Joe Nathan

As a parent of three and grandparent of five granddaughters, ages 8-12, all of whom live within 10 minutes of my wife and me, I’m cautious and hopeful about offering a few suggestions about the new school year. But despite immense challenges that families and educators face, Americans have “made it through” very tough times: wars, racial discrimination, the Depression and previous pandemics. So with humility, here are six things to consider.

• Encourage each youngster to identify, learn more about and develop a special interest, strength or talent in the coming year. They need to be involved in things they enjoy. They’ll be happier and healthier by developing one or more of their strengths.

• Get your students involved in engaging educational programs based on their interests. One possible resource is a terrific free publication, Reach for the Stars. The authors describe it as a catalog of “More than 120 academic enrichment programs, activities, challenges, events and opportunities for Minnesota K-12 students.” There are possibilities for K-5, middle school and high school students.

• Find a cause that you and your children or grandchildren can assist. Volunteer time. Consider donating or raising money. You can find opportunities by checking with a local or regional United Way, religious institutions, your youngsters’ school, or area social service agencies. A terrific website,, offers literally hundreds of examples of ways young people can help others.

• Reassure them that adults are doing everything possible to keep them safe.  While there’s some controversies here, my gut feeling is everyone cares about their health.

• Though it’s difficult, adults can model hope and optimism. Harvard University has developed several free, brief documents that explain how to help youngsters develop empathy, gratitude, diligence and grit. These are extremely valuable life skills. The booklets are here:

• Help youngsters think about and plan for their future. Unquestionably there’s much we don’t know. But a state law wisely asks schools to help young people to develop a personal learning plan by the ninth grade. This is designed to help young people “explore their educational, college, and career interests, aptitudes, aspirations and develop a plan for smooth and successful transition to post-secondary education or employment.” More information about these plans is here:

None of this is to deny that we face significant, sometimes frightening challenges.

However, two of my favorite poems are “Mother to Son,” by Langston Hughes, and Carl Sandburg’s book-length poem “The People, Yes,” written during the Depression.

Actress Viola Davis gives a terrific reading of Hughes’ brief, encouraging poem:

Sandburg wrote, in part, to encourage people in that troubled time. Here’s a virtual, animated Sandburg reading part of the poem: Part of the poem explains, “In the darkness with a great bundle of grief, the people march. In the night and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march: ‘Where to? What next?’ ”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at

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