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Always Strive to Be a Better You

Reviving the American Dream

In my career, I have worked in a variety of different schools in a variety of different settings. I've done time in pre-school, elementary school, and middle school institutions. Though the bulk of my work has been concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods, I've also tread the grass on the other side of the fence. And, of course, I've gotten splinters from trying to uproot the fence and replant it elsewhere.

Recently, a growing number of my conversations and experiences are leading my thoughts in a direction that, quite honestly, disturbs me. I'm wrought with concern over the vitality of that enigmatic ideal we've dubbed "The American Dream."

My concerns about the American Dream relate directly to the very children we have pledged to educate and prepare for the world -- as well as their families, teachers, and other members of our communities.


In recent months, I've been reading a lot about society, changes in the world, and the future awaiting our children. Besides Harry Potter 7, I've bent pages in Ruby Payne's discussion of poverty, Jonathan Kozol's latest tirades, and some interesting commentaries from the Wall Street Journal -- including Jeffrey Zaslow's ire-inspiring column, "Blame it on Mr. Rogers" (WSJ, July 5, 2007).

The same questions Mr. Zaslow attempts to answer have been bopping around my head and have entered my discussions with educators around the country: Are we praising children undeservedly? Are children today more narcissistic than in the past? Have we forgotten to teach children proper citizenship behaviors? Have we ignored our responsibility to instill respect in them? Are we over-indulgent with our children? Was the self-esteem movement of the 1980s a damaging influence?

In a lot of cases, those questions are followed by sadly affirmative responses. What do we see in schools today? In society? Complacency. Lack of drive. Poor efforts. Entitlement. Big egos. Underachievement. Sloppy work. Messy backpacks. Disrespect. Selfishness. An unnatural obsession with the Paris Hiltons of the world. The list could go on...


The United States of America was founded on a few basic principles -- self-evident truths, if you will -- including the unalienable right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness (see the Declaration of Independence for more details), and the dream of a Boston Red Sox World Series championship (which is not in the Declaration of Independence, mind you). It was those truths that provided the foundation for what James Truslow Adams first coined "The American Dream" in his 1931 book The Epic of America.

As citizens of the great U.S. of A., we often argue about the true meaning of "The American Dream." Are we talking about the hope of a better standard of living? The dream of a fuller and richer life? The pursuit of greater financial prosperity? The desire of a happier and more peaceful existence? The expectation of enhanced freedoms for all people? The hope of a funnier lineup of Thursday night television programming?

I'm a firm believer in a comprehensive definition of the American Dream: A life that holds the fullest opportunity for any and all of the above.


Go back up two paragraphs and re-read the comparative adjectives. You'll find words such as better, fuller, richer, greater, happier, more peaceful, enhanced, and funnier. Implied in the use of those terms is that in order to achieve the American Dream, we must strive for improvement. The American Dream that I'm referring to has nothing to do with socioeconomic status, race, political affiliation, or shoe size. Instead, it has everything to do with individual and collective gains. Gains in freedom, peace, prosperity, happiness, spirituality, opportunity, education and patience.

The half-million immigrants who become naturalized U.S. citizens every year, like all immigrants before them (including our Founding Fathers), have had a clear picture of the gains they expect to realize. And I'm almost certain that the record 155 Mexicans who died attempting to cross the border this summer weren't thinking of what they had to lose from failing -- only what they had to gain from succeeding.

Today, as in the past, immigrants come to our country in search of their American Dream. In short, and however they might define it, their goal is a better life. It's not that their lives right now are so bad. They simply want better. Heck, most of us probably feel we have pretty good lives -- but that doesn't stop us from wanting them to be better. I want it better for my children. I want them to have the opportunity to make their own decisions, to choose their lifestyles and activities, to root for their own baseball teams (as long as they root for the Red Sox), to live and to learn and to love and to believe with freedom and without limits.

The question that frequently shackles me is this: Is the American Dream limited to those from another country? Have resident Americans lost touch with their concept of the American Dream? Have we become complacent? Do we feel, because we were born in America, that the American Dream is our birthright? That it is somehow owed to us? Have we slighted hard work and personal pride for entitlement?

In response to those questions, I've cultivated one more question in my own mind: Are we, as educators and parents, teaching our children the American Dream?


As educators, we can teach -- through some direct instruction and intentional role-modeling -- what the American Dream means. We can discuss and uncover our own definitions of success. We can determine life choices and educational paths that will lead our students to lives that are better, fuller, richer, greater, happier, more peaceful, enhanced, and funnier. Lives in which they can then make their own, educated, decisions.

"As educators, we can teach -- through some direct instruction and intentional role-modeling -- what the American Dream means."
  • When a student asks for a gift, a break, or a favor, we can ensure that student works to earn it.
  • When a student argues, we can refuse to engage in an argument, instead providing alternatives for the student to express herself.
  • When a student doesn't work up to his potential, we can insist that he re-do the work with more pride.
  • When a student acts in a disrespectful manner towards an adult, we can teach and demand respectful conduct.
  • When a student fails, we can show him the errors and explain the benefits of correcting them.
  • When a student succeeds, we can illustrate the root of the success and praise the child for her effort and attitude.
  • When a student needs direction, we can tell her about the doors in her future and show her the paths that will lead her to them.
  • When appropriate, we can teach the value of a firm handshake, a nice smile, polite manners, and the thought of another person's welfare. And, in case you were wondering, it is always appropriate to teach those things.
  • Regardless of the socioeconomic circumstance of the child or school, we can teach what Dr. Ruby Payne calls "the hidden rules of middle class" -- for the child to use if she so chooses.
  • When a child is in our presence, we can be role models.

America is truly the land of opportunity. Education, especially, opens the many doors of opportunity through which the American Dream lies in wait. As educators, we have all the power in the world to help every child discover his or her own American Dream -- in the country where anything is possible.

This year, teaching about the American Dream will be one of my priorities. As a matter of fact, "Reviving the American Dream" is going to be our school-wide theme this year. Won't you join me in reviving it?

Always strive to be a better you,

Article by Pete Hall
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