The coronavirus pandemic has caused a difficult situation for many schools to handle. Educators have been forced to reengineer entire courses into an online format; young people have been forced to get computers, printers, and scanners (luxuries not every family has) to succeed in those courses. However, these hardships also seem to have brought out the best of many individuals who work to overcome this crisis.
Look at people like Avi Schiffmann, a high schooler in Washington state who built a website that provides easy access to information about COVID-19 for young people, and 6th grader Matthew Tuer, who organized a GoFundMe campaign to support local schools in his hometown of Northville, Mich. They’re far from the only students working to improve their communities. In fact, the past few months have seen a surge in activism and advocacy among young people.
Brandon Griggs and a local councilman consider how to empower students to use their voice.
What led to this new energy? And how can teachers help foster this same resiliency and drive in all their students?
With the rise of the pandemic this spring and the national fight for racial justice, many young people are displaying inner reserve, resiliency, self-regulation, leadership, service, and citizenship in ways that no one could have anticipated.
In this special Opinion project, educators and students explore how young people are carving their own paths.
As a teen activist and the founder of Hear the Youth, an organization that works to amplify the voices of young people in local government, I first became involved in my work after witnessing how crime and violence affected teenagers in my community in Florida. I was frustrated to see that none of those teens was ever consulted by the adults looking to address the problem. I am now the only teenager to serve on the Jacksonville City Commission on Safety and Crime Reduction. COVID-19, which has cut short graduation ceremonies and ended athletic activities, is having a similar effect in motivating other students to get involved in their communities.
While there is no substitute for firsthand experiences to inspire young people, adults can still play an important role in encouraging student activism. And they do not need to wait for a crisis to support their students’ social innovation—and the independence, confidence, and hope that come with it.
One of the most significant things educators can do to encourage their students to be involved in their communities is to believe that student-led efforts can accomplish real change. This might be as simple as offering to hear our ideas and providing guidance for our projects. After teachers at my school invited the superintendent to come hear from students, Hear the Youth was able to work with our school district last year to secure free mobile hot spots to qualifying students who don’t have home-internet access. Students involved in other budding youth-led endeavors deserve the same opportunity to meet public officials.
How can teachers help foster this same resiliency and drive in all their students?"
Another key role adults can play in activating youth-led projects is to spend more time listening to—rather than lecturing—us. Young people often have a unique perspective on the social issues that affect us directly. Teachers can start by simply asking kids what issues matter most to us. Then, allow us to formulate our own potential solutions to these problems and provide constructive feedback. COVID-19 may be at the forefront of all of our minds right now, but we shouldn’t neglect other important areas where improvement is necessary.
By taking this approach, teachers can avoid using young people as props without taking our concerns seriously.
Finally, when students do start taking the initiative and advocating their needs, teachers should foster a culture of positivity and acceptance toward those change-making efforts. Too often, young people are discouraged from making a difference by school administrators who are defensive of the status quo. Students who are not yet confident in their ability to make a difference can find inspiration from a school environment that welcomes change—and from seeing examples of other young activists who have succeeded in the same environment.
I say this because when we first started our activism work, Hear the Youth didn’t have any such examples of teenage-led organizations in our community, and I know just how helpful it would have been for many of us to have a role model to follow. There were countless times when I felt as though I was the only person in my community who wanted to make a difference. Just as living in a neighborhood surrounded by crime perpetuates a cycle of violence, seeing young people like us advocate change has allowed teenagers in Jacksonville to realize that they are capable of changing that narrative.
Now, youth activists in our community don’t have to be alone in their efforts. It is my hope that educators can help all students find their voices by taking the time to encourage, support, and listen to us.
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Coverage of character education and development is supported in part by a grant from The Kern Family Foundation, at www.kffdn.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2020 edition of Education Week as Finding the Confidence to Speak Up