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Sleeping on dirt

From students dealing with intense trauma to helping learners find purposeful work, practical lessons from the education trenches--and Ashton Kutcher.

7 min read


Sleeping on dirt


ASCD interim CEO Ronn Nozoe was a young, novice teacher in Hawaii when he learned that a female student in his class was being sexually abused at her grandfather’s home. She had come to school one day tired and her clothes wrinkled. When Nozoe asked if she was okay, the student confessed that she had slept outside the night before, on the dirt, under the house–which was built on a post and pier foundation–to escape people who were coming into her room, after they had been drinking. The revelation shook Nozoe.

“I was freaked out,” he recalls. “[I] didn’t know what to do. I was a brand-new teacher.”

Nozoe took the student to the school’s principal and counselor, who called the police and child protective services. He stayed with the student until the authorities arrived. She was removed from her home that day.

Educators face tough, unfamiliar situations every day, and navigating them can be overwhelming, especially for novice teachers, says Nozoe. He encourages educators not to let lack of experience keep them from helping the students they serve.

“You do know how to care,” Nozoe says. “You don’t have to be super person. Be you.”

Nozoe’s encouraging words were just one of many pearls of impact shared at ASCD Empower19. From keynotes to breakout sessions, presenters shared practical insights on synthesizing education and how to better serve the academic and non-academic needs of students.

Expand the periphery. Students struggle to know their purpose–to find the thing they want to do, according to actor Ashton Kutcher, who did a Q&A with author and educator Robyn Jackson during the closing session of the event.

“I think schools are abysmal at teaching kids purpose–like actually how to find their purpose. At some point you end up in a guidance counselor’s office and they ask what you want to major in in college or what you want to do and most kids go, ‘I don’t know,'” Kutcher says. “That makes sense.”

So how do we get there? Start with vulnerability, Kutcher suggests. “[I]t starts with fostering vulnerability and therefore fostering truth,” he says. “I never had a teacher be vulnerable with me, so I was always afraid to be vulnerable with my teachers. And you can’t really even start to get a sense of purpose until you’re willing to be vulnerable.”

Also important is exposing students to different types of jobs and experiences, especially knowledge work, according to Kutcher. He spoke about the jobs he held growing up–plumber, mason and butcher, among others–and how limited his perspective was about career paths. Students only know the jobs they see, he says, so helping them find careers with purpose means expanding what’s in their periphery.

“Unless it’s in your periphery it’s really hard to think that it’s possible, or that there’s a pathway,” Kutcher says.

If you see something, say something. Brook Bello, a survivor of human trafficking, is dedicated to raising awareness and aid in the prevention of such crimes against children through her organization, More Too Life. Millions of children victimized by human trafficking and commercial exploitation are often between the ages of 5 and 14, and that risk factors include parental neglect, exposure to the foster care system, homelessness or prior sexual abuse, according to Bello.  Acknowledging the multitude of responsibilities teachers are asked to assume in addition to educating students, Bello urges educators to be aware of red flags and not hesitate to report suspected instances of trafficking to child welfare officials.

Elevate student voice. An environment that elevates youth voice–intentionally and consistently–helps students feel safe to talk with their peers, school leaders and teachers about what they are experiencing in life or their life in school, according to Whitney Allgood, CEO of the National School Climate Center.

She advises schools to audit their climate by conducting regular surveys. Simple 20-minute surveys can help schools determine whether students–and staff–feel safe at school or are experiencing issues such as bullying, and the data garnered can be broken down by subgroup, Allgood suggests. “[Now] you have an opportunity to talk in an informed way about how you are going to approach the situation,” she says.

Allgood also acknowledges the challenges schools may face in taking on this work, noting that many schools do not have enough counselors, psychologists or mental-health professionals available to evaluate or address the issues.

Weather the turbulence. Author and presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin came up with the title of her most recent book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” five years ago, thinking about the difficult times during which the presidents she was studying–Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson–had lived and served in office. She did not realize at the time she wrote the book how relevant the title would be today.

“I’d like to believe that these stories of our past leaders are not simply remnants of yesteryear. On the contrary, I believe they must be told and retold to remind us that as difficult as our situation politically may be today, we’ve lived through far more troubling times before,” Goodwin says.

In researching the book, Kearns Goodwin says she returned to many important questions about leadership that she had first contemplated as a graduate student at Harvard. “To the question, ‘does the man make the times or the times make the man,’ the answer is that, while the nature of an era that the leader occupies profoundly affects their opportunities for leadership, the leader must be ready when that opportunity presents itself.”

She also explains that, while the presidents she studied for the book all possessed unique and differing qualities, strengths and abilities, they had many characteristics in common. “[I]n the end if the question is ‘are leaders born or made?’ the answer is they all made themselves leaders by their work ethos.”

Provide a diverse literary canon. Oftentimes students who say they don’t like reading may be really saying they can’t relate to the material they are required to read, or that diverse titles depict people of color in depressing ways, explains educators Afrika Afeni Mills and Monica Washington of BetterLesson. What students are required to read in school paints a picture for them about what is important and who is important, they say. “So when we provide a more diverse canon, then we are letting them know that there is not this narrow view of importance in society,” Washington says.

Educators who face pushback when seeking to replace required books might make progress by tying a new book to a standard to show how the book supports that learning goal, they note. Other ideas include surrounding required titles with supporting materials that add context and offer students a more complete picture of reality. For example, when teaching “The Great Gatsby,” Washington suggests also including the poetry of Langston Hughes or other Harlem Renaissance poets whose work can serve to dispel misconceptions about race and wealth in the 1920s.


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