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As weavers, do we focus on problems or strengths?

As a newly minted, fifth grade social studies teacher, I was determined to use project-based learning, where students work together on a challenge. I gave each team a few β€œresources” β€” sticks, straw and twine β€” and asked them to invent something to carry three rocks from one side of the room to the other without the rocks touching the ground.

Children leapt from their desks to get to work building and testing. They cheered each small success and groaned with each failure. But in one group, students were arguing and getting impatient as the deadline neared.

Jamie, a student who struggled academically and rarely spoke in class, was quietly explaining his idea, but his teammates brushed him off and told him it wouldn’t work. He kept at it, tying three pieces of twine to a stick and then tying a rock to each dangling end. As I walked over, he held it up slowly, anticipating the pushback, which followed. The others all looked at me. β€œIt doesn’t work,” one student said. β€œRight, Ms. Kraft?”

β€œDoes it use only the materials you were given? Does it transport three rocks across the room without touching the floor?”

β€œYes!” they shouted in unison. 

β€œJamie,” I responded. β€œIt’s brilliant. It’s a solution I hadn’t even dreamed of when I created the challenge.”

The group cheered their hero and followed him back and forth across the room several times as he proudly walked with his creation in hand and then passed it to others to share the success. His group members bragged about him to the rest of the class and then to the rest of the grade at the bustling lunch tables. This student who didn’t see himself as smart and whom others discounted, was seen in a new light by others and even himself.

Unfortunately, humans, even teachers, can tend to see people in terms of their deficits and define them in terms of their needs. Once the sorting happens, we may lose sight of each child’s unique gifts and fail to see strengths and successes.

Tech and social entrepreneur Trabian Shorters points out that we do this with whole groups of people and entire communities. We label them by their problems, using terms like at risk, impoverished, homeless, or a school-to-prison pipeline. We think we are serving people by seeing their needs. But doing that, says Shorters, makes us, and them, blind to their own power and aspirations.

He suggests an alternative way of seeing, a framework he calls Asset Framing, and explains in a recent On Being with Krista Tippett interview. You look for the assets and aspirations of a community, its value, instead of the places where it may be broken. Then, you can work to unlock, or unblock, the aspiration. The approach, says Tippett, β€œis in and of itself dignifying and renewing.” Aspiring communities are made up of aspiring people. So if we learn to see the spirit in a community, we see the spirit in its people, too.

Shorters says when people learn to asset-frame, they engage more people, have higher impact, make people more willing to work on systems change, and raise more money. Since 2013, communities trained by Shorters’s BMe Community have raised about $300 million.

Jamie’s aspiration was to be an engineer. I don’t know if that early dream became a reality, but I expect his moment of being seen as an inventor that day in our classroom, and not as a struggling learner, was the start of writing a new story based on his strengths. Who wouldn’t want that for ourselves and our communities?

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Frances, thank you for bringing this simple change of perspective to our attention. Focusing on what is lost and broken is all too common a malaise that can accompany aging. Our society as a whole seems to highlight problems rather then celebrating solutions. I want to keep your wise words in my mind as I continue to work with the DaysAtDunrovin online community. Thanks!


This is a great topic!  I think about this a lot in Baltimore. I have been in several spaced where there are non-profits or activists who ascend on communities that have those labels attached to them (at-risk, un-housed, etc.). I definitely get frustrated because there are so many assumptions about the people who are most impacted.  I have seen people frame it as if there is an easy way out of those situations.  I think we have to focus on strengths and problems or use the strengths we have to solve the tough problems.  When I think of the city and neighborhoods, I think that if the neighborhoods that are thriving shared what extra resources they have with others, we all would be better for it.  But I find that adults have lost small values like sharing without strings attached.

Ashley (Ash) Esposito

Thank you for this, Frances,

There is a whole wing of psychology that focuses on strengths led by the former American Psychological Association president, Martin Seligman, that deals with what you are talking about through a psychological lens.   I utilizes quite a bit of this perspective in my work with people.    If I can tap into someone's strength, I have found a powerful inner source of motivation that that person can use to do the heavy work of recovering from trauma or psychological issues.   Powerful.

You are opening a whole new world of exploration to me through applying it to a community of people and drawing on collective strengths to bring our community together and country together.   Thank you for this new lens!!!!


Steve Regnier

This piece really spoke to me, Frances! We have learned to define our world from a lens of pathology. Can we imagine a world where we welcome the cultural and learning assets each child brings to the classroom - or where we administer to our own mental health from a lens of wellness and the cultural gifts in our heritage that keep us healthy? 

Even the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) score is defined by pathology, rather than the assets that offset the trauma.  What if we reminded children what they have going for them? For instance, we could have them consider if:

  • They access to books and someone who reads them to them.
  • A variety of toys were available to them – puzzles, art supplies, sports equipment, toys encouraging creativity and imagination.
  • Someone plans and prepares meal(s) for them.
  • They experience nature: the smell of grass, leaves, blooming flowers; hear birds chirping, water/waves lapping; see vibrant colors of flowers, leaves in the fall, or play in the snow.
  • Have access to clothes that sufficiently fit them.

As humans, we tend to "velcro" to what's wrong, rather than what is working, including seeing our emotions as problematic, rather than the guideposts they are to our body's intelligence.

Perhaps the more we can be honest with each other about what hurts, the closer we can get to the resilience within us that transcends the limitations of our environment.


Kate Towle
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