screens for more than a year. Social events have changed or disappeared altogether. For some, their online friends might be more real to them than the student sitting right next to them in homeroom. Living lives in the same classroom (if they are lucky), but isolated, has harmed students’ sense of connectedness. Who do they matter to, and what do they belong to? How do you learn to build intimacy and trust if you can’t practice making meaningful relationships with your peers?
You are not really known: This is a story of loneliness and disconnection
For many students, the number of likes they receive on their social media account plays a far more important role in self-esteem than anything else. The impossible standards, the outlandish attention to status and wealth, the messages about bodies, and the image they curate of themselves for the approval of others creates an impossible pressure on our students. It falsely and seductively leads them to think their value is external, superficial, and only as good as their last post. Beautiful, damaging, lies.
You may not be enough: This is a story of purposelessness, lack of value, and emptiness
Maslow describes this as a desire to become the most that one can be. What does that mean to our students today? While we have all grappled with what’s to come as we stood on the precipice of our future, how much harder is it now for young people with the added weight of mental health concerns, financial struggles, college closures, and an uncertain work economy?
You just need to try and make it through: This is a story of hopelessness
The list could go on and on.
But here’s the thing: There is another story. And it is not a pollyanna, overly precious, story of toxic positivity where we bury our heads in the sand and pretend none of this is happening, or just pray to be delivered from evil. No. It is a story that asks us to wrestle with hard things and tell the truth about the brokenness of the world. It is a muscular, powerful, peacemaking story of hope, triumph, and a place in God’s universal order. A story that includes our students as powerful characters in the plot, who have been gifted and blessed with dreams and visions of their own, with a role to play in God’s restoration of all things.
Not long ago I read a quote from children’s book author, Steve Jenkins, that resonated with me.
Children don’t need anyone to give them a sense of wonder; they already have that. But they do need a way to incorporate all the various bits and pieces of knowledge they acquire into some sort of logical picture of the world.Steve Jenkins, Children’s Book Author and Illustrator
I think he is right. Students need a story that helps them make sense of all the information bombarding them. They need a story where they can find purpose and personal agency, playing an active role in restoring order, goodness, and peace to a seemingly hopeless world. As Christian educators, we have an astonishing opportunity to offer our students something more than academic skills and knowledge – or even a safe and welcoming classroom. We can design our instruction to create an epic story of hope and help them see God’s hand even in the most challenging circumstances. We can weave a narrative that energizes and directs their learning toward active participation in God’s Big History, playing a part in healing Kingdom work. A narrative that imbues their academic endeavors with meaning, urgency, and purpose. A message that what they have to offer actually matters – today – in the real world, for real people, and addresses something they see as a real problem. That they are part of a community, a Body, and that what they do really matters. That the knowledge and skills they work hard to acquire can be applied to solve problems, make change, and cultivate Shalom, even today.
I think Maslow was touching upon a deeper, holy wisdom about who we are as human beings and how to live a thriving life. The way we design, the way we instruct, the way we tell The Story can actually model, nourish, restore, and inspire something more than we could ever imagine in our students. It may restore a habitat in which that thing with feathers can once again perch. Our work in Deeper Learning may be in fact the perfect counter-narrative to the hopelessness of the world. In a time of pandemic, a cure.