3 Ways to Help Students Love Themselves

A picture of a baseball field and a baseball in the air with "if you build it, they will join" on the picture

Create the activities and clubs and adventures that will allow the students to struggle and shine. Then publicize it. And others will join you.

And nowhere is this more true than in high school. Recently, I’ve been exploring the idea that many students in Title I schools are missing the one key skill they need to succeed in college: obnoxiousness.

“What?” you are probably saying. “I went to college, and I wasn’t obnoxious!”

And perhaps you weren’t. But I bet you were obnoxious in the glorious way that EVERYONE IS who decides to take a step into a world of people who are “smarter” than, wealthier than, and different from you.

You have to believe that you can run with the big dogs, even if you look and act like a small one. You need to BELIEVE you are a big dog, even if you are clearly a tiny tadpole. And you have really believe it, or actively be tryign to convince yourself to believe it. Every. Single. Day.

Or here’s another way to look at it: when I was 22 years old, there was no way you could tell me that I wouldn’t have written my first novel by age 30. I had the talent and the interest.

But the longer I was in the world, the less OBNOXIOUS I got. The more interesting people I met, the more I understood about the world, the more money I noticed that I DIDN’T have, the more I started thinking to myself… but who am I to write a novel? What have I experienced? What have I done? Why do I deserve this? And I stopped trying. Because I was no longer surrounded by the veritable army of teachers and mentors who had been telling me for 22 years that I was a good, even great writer. I was in NYC, the land of “but everyone wants to be a writer.”

Those folks who have the gumption to push past the self doubt or, even better, who don’t have enough knowledge to even doubt in the first place, are the ones who get that novel written. It might be terrible, but it’s done.

It’s that BRASHNESS that gets things created in this world, that gets college finished. And it’s that lack of brashness that makes those very things not happen.

Recently, I was lucky enough to have a friend suggest I listen to a recent episode of This American Life called 3 Miles. It is the story of how several students from a high poverty public high school in the Bronx reacted, over the course of years, after walking onto the campus of Ethical Culture Fieldston School. The effect was devastating. Most kids simply could not handle the overwhelming  feeling of I CANNOT DO THIS that took over. They’d simply experienced too much failure.

So here’s how you help them overcome it:

1. Let them win something. Let them compete to the best of their ability and provide lots of different ways for them to win. A great example of this at work is the Annual Poetry Out Loud Competition. While not all students end up winning the national competition, each school’s competition allows for winners at every level, should you choose to run the competition that way. If you have a lot of students in several grades compete, you can have a classroom competition, a grade-wide competition, an audience favorite, and a school wide champion. Simply saying that you were the grade level champ in something feels good. Heck, I still tell people about coming in 4th place in  the Brooklyn-wide spelling bee in 5th grade, and I’m 38 years old. These things stick with you. I was also my school’s storytelling contest champion with the story The Silent Couple.

2. Let them present their work to outsiders. A few weeks back, I brought several students to present at the NBA Cares All-Star Coding Event. My students got to meet Dikembe Motumbo and show off the Scratch Games they’d created to Motumbo and to professional coders at SAP.

Lots of students, Hadi Partovi, and Dikembe Motumbo at NBA Cares

Myself and my students looking awesome with Dikembe Motumbo. My students and are the ones with the carefully drawn yellow arrows above our heads.

Just yesterday, I brought another group of students to Pre-moticon! An intro workshop to help students start thinking about what projects they want to present at Emoticon later this year. My students were already getting psyched about what they will create by the end of the meeting.

Screenshot of a video game where the object is to catch food and water and snacks and tools falling off of shelves.

Here’s a zombie game that one of my students remixed from another game, changing the theme and the points.

3. Encourage oddness. I think this is the most important one. If we want our kids to develop the fortitude to “do their thang” against all odds, even when everyone else says they can’t do it, we need to encourage them to go against the grain. It’s okay to be good at school, to wear odd clothing, to enjoy things other kids don’t enjoy. Teach them to enjoy the things that make them stick out. It is this ability to embrace their oddness that will ultimately allow them to feel that they can’t look any baseless critic in the face–especially their own self-doubt–and tell them to hit the road.

So build it. The kids will come. Slowly. But they will join you as long as you give them ample opportunities to shine and publicize their successes like crazy.