Dominique Jordan Turner explores poverty as a superpower in her TedX Talk recorded earlier this summer (see video below). Her insights into the skills and strengths obtained by young people growing up in poverty not only prove valuable to us as educators of a diverse student body, but her underlying message applies to all of our students. We all share an understanding that young people need to experience an intersection of belief in their lives in order for learning to take place; belief in themselves, others believing in them, and belief in something bigger than themselves.
Turner, the Founder and CEO of the Chicago Scholars program, discusses the strengths developed out of necessity in young people raised in poverty: grit, perseverance, determination, decision-making, negotiation, and people management skills. Each of these traits, or superpowers, emerge as a means of survival, not because of an arbitrary assignment they complete in school. Unfortunately, these superpowers are often ignored because of our preconceived notions surrounding poverty. We, as a society, assume a lack of experiences and opportunities translates to a lack of skill or talent. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We must be willing to look at each individual as just that, an individual who possesses remarkable invisible talents overlooked and misunderstood. We then must engage and develop trusting relationships with each individual in order help unlock the superpowers within.
When we wrote THIS PIECE on the advantages of being dyslexic a few years ago, we hit on some of these same themes: thinking differently and having diverse learning experiences strengthens an individual’s ability to problem solve using non-traditional approaches. Put simply, the Proctor community thrives because we embrace students with such diverse learning styles. As one longtime faculty member said to me during my first year teaching at Proctor, “While only a third of our students are enrolled in Learning Skills, the program positively impacts every single student and teacher at Proctor because it forces us to rethink how we teach and to fully embrace an incredibly diverse range of learners.”
As teachers and Learning Specialists, our collective goal for each student enrolled in Proctor’s Learning Skills program is not the remediation of academic weaknesses, but instead, creating greater self-knowledge, capitalizing on personal strengths to foster independence, self-awareness, and confidence. Just as Turner implores us to recognize and encourage the superpowers in young people growing up in poverty, so too must we unlock the superpowers in those students who learn differently.
As we read student files, connect with our new advisees prior to their arrival, and begin to piece together each incoming student’s story in anticipation of the relationships we will build with them, we carry with us this powerful lens through which we are able to view individual strengths. We remind ourselves of the need to operate at that intersection of belief by helping our students believe in themselves, demonstrating our belief in them, and helping them connect to something bigger than themselves. Effective education can only occur when these connections are made, when our students know we care as much as they do, and we collectively, hand in hand, embark on all the unknowns of the learning journey ahead.