To the Editor:
Education Week‘s Nov. 1 issue struck two resonant notes for me. First was the coverage of Summit High School’s peer-leadership program (“Peers Help 9th Graders Survive Critical Year”). The California high school’s method of pairing freshmen with junior and senior mentors is noteworthy because it’s focused on student-to-student interaction.
The second note of resonance was educator DJ Cashmere’s Commentary, in which he described his journey of self-discovery regarding his lack of racial and cultural sensitivity as a white teacher in a classroom of black students (“Wrestling With Atticus Finch”).
I’m currently reading Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood ... And the Rest of Y’all Too, which details, in part, Emdin’s analogous search as a teacher of color for personal and pedagogical relevance and connection in an urban school. The two authors’ paths present a vivid parallel: Each discovers, in his own way, that he cannot succeed without a foundational respect for students’ capabilities and the cultural attributes they bring to the schoolhouse.
These stories and programs underscore something profound about efforts to improve high schools: Students (and their cultures) should not merely be objects to change, but agents of change. Enlisting students’ energy, understanding, and idealism can make the difference in whether schools’ change efforts succeed or fail.
A few years ago, journalist Mark Jacobson put it this way, “Youth occurs in a time of its own, immune to criticism from those claiming to have had better youths. ... Every passage to adulthood is a hero’s journey, to be respected, in its own way.” Precious few high school change efforts focus on deep, personal, respectful engagement of students, but most of them should.
New York, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Students as Change Agents