Nurturing Hope in New Places

For Myself and My Students

“The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.”
Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use”

Introduction & Context

“Hello there,” he says in his best Obi-Wan Kenobi impression. Please allow me to reintroduce myself to the Greater Madison Writing Project blogging community, because it’s been a while since I’ve had the privilege of publishing here. My name is Skylar L. Primm, and I’ve been teaching some combination of math, science, and interdisciplinary project-/place-based learning for 13 years now, so I guess I can charitably be described as “mid-career”. I am an expatriate New Orleanian, living in Madison, Wisconsin for the last two decades. Above all else, I believe in treating students like humans. It’s officially recorded in print, so I have to stick to it:

A photo of text from a book. The text reads: The human connection is like a plant needing to be watered. This is the whole child, not just the student aspect. Skylar Primm, an educator at High Mar Environmental Charter School, shared that the way he builds relationships with his students is simple: “I treat them like humans.”
Excerpt from Komal Shah’s Raise Your Hand! A Call for Consciousness in Education

High Marq Environmental Charter School in Montello has been my professional home base for the last 11 years, but this summer I’m in the midst of a major transition. I start at Koshkonong Trails School in Cambridge next month, where I’ll still be teaching project- and place-based learning to middle and high school students, with an emphasis on environmental science and mathematics. But now I’ll be teaching significantly closer to home, in the middle of an outdoor learning center with its own pond, forest, and trails. I’ll also be learning how agriculture — about which I know very little — fits into the mix, and getting to know a whole new community of students, families, and coworkers.

A change like this represents challenge and opportunity, perhaps in equal measure, but the upshot is that as of late July 2022, I don’t really know much about who my students are or what I’ll be doing with them come the fall. I know my advisory will include Grades 9 and 10, so those are the students’ whose projects I’ll guide, whom I’ll be taking outside regularly, and whom I’ll be circling up with each day. I also know that I’ll be supporting students in math across all grade levels. Beyond that, we’ll see.

Sitting here in our summer meetings of the Greater Madison Writing Project’s Teacher Leadership in Writing Yearlong Institute, I was reminded that I wrote an “Educator’s Oath” way back in the summer of 2015 during my first GMWP sessions. I revisited it today, and was pleased to find that it holds up pretty well:

A screenshot of text. The text reads: Skylar’s Educator’s Oath, Summer 2015 As a professional educator, I swear, to the best of my ability, to: …treat each student as a human being, deserving of love and respect; …nurture each student’s intrinsic drive to learn; …foster a supportive, democratic, collaborative learning community; …reflect and learn to be a better teacher; and …assert my beliefs about the best interests of children, even at the possible expense of my job.

Area of Inquiry

It almost goes without saying that the last few school years have been brutal for educators and students alike. My personal mental health has taken a beating, and so has my sense of professional self-efficacy. Last year, I was in a deep hole, and I didn’t trust myself to use the tools to dig myself out. I haven’t been a bad teacher, but I haven’t been my best teacher self, either. Recently, I happened upon some classroom pictures from five or six years ago, and I looked so present and joyful! In more recent shots, not so much. I know that joyful teacher is still inside me, though. The question then becomes: How can I bring my best self back to the classroom in my new space?

Naturally, that question leads to more questions, as all good inquiry questions do. In working to narrow down my line of questioning to something manageable, my attention turned to two recent sources of inspiration: Dr. Steven Rippe, Director of the Hope Survey at Talent Enthusiasts; and bell hooks’s Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Hope, as Dr. Rippe explains, can be defined as the intersection of three domains: Goals, Pathways, and Agency. I like to think of these as measures of our abilities to set goals, see ways to accomplish them, and feel like we have the power and freedom to do so.

A screenshot of a slideshow. The slide title is: What is one thing you can do today to grow hope for yourself? A three-circle Venn Diagram is labeled Hope Defined, with the individual circles labeled GOAL, AGENCY, and PATHWAYS. The center of the Venn Diagram is labeled HOPE.
A slide from a presentation by Dr. Steven Rippe from Talent Enthusiasts

Early in Teaching Community (because, in full transparency, I am still early in my reading of the book), hooks writes: “Hopefulness empowers us to continue our work for justice even as the forces of injustice may gain greater power for a time” (xiv). That all sounds like exactly what I need a good dose of right about now. So. As I look toward the start of the school year, my initial research question is: What happens if I focus on nurturing hope in my classroom next year? As a seasoned teacher researcher, I am quite sure that this question will evolve with time, but am pleased with it as a starting point.

Where I Am Going

As I close out my week of GMWP collaboration, I’m feeling inspired by something retired teacher Larry Hale pointed out in reference to my proposed research: “We’re not the only generation to experience hopelessness, but we feel like it.” Which begs the question, how have past generations handled these moments?

Between now and the start of school in September, first and foremost I’m going to need to work on developing my own definition of “hope,” and start investigating how it relates to others’ work in this sphere. I know that what I’m looking for is something internal to nurture independent of external happenings (pandemics, climate change, gun violence, etc.). To that end, I plan to finish up Teaching Community and revisit my physical and virtual bookshelves, including Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk and Raise Your Hand! A Call for Consciousness in Education by Komal Shah (screenshotted at the beginning of this piece). I also plan to dig into Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade’s dichotomy of “critical hope” versus “false hope,” which I was exposed to in a workshop last year. Lastly, I need to reconnect with Dr. Rippe, who is a friend, and to begin thinking about the Global Day of Hope on October 14th.

Most of all, I want to plan for a year of “work that is real” for myself and my students, because I truly believe that meaningful work is a route to self-determination, agency, and hope.

A Brief Coda

I wholeheartedly subscribe to the What We Can Become Design Principles for Culturally Sustaining Learning Partnerships generated by GMWP folks over the past couple of years (and written about extensively here on the GMWP Blog). My work this year is likely to address many of the principles, but these three in particular stick out to me as most relevant to my current path:

  • Relationships Design Principle: Students and educators in the learning community all know that they matter, are regarded as competent and valuable, and have things to teach and things to learn from each other.
  • Teaching & Learning Design Principle: Students are afforded opportunities to make decisions about what and how they learn.
  • Assessment Design Principle: Students have opportunities to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, set the course for their own learning, and assess their own learning and progress.

If I can put these principles into practice, they ought to contribute to a more real and hopeful classroom for my students and myself.

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Skylar L. Primm (he/him)

Skylar L. Primm (he/him)

Cultivating students’ power, nurturing students’ joy, celebrating students’ humanity. 🧡🌱 skylarprimm.com