Education Opinion

Learning Deeply in Dark Times

By Contributing Blogger — April 11, 2018 3 min read
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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools(Harvard Education Press).

For the past 30 years, I’ve been interviewing adolescents and teachers about the meaning (or lack of meaning) of their work, in and out of school. The themes that surface -- about relationships, about agency, about the value they place on their work and about their expectation of success -- strikingly align with the education research that most supports what we call deeper learning.

But in the past 18 months, what I hear from young people as well as educators has sounded very different. Their own experiences often seem to clash with the fundamental social contract of public school -- that all children have the right, at public cost, to acquire the knowledge, skills, and habits that help democracy thrive.

Yet that tension can also yield new clarity. More and more, in these dark times, students themselves are vividly demonstrating deeper learning -- and illuminating the crucial role of those who teach them.

Most notably, after the recent shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, its students organized protests that rallied tens of thousands of youth around the nation. Their actions sprang from grief and rage, but their effectiveness started with a dedicated longtime AP Government teacher (a registered Republican) whose curriculum emphasized debate and civic action on controversial issues. By teaching each other the finer points of social media, students themselves kept their message clear as it spread swiftly to a massive audience.

Youth partners in political action

On other complex challenges around the nation, youth who face other threats are also mining their own experience and asking questions that open to other questions. Working and learning alongside adults, they are raising their voices in powerful testimony.

In New York City, for example, restrictive public school admissions policies have long created de facto segregation throughout the five boroughs. But for the past year or two, a student-led group called Teens Take Charge has been calling attention to those inequities at a series of public events for politicians, school officials, and the community.

Its most recent gathering, “We Regret to Inform You,” highlighted factors in the high school admissions process that have led over the decades to egregious racial imbalances. Working with adult partners, students helped draft an alternative policy for that process, and presented it to education officials.

“Here we are, the minority against the public school system,” Dulce Marquez told the crowd in the spoken-word poetic style in which many youth testified. “We regret to inform you / That we are the majority / And we aren’t going anywhere.”

Another student, who immigrated to the Bronx at the age of 8, told how his undocumented status had recently blocked his access to 20 private colleges for which he otherwise qualified. “Only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented students in the United States go to college,” he said, urging schools and communities to provide both emotional and practical support at a time when “those in the highest elected offices abhor our presence in this land of freedom and opportunities.”

I was a teenager in 1968, and the student protests that exploded worldwide in that era profoundly affected my social and political outlook. Fifty years later, I once more feel the stirring of hope, as I see students who are almost of voting age shaping a powerful conversation and creating pressure for change. Even in the dark times, as Bertolt Brecht’s famous 1939 quatrain reminds us, “there will also be singing / about the dark times.”

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.