Children force us to acknowledge realities that many of us can and would chose to ignore. How is it that I regularly hurry past the homeless, hoping to avoid interacting, while my son intentionally slows down and registers that there is a human being in need right there in front of him? After I give my son change to put in the donation cup, we walk away and he asks me, "Why can’t we do more to help her?"
Young people are uniquely positioned to recognize injustice and question dominant paradigms. When she was younger, my daughter described the skin of the people that she knew as part of a spectrum of light brown, medium brown, or dark brown. My partner and I hesitated to provide her with our society's accepted terminology to describe race. Why teach her to replicate a system of racial separation that oppresses millions? Fortunately, the place where she did learn the terms "black" and "white" was a progressive school committed to empowering children to combat and undo racism. Such education aims to hold onto the child's innate ability to see the world differently, while arming her with the historical and cultural knowledge to name injustice and fight it.
In our society, it is widely believed that because young people lack experience, they aren't smart, capable, or insightful. (These beliefs are often referred to as young people's oppression or adultism.) In reality, young people share the fresh perspective of children and are able to develop deep understandings, make intellectual connections, and take action in ways that adults often can't or won't.
For school to matter, students must be given opportunities to engage with the world around them and ask questions about issues that are often ignored or overlooked. The most important and meaningful way for students to engage is by reflecting on their experiences, learning about our society, and envisioning and working for social change.
A Classroom Example
Recently, I was inspired by the work of a group of students in one of my 12th grade classes. The four students were planning a lesson to teach to a sixth grade class at a nearby middle school. Over several days, I had conversations with them as their ideas slowly evolved. Their initial idea of a lesson about LGBT rights was a good one that they seemed excited to pursue. "How can you design the lesson in a way that will challenge the sixth graders to think in new ways?" I asked them. "How will you frame the discussion?"
Several consultations later, they had designed a powerful lesson. They planned to begin by showing some images from the civil rights movement and then asking the younger students to share their knowledge and insights about this period of history. Then they would share information about the Stonewall riots in 1969 and present the movement for LGBT rights as an example of a current, continuing human rights struggle. Finally they would ask the sixth grade students to use their knowledge of social movements to identify strategies that could be used effectively by the LGBT community and allies. My 12th grade students were excited about and empowered by the lesson they had designed -- it was an opportunity for them to focus on the world they want.
I was worried when, on the day of the scheduled lesson, I had to miss school because my son was home sick. It turned out that my students were so committed to what they had designed and so empowered by the idea of stepping into the role of teachers that they took care of the final details themselves, taught the lesson, and then entertained me at home with emails about their success and exclamations about how much they had enjoyed teaching.
I share this story as an example of students excited about, inspired by, and dedicated to their work. The assignment allowed for student choice and encouraged groups to choose topics they felt passionate about. The structure integrated an authentic audience. Providing students with an opportunity to pursue justice by doing work that had meaning in the world led to deep engagement and ownership of the process.
Focus on Justice Thoughtfully and Passionately
There is a danger that a focus on injustice can leave students feeling overwhelmed without feeling empowered to act. For this reason, curriculum should be designed around ideas of creation, change, agency, and empowerment. My colleagues at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia have inspired me with examples of science classes studying the politics of food and working in a local community garden, math classes investigating the different costs of groceries in different neighborhoods, history classes creating walking tours of people's history, Spanish classes studying art and social change, and English classes creating publications for and by teens.
Powerful learning experiences examine the flawed world we know while moving toward creating the world of our dreams. Giving students permission and encouragement to do this work leads to engagement and empowerment of young people while giving them opportunities to do real, necessary work. The most important work teachers can do is to create experiences that help students understand themselves, their potential as intellectuals, and their power as agents in the world.
How have you seen and helped your students engage with bettering their world?