Praise For Nancy's Work
“I just wish there were more Nancy’s, with the humor, skill, chutzpah, doggedness and joie de vivre you generate with such casual elegance!”
Founder of Albany Free School
“I was so thrilled and delighted by your book. What a gift!”
Richard Lewis, Founder and Director,
Touchstone Center For Children
“Nancy Gill shows us what ‘education’ would be like if we truly valued and respected young people. She breaks through our culture’s limiting assumptions about teaching and learning to reveal that genuine education means engaging in authentic human relationships rooted in empathy, understanding, and acceptance.”
author of What Are Schools For?
“If people like Nancy Gill were the ones in charge of our schools, then our schools would be humane, compassionate places where the innate gifts of every student are valued and fostered.”
author of Teaching the Restless
About Helping Kids Hope
When I began my freshman year of college, I had no idea that there was anything wrong “with the system” that we call “education” in this country. Granted, there were a few mean-spirited, thoughtless, bossy, or boring teachers along the way, but there were also wonderfully caring, imaginative, inspiring, even noble teachers too. I didn’t know there was “a system” somewhere that controlled what teachers did or didn’t do. I thought teachers were free to teach whatever content they wished to teach, in whatever way they thought best. I thought there was such a thing as “academic freedom”: the freedom to search for the truth in one’s own way, according to one’s own lights, one’s own sense of integrity and wholeness and honesty, and truth. Assuming that college professors were the most free, and most inspired of all, l decided to teach in college.
I assumed that college students were mostly happy to be students, happy to find out what their professors thought, and knew, and cared about on their journey toward understanding and celebrating themselves and the world.
At Penn State, all of us in the English Department were asked to teach a Composition/Literature course entitled “The Need For Meaning.” Designed by S. Leonard Rubinstein, and taught at every Penn State campus, this course was thrilling—and life-changing—for both faculty and students. We explored the need for meaning, and we did it in a thoroughly engaging and
But, even there, on our small campus of seven hundred students, there were students—and teachers—whose lives were challenging, painful, terrifying, tragic. Students trusted us, even the youngest and most inexperienced among us, to listen, to care, to go many “extra miles” for them, to be stand-ins not just for their parents, but for their whole sense of connection with the world. We felt like family to them, and they felt like family to us too.
These needs seemed even more urgent and more widespread at my second university, where I taught for twenty-eight years, but now there were sometimes as many as eight thousand or more students. Dozens upon dozens of them came to class drunk or high, without having read assignments, without having written papers, unable to write even a paragraph sometimes, unable to read a college text, or, in some cases, even an elementary school picture book.
What were we to teach these students? How might we enable them to learn academic material when their personal lives were so empty and precarious? How could we become “like family” for eight thousand students? How could counselors counsel? How could teachers earn students’ trust—or even know students’ needs? If they skipped class day after day, week after week, how could we even begin to “reach them”?
Helping Kids Hope: A Teacher Explores the Need For Meaning in Our Schools and In Our Lives, is the story of one teacher who tried her best to reach the students so many others decided were unreachable. I wrote it hoping that young people deciding to go into teaching could perhaps see their own experience through my eyes, and not give up when giving up seemed like the only sensible thing to do. I wrote it hoping that struggling would become a way of life—because not to struggle, surely, conveyed only one message: “You are not worth caring about, not worth believing in. There is no one on your side but you.” What a terrible message to send to any child. But where there was struggle, there was hope. I believed that, and I struggled my heart out.
About Shine In Your Own Way
Shine In Your Own Way: Inspiration For Parents of Failing Kids is, I guess, the logical sequel to my first book. After I retired from college teaching, I returned to my home state of Washington to give myself a kind of sabbatical—to write, to do art, to go for long walks in a beautiful, unspoiled environment near Puget Sound—nothing but hundred-foot-tall fir and cedar trees, snow-covered mountains, pristine tidal waters, meandering country roads—peace, perspective, a time to reflect and re-energize.
Alas, my entire neighborhood seemed to be filled with students just like those I had left in Pennsylvania—except the students who surrounded me now were only in elementary school. Already, they were failing in school, lost in math, science, English, even Art, and Physical Education. They were in trouble with the law, their home lives were dysfunctional and miserable, and their schools were, to them, cold, hostile, indifferent, oblivious prison-like places.
I couldn’t take my sabbatical in the midst of such suffering. A family member of three young children asked for my help, and soon their friends’ families called too. I joined the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for the local school. I visited other schools, other towns, cities, counties—and saw much much more of what I had already seen. This time, I began not with the schools but with homes. I decided to “adopt” students individually, at first, to offer to stay with them, work with them, not just on helping them master academic skills, but helping them develop their confidence, a sense of their potential, a sense of their own possibility. Once again, I visited schools, represented families there, stood up for kids, tried to help them make sense of a broken system, tried to help them believe they could survive it.
Shine In Your Own Way was intended for parents who, often, had felt unhelped and unnurtured when they themselves were students. I could have titled it Helping Parents Hope
There is such a thing as shining. Shining is what happens, as E. E. Cummings says, when people commit themselves to their own intellectual and emotional growth, when they are true to themselves, when they refuse to give up on themselves. It’s what parents need to do to help their kids do it too. And sometimes parents learn it from their kids.
Nancy can be reached by e-mail, or by writing to Helping Kids Hope, P.O. Box 337, Lilliwaup, WA 98555.