Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page aren’t shy about sharing the secret of how they came up with new products like Gmail and Google News: They allowed the company’s engineers to be creative. To be exact, they allowed their engineers to spend 20 percent of their work time on their own innovative passion projects. The same is true in academia, where university faculty—after completing years of research and teaching—earn the right to take a sabbatical and focus exclusively on their interests.
What if our K-12 schools believed in students the same way that Google believes in its engineers and universities trust their professors? What if we had that same faith in our students’ talents and capabilities?
Moving Beyond the Standards
Several years ago, as a middle school teacher at a Title I public school in New Haven, Conn., I told my 8th graders that for one period per day, they could spend time solving a problem they cared about instead of doing traditional schoolwork. Doing so changed my classroom: After years of teaching standards, I began teaching students.
We started by brainstorming students’ concerns about the world. They noticed that TV cameras rolled into the neighborhood when there was a murder, but not when good things happened. They were concerned about police brutality and a lack of trust between officers and teenagers. They worried about how the media portrayed young people, particularly young people of color like themselves, as uncaring rather than as the impassioned and curious people they are.
We then worked together to create standards-based projects that addressed those concerns. We developed the same skills students in other classes were learning, but we did so for real reasons. We built a website where they researched and reported their own stories for an online audience, responding to events in the news and paying attention to what the news overlooked. We designed a campaign to reduce stereotypes of officers and teenagers that students presented at the local police academy. We started a neighborhood museum at our school to celebrate the stories of our community.
Making a Difference
Our most substantial project arose when I handed the school’s latest academic and behavioral data to a group of students and asked them what we should do. The suspension rates at our school were going up, and the transition to a new state test left us uncertain about academic performance.
Students immediately got to work thinking about how to improve our school. They surveyed friends at other schools, researched creative practices around the country, and eventually planned field trips to three nearby schools that were doing education differently.
What they found during walkthroughs at other schools and through interviews with teachers and students impressed them. At one school, students used Chromebooks in class and at home to aid in learning. At another, a student-run leadership club encouraged kindness and helped reduce discipline issues.
Back at our school, my students sprang into action. They wrote a proposal on DonorsChoose to obtain several computer models before settling on the one they felt was best, and met with the district’s superintendent to advocate for a Chromebook for every 8th grader. They also created a young men’s fraternity to foster peer-to-peer support among the young men at our school. One initiative in the fraternity involved collecting donated ties from all over the country. My students wanted their peers to feel comfortable taking themselves seriously—and were concerned that the first time many classmates donned a tie would be when they went for a job interview. By the end of the year, more than 200 students wore ties to school, and teachers reported that classroom behavior improved as a result.
None of this was for a grade or because I, as their teacher, told them to. Instead, they did it because they could—and because they wanted to.
Though I have since left the classroom, I still hear about the ways my students are making a difference at their high schools. With sponsorship from the national Think It Up initiative, Elijah is helping to plan field trips to a hospital and a fire academy for his school’s career program. Jordan started a mentorship program between high schoolers and students at a nearby middle school. Paolo created a campaign to replace outdated gym equipment. At different high schools around our city, students are taking seats at the table to improve their schools, proving that they should have been there all along.
A Classroom of Trust
The traditional method of mass education starts with a curriculum and fits it to students’ needs. Too often, students’ interests exist separately from school, and they complete assignments for their teacher’s eyes only. Personal passion is too often missing from our classrooms.
As teachers, we should approach education the other way around: by starting with our students and then shaping a curriculum around them. When we give our students real responsibility to tackle problems connected to their interests, they flourish.
It’s time we eradicate adultism from our schools. We must stop acting as though the best ideas come from people in charge. My students are proof that when teachers engage students as partners, everybody learns more.