You could say that summer is over.
This month’s horrific shootings shocked many to the core, but the current generation of students has always known that gun violence is real. They have always seen our country divided into “us” and “them.”
As we begin another school year, forward-thinking teachers, administrators and parents realize that our young people have been born into a post-9/11 world, one in which terrorism — both international and domestic — has always been a part of their lives.
With this in mind, I spent my summer speaking in group settings to hundreds of K-12 students about equity as part of my work as a professor who studies school communities and who works with districts to improve school cultures and climates.
Feeling shocked is not my job. So, I listened calmly as students ages 10-18 from relatively diverse, mostly middle-class areas calmly explained their world views.
At its least harmless, these students described a scene from Mean Girls. At its worst, they expressed a slide into white nationalism. I learned that race, class and body type are undeniable markers of popularity, and nearly impossible to overcome.
These children explained to me that if a kid doesn’t conform to certain types, it is very difficult to fit in with the cool kids. Popular kids have the same things: they drink from the same brand of water bottles, they wear the same types of clothes and sneakers, and they style their hair the same ways. Once anointed as “popular,” however, a young person stays that way only by teasing others.
Common put-downs include “I don’t speak poor” when other kids don’t have AirPods, the $160 wireless ear buds from Apple. Mexican students are called “drug dealers,” African American students “thugs” and Middle Eastern students “terrorists.” The worst thing a student might be called is “gay” or “lesbian.” This last insult is hurled so regularly that it barely registers as offensive anymore, except to those on the receiving end of it.
In essence, students of minority groups are learning at young ages that life comes easier to white kids, to kids with money, to kids who are naturally skinny, athletic, attractive. And for everyone else? Life is a series of hurdles to jump over.
I have also spoken with students who seem to sit outside the mainstream, those who are gravitating toward white nationalist beliefs. They bemoan the emphasis that schools and, by extension, society place on diversity. They feel that everyone has an identity except them. They’ve explained, “All of this stuff is being done for kids who are … ‘something.’ Black, Asian, gay, whatever. But what about us? We just … we’re here.” These young people have big voices, and they might not be “popular,” but they have their crew and the ability to inflict emotional wounds on those who disagree with them.
All of this is situated, of course, within the larger context of what is happening in America. Hate crimes are on the rise, and schools are a common site for such racism, bullying and prejudiced behavior. So, what are teachers and administrators to do? The young people with whom I have spoken have suggested several possible solutions to these problems.
First, encourage meaningful conversations in class. Without exception, students have expressed that they want more hard conversations in class, even if they hold unpopular points of view. They are eager for the chance to talk — and listen — more.
Secondly, meet students where they are. Beyond whole-class conversations, engage students individually. Acknowledge their ideas and beliefs, and understand that they want to be both validated and challenged.
Finally, it is essential to consider community as well as identity. Large pockets of this country have embraced individual identities, encouraging young people to claim their race, gender, sexuality or religion as a part of who they are. This is needed. But push beyond this to help students see what they also all have in common, the values that matter to school or classroom communities.
It may all sound more like an ugly problem than a beautiful solution, but this is the messy work we have ahead of us as we exit a bloody, hate-filled summer and more forward into a world where problems seem more apparent than solutions.
This story about improving school cultures and climates was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, and the director of the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her research and teaching focus on “hard histories” (such as slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Holocaust), and how teachers can talk about these time periods in more honest and inclusive ways.