Education Opinion

Three Ways to Practice Becoming an Adult

By Contributing Blogger — April 07, 2016 2 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).

In my last post, middle school students spoke of the ways they came to think of their school as “my place.”

But when I speak with high school students, they are already thinking beyond the landscape of school. Most of them have tasted the experience of being out in the world on their own. Some have major responsibilities in their families. Many are looking at college, or looking for work.

With or without adults as role models and sounding boards, they are developing their ideas about their own possible selves. They are becoming adult.

What can high schools do to support this seismic transition? What school structures and practices best help youth negotiate the passage from adolescence to adulthood?

In the schools I have studied with What Kids Can Do, I have seen young people who had daily opportunities to:

  1. Identify questions that matter to them.
  2. Make meaningful choices in their personal behaviors and their academic behaviors.
  3. Reflect on their own learning process and how that could affect their study and work habits.

Elijah’s school, for example, created a class called “Sixteen” in which students explored anthropological techniques by making extended video calls to peers in very different cultures. In the video clip below, we can see how Elijah puzzles over their various marriage customs, trying visibly to take an unfamiliar perspective. His questions matter to him--precisely because he, too, is crossing the bridge to adulthood.

After Michecarly started high school, he took pride in shifting his interactions with school adults from confrontation to camaraderie. Here he thinks aloud about what kind of man he wants to be. He fumbles for the right words, speaking of his intention to regulate his personal behavior. “It’s something within myself,” he says. “I have to change, because this is gonna be for myself. I just want my kids to be like . . . ‘Yo, my dad is the best.’”

Garlyn, at 14, defended her right to ask questions when she didn’t understand something in class, even if everyone else did. “Every new idea is a risk,” she declared here. And Rashaun used an example from his school band to illustrate his conviction that in academic work, too, “you gotta keep goin’ at it.” Like coaches, he concluded, “teachers know when not to push you over the limit, but they know when you’re not workin’ at your hardest point . . . so that they will push you . . . until finally it comes through and I get it.”

UPDATED: New video added

Rashaun nails the point. As Ted Sizer long ago advised, our role as adults in school is primarily that of coach--setting up practice opportunities for students, and giving them encouraging, timely, and specific feedback. In the high schools I have been documenting, in any number of different contexts, educators make that central to their work.

As our young people make the passage to adulthood, nothing could matter more.

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.