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Teach Them Well and Let Them Unteach Us

Last week I read an article that riled me up in such a way I had to take a walk and shake my head and call my mom and vent for an hour about how screwed up everything is and the system and how are adults so blind, Mom. How are adults so blind?

I don't know about you guys, but my mother raised me to believe that my voice mattered. Even as a teenager. I spent my adolescence speaking on behalf of my peer group about everything from Columbine to "popularity" to motherhood. Yes, I spoke about motherhood (on CBS' "Women to Women") before I was a mother. Because my perspective as a daughter was valid.

A great mother recognizes that in the same way a great teacher recognizes his/her students. In the same way, a great system recognizes the validity of ALL voices, great and small.

I spent my teen years advocating for teenage voices, including my own, and now, all these years later, I've found myself coming full circle, remembering what it was like then, but also seeing what it is like now—with my son and his peer group, with some of the teenagers I have had the opportunity to work with, listen to and read about.

"Adults don't understand us," was our mantra and, as an adult I can now say with authority—we were right.

"We're supposed to get wiser with age and yet ..."

This was the conversation my mother and I had after reading the article that I am about to quote like whoa because the entire thing is required reading for all.

Via The Atlantic:

For the past four months, a group of Kentucky teenagers has been working to make a one-sentence change to a state law. In the history of student activism, this is not a big ask. They want local school boards to have the option—just the option—of including a student on the committees that screen candidates for superintendent jobs.

That's it. They aren't asking to choose the superintendent; the elected school board does that. They just want to have one student sit among the half-dozen adults (including two teachers, a parent, and a principal) who help vet candidates and make recommendations to the board.

"I thought everyone would view it as a no-brainer," said Nicole Fielder, 18. She said this on Tuesday from Frankfort, the state's capital, where she was missing classes in order to advocate—for the sixth time—for this bill.

The sixth time. For the right to INCLUSION. An 18-year-old student, who is legally an adult!

The author of the article (a clear advocate for teen voices being respected—good for her) then went on to write:

In the eight years I've been writing about education, my best sources have been students. An 11th grader in Washington, D.C., named Allante Rhodes told me that, while it was nice his high school offered a Microsoft Word class, only six of the campus' 14 computers worked; he often spent his computer class reading a handout given to him by the teacher. That was good for me to know.

Meanwhile, Andrew Brennen, a 12th-grader who had moved five times as a teenager, told me that his grades depended on his zip code. In Georgia, he was at the top of his class; in Maryland, the very next year, his grades plummeted and he had to retake Spanish altogether. In Kentucky, he did fine in science but struggled with math. And that's why he thought adopting the Common Core State Standards made sense. "Honestly," he told me, "you spend 35 hours a week in a classroom, you know what kind of things work and don't work."

I have often wondered with the PTA isn't called the PTSA for this reason. (S for the students obvs.) Perhaps I would be more interested in getting involved in our school if kids were part of the conversation. Because they should be.

We recently had a school beautification day which led to the chopping down of several trees in the play yard. Trees that children played on and adored. The kids were furious. They created a petition and everyone signed it.

But it was too late.

The choice was not there choice to make and therein lies one of the fatal flaws with our education system. Beyond the obvious fiscal hardship, the powers that be don't get it.

One cannot strip the power from the people they are serving and expect said people to flourish. We do not value our youth the way we should, plain and simple. We discount their awareness, wisdom and fight.

Jack Jacobson, the president of Washington, D.C.'s Board of Education, serves alongside two student representatives. "They are honest brokers. They have no hidden agenda," he said. "Time after time, our student representatives ask the most intelligent questions, and they frankly have a better sense of what is happening in schools than traditional elected board members ..."

So why aren't more students invited to the big-kids' table in the country's school districts? Fourteen states have laws that explicitly prohibit them from serving on district school boards, according to SoundOut, a nonprofit that advocates for greater student input on public policy. In 19 states, school boards do have student representatives, but many of these members aren't allowed to vote. Some school boards invite students to brief adult members on matters such as Homecoming dances and fundraisers, and then send them home to do their homework ...

Last November, a New Jersey school-board member rejected a teenager's proposal that the body include a regular student-elected member, citing concerns such as the "possible stress of attending late-night meetings," according to the coverage by The Item of Millburn and Short Hills. Others have worried about students' maturity levels, somehow failing to notice that the kind of kids who run for a school-board seat are often more mature than your average 35-year-old ...

The biggest barrier to more student involvement is not adolescent apathy or legal constraints. Rather, it's the way many adults view adolescents in general: as potential miscreants who must be protected from the real world for as long as possible. It's an attitude that helps explain the country's low academic expectations for high schoolers as well as its overbearing parenting culture. "Students are looked down on," Fletcher said. "We don't think their voices are completely valid until they are 18."

Some do, though.

Archer, who has had the same teacher two years in a row, told me earlier this year that "this was the year he realized his power" at school, and I credit his teacher for 100% of that. Archer's teacher allows his students to disagree with grades so long as they provide an explanation—and lets students bend rules according to how best they work and learn. Every day at pickup, the parents have to pull their students from the classroom. They literally don't want to leave.

It is a stunning example, and at an LA public school at that. (I recently interviewed Archer's teacher for an article soon-to-be-published because he truly gets it in a way very few do.)

And his students are flourishing. Volunteering in his class has been eye-opening. The kids can write better than most people my age and they are fearless speakers and peer advocates. And his students go above and beyond what they are asked to do on a consistent basis.

Why? Because a great leader does not demand to be followed. Instead, he/she listens. He/she recognizes the power of thirty voices and harmonizes with them.

Because, here's the thing: We cannot elevate our student body without allowing them a say in their lives. We cannot tell our young people to use their voices while simultaneously unplugging the microphone. And demeaning them.

Which happens everywhere and every day in ALL states.

To me, it is a crime that in America, as children and young adults rise every morning to pledge their allegiance to the flag, with justice for all, they are systematically being denied a say in an education that is rightfully theirs.

In the words of teen advocate, Hiatt Allen of Kentucky in his recent op-ed for Kentucky.com:

When he was just 14, future president John Quincy Adams represented the United States on a mission in Russia to convince Catherine the Great to support the U.S. cause. Arkansas' teenaged Little Rock Nine helped spearhead the integration of the state's public schools during the height of racial tension. More recently, 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize fighting for the rights of girls worldwide to receive an equitable education.

And in his continued words (found in the comments of his article):

We learn democracy every day in school, so why should schools prevent its students from practicing it? We are not just students, we are citizens of this state. It's time students had a real voice instead of being shut out of the system.

And so. I want to end today's column with this:

Last week I also read an article that excited me. Because a student that recognizes the power of his voice in a system that belittles it, will someday become the adult that makes change.

I just hope that he, like so many adults, doesn't grow up and forget what it's like to be a teenager. That he doesn't forget the importance of valuing young voices, in giving them a say in their (and OUR) lives.

In the meantime, perhaps "teach them well and let them unteach us" is more accurate.

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