For several years, the high school in my district tracked students’ ‘community service’ hours as part of their graduation requirements. Lots of area schools had similar programs—an initiative conceived by the best of intentions, but fraught with conflict. It turned out that one person’s glowing vision of the Varsity Club cheerfully getting together to shovel snow for the elderly became just another record-keeping headache for teachers, who also had to adjudicate students’ submissions: Just what constitutes service to the community?
One of my high school students was the eldest of a large family. Mary’s mother sent back the community service forms declaring that Mary had completed the CS hours in babysitting younger children in the family, giving her mother time to shop and do household tasks in the afternoon and evening. The CS coordinator was adamant: Babysitting (whether in-family or for compensation) was NOT community service.
I thought of all the students who were claiming CS credits for decorating the cafeteria for a dance or washing cars in the school parking lot on Saturday, earning money for the French Club’s trip to Paris next summer. An excursion that some kids couldn’t even consider, because their families needed them to have a summer job—flipping burgers, handling the cash register at the gas station, or trying to get a patient at the nursing home to take a bite of soup.
High school and middle school students are capable of so many genuine responsibilities—caring for those who need assistance, starting and running businesses, doing real and important work. Their contributions to our healthy communities are routinely overlooked and negated. And their ideas are regarded as unformed, or unduly influenced by peers and media.
Why do we trust 7th graders to care for active toddlers, when we won’t let them go the bathroom without a paper pass? Why do adults appoint themselves arbitrators, limiting and defining the voice and credibility of teens and young adults?
Now, we have high school students in Florida—who have more credibility and perceptive thinking than the adults around them—leading a national movement to reduce gun violence. Doing so has put these young people squarely in the sites of powerful, well-heeled organizations who have chosen to fight back with manipulation, outright lies and scorn for the simplicity and authority of their ideas.
As much as I admire the Stoneman Douglas students for their courage and moral clarity, I hope that respect for the amazing impact they have had on a national issue is merely a spark. We have much to learn—as educators, and as a nation—from the way they (and their teachers and families) have responded to the worst day in all their lives. If their courage can become the cornerstone of a movement, an entire generation of political leadership could reshape America.
Before that can happen, however, we must re-think the way our schools regard their mission and habitual practice—our knee-jerk impulse to control, restrict and punish. As plans for walkouts and demonstrations are developing across the nation, why are administrators thinking first about (and I hate this word) ‘consequences’ for students who have decided to speak out about their own safety?
What’s the real consequence of punishing students for protesting? Making our educational institutions look morally weak and rule-bound, rendering all our happy talk about ‘critical thinking’ and ‘hands-on leaning’ meaningless.
All our students—even those we have sorted into ‘low-achieving’ categories—can speak their own minds about their personal beliefs and life outcomes, including the right to access lethal weapons. One of the most repellent arguments made about Parkland student Emma Gonzalez was that her speech benefited from her AP Government instruction, suggesting that less advantaged, but equally passionate, students could not have the same impact on the national conversation.
When I say that students are capable of so much more than we imagine or embrace, I don’t mean more challenging curriculum (although I believe that’s true as well). What I mean is this: Our young people have been trained to believe there’s one right answer to every test question, and getting that right answer is the goal of schooling.
They should be developing their own big questions, ideas and solutions about what a great country looks like. Our role as educators is guidance and support, not ‘consequences.’
Consider this: while millennial turnout in the 2016 election was low, it favored Democratic candidates by an 18-point edge. Mobilizing a youth vote could have monumental consequences in upcoming elections, negating or weakening the hundreds of millions spent by a handful of Citizens United types to swing elections. There’s even talk of lowering the voting age to 16.
I spent 30 years teaching teenagers, and I also remember my own youth, when I was instructed not to trust anyone over 30. There’s a balance between being inspired by the fresh vision of young people and believing that maturity lends authority to political power. But it’s exciting to see young people rising up and speaking. As educators, let’s be partners in reform.
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.