Author Archives: Jacob Cowan


Henderson and Milstein (2003) cite a list of seven characteristics of resilient individuals: initiative, independence, insight, relationship, humor, creativity and morality. Where do these characteristics come from? These characteristics seem like the aspects of personality most likely to be effected by trauma. This definition of resilience seems almost self-referential: those who are resilient are those who have displayed resilience.

What is interesting is how these traits influence those who have not experienced significant trauma. Some individuals seem to be disproportionately effected by minor setbacks in their lives. These individuals, in my experience, seem to be lacking many of the seven characteristics of resilient individuals. For example, they may only find humor in the suffering of others, or they may lack initiative in the areas of their education and career. However, this observation is also circular: those who lack resilience are those who have not shown resilience.

So where does this lead? If resiliency can only be defined as a characteristic of the resilient, what value does the concept hold? In order to be valuable, it must be malleable, otherwise it is only observable in retrospect, and of no use in helping improve outcomes. Henderson and Milstein suggest six steps to foster resilience: increase bonding, set clear and consistent boundaries, teach life skills, provide caring and support, set and communicate high expectations, and provide opportunities for meaningful participation. This framework is meant to provide organizations a way to analyze how they currently support resilience, and how this support can be improved.

The most hopeful element of this model is that building resilience is a long term process. It is easy to get discouraged, seeing students who seem to have given up, who refuse to try. However, resilience may develop at any time, and the work that we do now with students may reap benefits that are not seen until many years after the student has moved on. Building resiliency may not be a quick fix, but it may be the only possible fix. As educators, we need to not worry fixate on whether students currently display signs of resilience. We need to build structures in our schools and in our classrooms that promote resilience in the long term.

Henderson, M. & Milstein, M. (2003) Resiliency in schools, Making it happen for students and educators. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

Fostering Resilient Learners

Souers and Hall (2016) ask the question: “Why do you suppose some children are more strongly affected by certain events than others are? What does this suggest for us as professionals?”

I remember attending a two day seminar with Dr. Bruce Perry in which he posited that one of the primary differences between the outcomes for two siblings who simultaneously experience trauma is the age that they were when the trauma occurred. Assuming a non-traumatic upbringing prior to the trauma, the older sibling would have had more time for normal brain development and would therefore be more resilient to the trauma.

I believe gender may also play a role. In my experience, females are often more resilient. This may have something to do with cultural gender roles and expectations. Women are allowed to seek external supports, while men are expected to “tough it out”, which leads to internalizing the effects of trauma.

Another, less predictable factor is the nature of the story that the individual tells his or her self. Some people see themselves as victims others see themselves as survivors. I believe that the way that a traumatic event is framed in a narrative can have a profound influence on how it affects an individual. If trauma is seen as a permanent barrier to success, then it becomes permanent and outcomes are poor. If trauma is seen as an obstacle to overcome then energy is focused on overcoming an obstacle, not lamenting a barrier, and outcomes are much better.

How can educators affect the nature of this narrative? I don’t know. I think that the tone of an individual’s narrative is influenced by the tone of their caregivers’ narratives. It is also affected by cultural and social interactions. Movies, music, peers, parents, and community members all influence the nature of  the individual’s narrative. Perhaps by providing opportunities for meta-cognitive discussions, educators can provide some of the tools necessary for students to become conscious of their own internal narrative, and that by re-framing their role in their personal story they can take control of their own destiny.

Finding Time for Acceleration

If acceleration of student learning should occur in addition to, not instead of, regular classroom instruction, where can this time be found? Here are some ideas:

  • Summer school – with a focus on the coming year rather than on last year. This could start with the summer before Kindergarten for students who are identified as being at risk.
  • Before and after school – many students catch buses that drop them off at or pick them up from school thirty to forty five minutes before and/or after school.
  • Weekends and lunch hour – these would be a tough sell.

I think summer school and before and after school are probably both viable. Before and after school could be used to accelerate instruction of current learning goals, while summer school for primary students could be used to accelerate literacy and numeracy. Both programs should be fun and engaging so students feel like it is enrichment, not punishment.

Summer school acceleration could include recreational activities, art and crafts, and physical education, and a strong focus on literacy and numeracy. Parents would likely be willing to have their students attend, in fact the jealousy of parents of students who were not referred could become one of the biggest concerns.

Transportation would be a major concern for summer school. In order to achieve the goal of serving the most vulnerable students, bus transportation would be necessary. This would not be cheap, but if the program succeeded in diverting students from Special Education and Learning Assistance, and if the number of students who graduate on time and the number students who go on to attend post secondary school was increased even marginally, the program would be worth the price.

Acceleration vs. Remediation

Perhaps the greatest struggle I have observed and taken part in professionally is how to improve educational outcomes for students who perform below expectations. Many of these students have literacy and/or numeracy skills that are significantly below grade level expectations by the time they are in late elementary school. The typical response to this problem has been to provide remedial instruction in basic literacy and numeracy skills. Over the past few years I began to question this model. Students who did not fully grasp the concepts the first time – or first few times – are retaught the same skills, at a slower, more segmented pace. This feels akin to speaking slowly and with exaggerated lip movements to a foreign-language speaker. Every once in a while they get it, but most often slowing things down like this produces resentment, not understanding. This resentment fuels disengagement, and remedial students fall further and further behind their peers.

Rollins (2014) suggests an alternative to remedial instruction: acceleration. This acceleration should occur as early as possible – as soon as the need is identified. Students who struggle with literacy and numeracy should be given accelerated instruction as soon as these struggles are even suspected. The instruction should be in addition to, not instead of, regular class instruction, which creates scheduling and planning challenges.

