This week our class hosted Rachelle Archer from the Monarch School in Barrio Logan which is a school for children and families who are experiencing homelessness. She is the director of their Therapeutic Arts program and spoke to us about her experiences there as well as strategies she uses to create an inclusive environment.
She presented us with 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents from the Search Institute which identifies 40 "building blocks of healthy development". They are categorized broadly as "Internal" or "External Assets" and more narrowly in categories like "Empowerment" and "Positive Identity." In practice this list of Assets are presented to a student and they are asked to self identify all of the 40 that they feel they have. The idea is that the more Assets a person has the more likely they are to develop into a healthy and independent individual.
Rachelle has noticed something interesting in her work with students who are homeless. She says that she has stopped holding expectations about what Assets students might or might not have. In the past, she might have guessed that a student without a stable home or with a stressful family situation might report feeling that they had a very low number of the listed Assets. Earlier in her career she might have guessed with a colleague that these kinds of students might see 10 or 13 of the Assets in their lives. What has surprised her is that many students who are otherwise seen as "at risk" will often report that they do possess many of the listed assets.
From the outside, we might say that the student has a "caring neighborhood" or participates in "creative activities" or "resistance skills" (all Assets from the Search Institute) - but they say that they do. What important is their perspective, Rachelle explained, and when we look at their lives we are comparing to our own experience of what these assets were for us. Shifting our perspective from comparison to empathy will allow us to engage with the student we have, not the one we think that we have.
I haven't decided whether or not I'm going to use the 40 Developmental Assets list with students in my own teaching, at least not as a diagnostic tool. Personally I found it useful as a reflective device to think about my experience in high school and so I can see myself using it as such with my class. Taking time to think about what we have or don't have or might want in our lives can be formative and thought provoking for people of all ages, high school included.
Hearing about the divide between expected and actual responses of at risk teens in this survey was insightful for me. It helped me remember that I don't know what the best life is. I have my experience and every else has theirs. It's not my place to be critical of what has or hasn't happened or been provided to my students. They have already been shaped by those experiences and now carry those memories. My responsibility is to help them find their passion and learn how to pursue it given (or in spite of) their pasts and stories.
My responsibility is to help them become the creator of their future experiences.
Philip Estrada is a teacher at High Tech High Media Arts in San Diego California. He teaches Physics by having kids build things in a woodshop.