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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

A Radical Proposal: Let’s Arm Our Students with the Skills to Use their Voices

For weeks now, we have been a little surprised to discover that, for once, the vocal push for policy change inspired by a horrific American tragedy did not subside into murmurs within weeks. We were even more surprised that those most visibly standing on the soapbox and advocating for change with power and eloquence were not professional activists, politicians or media personalities, but rather young teenagers.

March For Our Lives

There is nothing particularly new in youth activism. After all, the musical Hamilton reminds us how young and fresh many of our so-called founding fathers were in 1776; as many as a thousand Black Birmingham teenagers walked out of school as part of the 1963 Civil Rights protests in that state; and many of the Vietnam War protests were led by those teenagers and young adults being drafted for the war. However, the youth activists of so-called Generation Z have unprecedented public attention, in part because they are fluent with social media, which they (and their allies) then use to promulgate their messages in a way that makes them impossible to ignore. And the very same contentious political atmosphere that has the adults increasingly nervous about sustaining dialogue – for fear that it will inevitably cause family ruptures and divide us still further – has provided an opening for young people, emboldened by the extra airspace usually consumed by the opinionated uncle or termagant grandmother.

While we’ve seen youth leading the Black Lives Matter movement, participating in the March for Our Lives and other progressive causes, in reality youth perspectives vary along the same spectra as those of their older adult counterparts. Children and teens cannot claim virtue merely because of their youth. What they can claim instead is inherent authenticity, borne from a particular stake in the future - one that will be theirs long after the rest of us are gone.

I propose something radical, in the wake of March for Our Lives and the robust political debate about how to make our schools and communities safer. It will be less costly and more revolutionary than the President’s proposal that we arm our teachers, and, I suspect, less controversial than the gun reforms that, however needed, are likely to languish in Washington. I propose that we arm our students.

I propose that we – we educators in particular - arm our students, not with guns, but with an incisive ability to reason. I propose that we equip them with the collaboration skills they need to forge compromises, to make coalitions. I propose that we support their mental health by instilling a growth mindset; that we provide ammunition in the form of deep, rigorous explorations into content they care about; that we provide targets worth hitting because they encapsulate competencies they will need to thrive in this future of which they are the guardians.

If instead we expose these young people to a world of right and wrong answers, perfunctory coverage of content they must learn by rote, and standardized opportunities to express what they’ve learned, they will learn to be rigid in their beliefs, to be apathetic, to follow established paths instead of carving new ones. We will have failed to help them become the leaders they already demonstrate the potential to be. And we as a society will have failed to use this unique opportunity to cultivate our strongest allies in this fight for a better world: our children.

Young people are uniquely invested in the future. It’s up to us to prepare them for it. This is the time to embrace the voice that these students are honing and provide them the equipment they need to amplify it, to shape it. We need to make their soapbox equally accessible to students of all backgrounds, in the richest and the most impoverished neighborhoods by ensuring equitable funding and equal access to the strongest student-centered curriculum often reserved for students in privileged suburbs. And all of these students need the benefit of an educational system set up to meet their individual needs, to respond to their individual interests. In the fight for the future, the smart money is on the young people who have been given the skills they need: let’s make sure that we are giving every child the opportunity to be the leader we’ve been waiting for.


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Check out this month’s editions of Eight for Equity! This month, we’re bringing you a special edition of this series, centered around tools, protocols, and frameworks for leading conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion in your school or organization!
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