First of all, the regular classroom instruction needs to be planned and this planning needs to be communicated with whomever is supplying the accelerated instruction early enough that the relevant instruction can be delivered prior to the regular classroom instruction. Second, time outside of regular class instruction needs to be created to provide the accelerated lessons. This could be done before or after school, or even on weekends, but any of these choices has its own challenges.

The accelerated instruction should include an activation of prior knowledge regarding the subject, pre-teaching vocabulary, a big-picture overview of the topic, an understanding of what new skills they will learn, and a review of the specific basic skills needed to master the subject (Rollins, p. 7).

I believe this model may significantly impact educational outcomes for students and deserves consideration as a replacement for the remedial model of ameliorating student performance.


Rollins, S. P. (2014). Learning in the fast lane: 8 ways to put ALL students on the road to academic success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Foxfire and Coalition of Essential Schools

I’m currently reading Consider Assessment and Evaluation, A Foxfire Teacher Reader (1999). On page 13, a reference is made to the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). I checked out their webpage, and it seems to be an interesting organization. Their Common Principles have considerable overlap with Foxfire’s Core Practices. Specifically, both programs focus on developing the mind rather than focusing on minutiae of the curriculum. Foxfire focuses more on student choice, whereas CES talks about personalizing the educational experience.

CES seems to be a active national organization than Foxfire, with an annual meeting in Maine, and more polished website and materials. CES has a much larger network of schools, including some in the Pacific Northwest.


At the end of last week I received a collections of books from the Foxfire Foundation. I am currently reading From Thinking to Doing, The Foxfire Core Practices, Constructing a Framework to Teach Mandates Through Experience-Based Learning, (2002) by Bobby Ann Starnes and Angela Carone. The book is coil bound and self-published by the Foxfire Fund, Inc., in Mountain City Georgia.

I first read about the Foxfire approach when searching the internet for different models of delivering alternate education. I am now on page 30 of 169, and I just read the section on the characteristic features of entry points into a more facilitative style of teaching. The fourth step is engaging in systematic reflection throughout the process, and this post is my starting this process.

Why am I looking at Foxfire? The idea of using “learners’ authentic interests and concerns to gain entry into the curriculum” (p. 16) may answer what I see as the pressing concern facing my education practice and education in Canada in general: student apathy. Everyone wants to learn. I believe that. However, by the time students are in high school many have difficulty articulating anything that they are interested in learning. Learning has become associated with being force-fed facts and figures whose application to students’ real lives is tenuous at best. Learning should be connected to solving authentic problems, not just seemingly endless hoops to jump through on the way to graduation.

Today I asked a student “what would you like to learn if you could pick anything.” He could not come up with anything, but it started an interesting conversation about canoeing on the Fraser River. I think that this process can not be rushed if it is going to be authentic.

Growth or Limited Mindset

How does our mindset change the expectations and interactions teachers have with students? “[Effort], like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.” This reflects a limited growth mindset. “In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.” (Dweck, 2006, p. 16).

How often have you heard a teacher say “she’s not really smart, she’s just a hard worker.” Or “she’s really smart, she gets great marks without trying.” Certainly this type of bias filters down to the students’ self-perception and beliefs about being smart and talented. We celebrate “natural talents”, like Mozart, and dismiss hard workers, like Salieri (Amadeus).

How does this contribute to student outcomes?


Effective Success Starters

Rollins (2014) suggests that students should be immediately engaged in today’s work to maximize time spent on learning. Typically students may work on review assignments, which are too easy for some and to hard for others, and on reviewing homework or previous assignments, which some students finished easily while others did not start or could not complete. Then, by the time the teacher is ready to start the new lesson, students are burned out and checked out.

Instead, if the teacher focuses on setting up the student for the material that will be covered today, the students’ are prepared to participate and learn. Some strategies she suggests include:

  • Role-Playing: this could be in groups, or even in paragraph writing using a strategy like RAFTS.
  • Surveys: would be a great way to use technology. The teacher could create a survey using Google Forms and share the output page to the class. Students could then discuss the outcomes, and could make and discuss different charts with the output.
  • Prediction: this can be as simple as predicting an outcome. Students can predict the topic by sorting keywords and phrases into their own categories or categories provided by the teacher.
  • Questioning: the teacher gives a topic for students to create a list of questions about.
  • Brainstorming: brainstorming can be a great chance for non linear thinking, so long as students feel safe that their ideas will be accepted without criticism.
  • Concrete Representations: students can use manipulative or react to images or artifacts presented by the teacher.

Using these types of activities prior to a lesson would help students connect more meaningfully to the lesson that follows, by providing a context and activating the students’ schemata.

Using Google Drive to check understanding

I have often used whiteboards teaching math. I write questions on the board, and students answer them on small whiteboards, showing me their answers. I record their progress on a chart, and help them with questions that they don’t understand. This worked well in Special Education classes, with five to fifteen students, but I am not sure that it would work with thirty or more. The recording progress would take all my time, and I would not be able to help many students.

If I were to do the same thing using Google Forms, the form would track the students’ progress, and I could monitor the sheet to help students who were getting answers wrong and students who asked for help. The response sheets also are automatic documentation of student work.

Concept Maps – really?

example concept mapCan I be the only one who looks at this type of thing and instantly finds my attention fading? This, to me, is the single greatest anecdotal evidence of learning styles I have in my own life. I just hate concept maps and flow charts.

In Learning in the Fast Lane (2014), Rollins suggests the use of concepts maps to help students understand what they are learning. This may work for some people, but I look at these and my eyes glaze over. I much prefer to put my thoughts into complete sentences, or at least bulleted lists.