The new school year is well under way in much of nation and many kids are anxious, frightened, confused and questioning.
Why is it that some children are dreaming of their straight-A report cards while for others, it is a time of dread? Why are psychologists documenting back to school anxiety, showing increases in mental health events for children during the school year after a dramatic decline over the summer, including an extreme anxiety labeled school refusal, a disorder marked by a child refusing to go to school on a regular basis?
These questions feel more important than ever in light of the recent events in Charlottesville and the tensions on the Korean peninsula.
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I am a teacher because I have almost always felt most comfortable and most myself, most alive and fed, within school settings where I can read, imagine, create, explore. But schools did not provide the same love, nurturing, excitement, and success for some of my family members, or for many of my friends.
For a variety of reasons, both personal and systemic, people close to me have never finished high school. They have never had the opportunity to attend college or university. Their life choices are limited, though in some cases liberated, by their lack of formal education.
I believe this is chiefly because they never occupied their schools. They never felt that school was their own place.
In recent years, I’ve watched schools fail some of my English Language Learner and Emergent Bilingual students. Due to restrictive language policies, faulty program models, low expectations, uninspired curriculum, challenge without support, lack of social service supports, bullying, and much more, some immigrant and refugee students struggle in our schools. Some struggle for the same reasons noted above that their non-immigrant peers struggle to fit in. Some just don’t see themselves as belonging in their schools
I want school – our only real youth space – to exist as a positive place and force for each young person. I want to see young people occupy their schools fully and determine their directions, cultures and outcomes.
I want our schools to breed curiosity, hope, challenge, and innovation because they are driven by the fervent imaginations of young people. I want our schools to be places of connection, belonging, care, inspiration and understanding because they are spaces that recognize the agency and power of youth. I especially want this to be true across the board for all youth – refugees, migrants, children with special needs, poor working class and rural children, urban youth, LGBTQ kids, those who love to read and those who don’t love reading … everyone.
This requires that we all – educators, administrators, parents, business partners, adult allies – give up some of our space, our privilege, our power and our certainty that only we know what’s best.
No child decides to whom they will be born or where they will grow up. Our schools should be safe havens, fun places, incubators of social justice and equity, and places where the mind and heart are turned on, activated, and provided all that is needed to flourish.
As we get this new school year rolling across the nation, let’s take time to talk with the kids and teens, the students themselves, about how they might take ownership of their own school spaces. Let’s invite them to imagine something that may not currently exist, something we may not be able to imagine from our adult vantage point.
Let’s listen to what they hope school might be like this year, listening closely for the anxiety, the hope, the space we need to provide them so they can breathe, grow, shine. Let’s empower them (and ourselves) to demand more of our schools and of our society. Is it possible for youth to occupy school rather than have school occupy youth?
What might our children do with their more than 1,000 school hours a year if we turned it over to them and offered expert facilitation and cultivation of their natural curiosities and aspirations?
As parents, as teachers, and as administrators, it’s in our hands. The question is one of trust and power. Do we have it in us to lighten the emotional load, lower the affective filter, and increase the joy and the learning for our students?
As an educator, a fan of schools and learning, and a concerned citizen who sees the limits of our current educational systems, I’m curious to find out what the youth can dream up and help us build over this academic year. Our nation and our world need their fresh perspectives and new ideas now more than ever.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.