On March 14 I experienced 45 minutes I will never forget.
I had just left Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park, CA. I can’t help but write my feelings after watching hundreds of students ages 11-14 walk out of class straight to the athletic field, gather together without any adult telling them what to do, and begin walking off campus in the adjoining neighborhood caring signs and chanting, “No more silence. Stop gun violence!” Joining hundreds of thousands of youth across the country, these students forced their voices into the national dialogue. People are listening.
The tragic loss of 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 thus far appears to be a turning point in the public conversation around gun laws. Beyond a few states making changes to current gun laws, including Florida--a state all too familiar with gun violence in recent years--we have yet to see the full impact the events in Parkland will have on policy and national discourse. What’s remarkable about this turning point, however, is that it is being led not by high-priced lobbying firms or savvy politicians. It’s being led by students, most not even old enough to vote. And most of them are students in our nation’s PUBLIC schools.
As a public school district Superintendent, I could not be more honored to be associated with these young people. I do not suppose to take credit for their actions. It is the students who should be applauded. It is the students who should get the credit for what is happening in our country. It is students that are leading this revolution; speaking for this one adult, I plan to get in line and follow their lead. Yet my soul sings to know that the efforts our professional educators have put into developing the thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, leadership, and persuasion skills of our students have had lasting and meaningful impact on our youth. We saw that around the country on March 14. We saw that at Hillview Middle School in my own community. I have no doubt we will continue to see their leadership unfold. I am so proud of them and so proud of my fellow educators for teaching and empowering these leaders.
I imagine there are folks who would read my reflection as support for greater gun control. It actually isn’t. My own opinions about gun control are irrelevant to my enthusiasm for the knowledge and skill being exercised by our youth around the country, regardless of the topic. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, I truly believe the youth leading this movement are driven by conviction and supported by the skills they are learning and practicing in our schools. Political leaders and pundits would be well served to take a step back from their own political position and appreciate the movement being led by our nation’s youth.
Education is a space known for branding reform movements and creating acronyms for everything. A popular movement within schools is what’s known as “Project-Based Learning” (also known as Problem Based Learning) or PBL. High quality PBL, or “gold standard PBL” requires students to begin with a real world challenging problem or question, followed by a thoughtful and strategic process of inquiry, production, and reflection of the results in a public product. What occurred around the country, and in my own communities of Menlo Park and Atherton, was an organic example of problem based learning, the benefits of which will have long-lasting impact on the students who were engaged. In fact, the benefits of protesting were highlighted in this recent NY Times piece reminding us that when adults get out of the way and allow youth to own the development and expression of their opinions, students benefit.
Today’s teen and pre-teen is more aware, more educated, more connected, and in many ways more mature, than just a generation ago. It is our responsibility as educators and parents to remain connected to our youth in their journey toward developing their voice, as they are still young and have so much to learn and experience. However, the days of minimizing their voice, holding back their power, and infantilizing their ability to understand must come to an end. In the different roles that we serve, how might we empower the voices of our youth? Here are just a few thoughts.
Our schools must become places that seek to better understand the student perspective and experience. Efforts like the #shadowastudent Challenge remind us of the power of empathy. I find that so many schools are designed for the needs and fears of adults and not enough around the desires and hopes of students.
Our classrooms must promote thoughtful and informed debate, greater student choice, and meaningful work, all while promoting learning over obedience (obedience is not bad; however, conflating obedience with learning is). Efforts to bring “21st Century Skills” into the classroom are well-founded; the problem is that we are almost a quarter of a century into the 21st. It’s time to start talking about 22nd Century Skills. Maybe those skills will include individual thought, self determination, advocacy, and true personalization?
Our communities must welcome and value youth. James Vollbracht, in his book Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand reminds us that in the often overscheduled, stressed-out, and sometimes dangerous environments our children are growing up in, we all have an obligation to understand our role in supporting our youth through collective community efforts.
Our homes must be places of refuge and honesty where the voice of students is encouraged and then HEARD. It does not mean that children are always right; it means their experience of the world, in all its challenge and opportunity, needs a place to be shared and validated. Parenting should be loving, but firm. It’s okay to invite conversation about the why. Why I tell my children, for instance, that they can’t have a smartphone until 8th grade? There’s good reason. I can share that reason. And, I can allow the space for my child to share how that makes him feel. We need to turn off the iPads more and turn on empathy, storytelling, and shared experience.
Our leaders need to listen. They need to rise above “the noise” of today’s culture and hear the reality of our youth. They have the opportunity to empower youth instead of dismissing them with political talking points. They need courage and conviction to stand up against misinformation, binary thinking, and complacency. The solutions to violence are not easy, but they exist. Who has the courage to partner with our youth and lead us to these solutions?
On March 14, surrounded by scores of supportive adults--teachers, support staff, administrators, parents, grandparents, and neighbors--the middle school students I serve led a respectful, safe, and profound march within their school’s neighborhood returning back to the center of campus for a completely student-led demonstration. Next time a student asks, “Why are we learning this?” I have an excellent, real world example to illustrate the reason. My answer: You have a world to change. In my classroom, I’m letting you practice how you’re going to change it. There’s a world out there waiting for you; they’re listening. What are you going to say?
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Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.