The Power of Listening

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To teach democracy in our schools, we must have the courage to practice it, no matter how messy that may be.

The cultural critic Christopher Lasch once said, "If young people feel no connection to anything, their dislocation is a measure of our failure, not theirs." For far too many students, particularly in the inner cities, school is becoming a colder, harsher, more disconnected place than ever. The twin pressures of high standards and high security are taking their toll on the daily culture of schooling. What has been lost in the rush to raise academic standards and install metal detectors is the need to raise the standards for school culture, to ensure that the students are truly at the center of a humane and democratic community of learners.

In the post-Columbine world of education, young people and anything that smacks of youth culture are a potential threat to the established order of things; no child is above suspicion. And so, security-minded administrators are working increasingly to restrict and control the physical, cultural, and intellectual space of schools. Metal detectors and surveillance cameras greet more students as they enter the front doors. More guards monitor their movements within the building and along its perimeter. Some schools are requiring students to carry only transparent book bags. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, since last spring, students across the country have been suspended and expelled for wearing items such as black armbands and the Star of David, for posting World Wide Web sites critical of their schools and towns, and for listening to music and reading literature prohibited by school officials.

The problem is, stifling students’ free expression is not only unconstitutional, it is misguided educational practice. It teaches the lesson that ours is a closed, undemocratic society that doesn’t listen to its young people and doesn’t tolerate dissenting or minority points of view. And it is counterproductive, since it demeans and further marginalizes those young people who already feel the most disconnected from the broader community.

Instead, young people need to know that their ideas and opinions matter. They need to know they have platforms where they can express themselves and engage in a public conversation, without fear of punishment. To teach democracy in our schools, we must have the courage to practice it, no matter how messy that may be.

While some may dismiss this as hopelessly naive and unworkable, it is important to know that schools and community programs around the country have been successfully running youth-media projects for several years. Through these efforts, young people often considered "problem" or "at risk" students have created powerful, deeply engaging, and often award-winning work in the form of magazines, video and radio programs, photography, and multimedia projects. Authentic youth voices and visions have found articulate and mature expression in community programs, including Youth Communications newsmagazines in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles; Youth Radio in Berkeley, Calif.; the HarlemLive Internet publication in New York; the Watsonville Video Academy in California; the Appalachian Media Institute in Whitesburg, Ky.; and the Educational Video Center in New York, of which I am the founding director.

What is common to all of these youth projects is a commitment to providing young people the technical, creative, and intellectual tools they need to inquire deeply into the cultural, social, and psychological problems they encounter at home, in their schools, and in the streets of their communities. In each case, committed and caring adults offer sustained support and guidance for the young people. Some students have produced video documentaries on youth crime and violence prevention, some have written articles about what it is like for a teenager to live with AIDS, others have recorded radio interviews with homeless children and their families, and still others have created Web sites on hip-hop and youth culture. Through these projects, they learn to see their own communities as laboratories for learning; they come to have a respect for the multiple perspectives expressed on problems in their communities. And, more important, they develop a sense of purpose and hope that they, as young people, can make a contribution to the search for solutions. For many, their media work has won them scholarships to college and led to jobs in the field. The youth-media experience is almost always a transformative one.

While many of the most promising youth-media programs have been established in community settings, professional- development and arts initiatives are helping such models take root and spread nationally in schools as well. Growing numbers of teachers are engaging their students in cultural and social journalism projects as a powerful strategy for building important literacy, research, and other academic skills.

But there is little chance for substantial changes in public institutions such as schools unless there is also change in the public’s attitude toward young people. As a recent Public Agenda poll reported, a strong majority of the general public, 71 percent, described teenagers negatively, using words such as "lazy, disrespectful, or wild." Only 15 percent described teenagers positively, using words such as "smart, curious, and energetic." And a majority, including both adults and teenagers, said that today’s youngsters would not make America a better place to live.

Perceptions such as these are worrisome. They show that many adults badly misunderstand the motivation and potential of young people. And they speak loudly to the need to give young people a voice, so that their ideas can help inform and correct the perceptions of the adults who are shaping their world.

A majority, including both adults and teenagers, said that today’s youngsters would not make America a better place to live.

Of course, I am not suggesting that youth-media programs are the answer to all that is wrong with education. But I do believe that as parents, teachers, administrators, and concerned citizens, we need to take Christopher Lasch’s admonition to heart. We all have an opportunity to rethink the direction we are taking our schools and our children. We can choose to install more metal detectors, hire more guards, prohibit more student activities, and insist we are still trying to educate our youths as we turn our schools into high-stakes, high-security institutions. Or we can make a renewed effort to respectfully listen to, learn from, and engage young people in vibrant conversations about the issues that matter most to them in our schools and communities. One approach promotes a school culture where youth voices are routinely silenced and dialogue is closed down; the other promotes a learner-centered culture that values greater openness and civic participation.

My almost 20 years of work with students and teachers in New York City schools has convinced me, beyond a doubt, that young people’s sense of dislocation will diminish as their voices are encouraged to grow stronger and richer. And our schools and communities will be that much stronger and richer for listening.

Steven Goodman is the executive director of the Educational Video Center in New York City. He is writing a book on media education, literacy, and community engagement to be published by Teachers College Press.

Vol. 19, Issue 14, Page 35

Published in Print: December 1, 1999, as The Power of Listening
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The illustrator's credit was omitted from artwork accompanying the Commentary by Steven Goodman in the Dec. 1, 1999, issue of Education Week. The illustrator is Thomas Teague.

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