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 “resources” — sticks, straw and twine — 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. “It doesn’t work,” one student said. “Right, Ms. Kraft?”
“Does it use only the materials you were given? Does it transport three rocks across the room without touching the floor?”
“Yes!” they shouted in unison.
“Jamie,” I responded. “It’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, “is 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?