Kids Are the New American Alarm
Did you hear that?
Wait. Did somebody say something?
If you listen closely, those voices seem so familiar. We’ve heard them before. Student voices all across the U.S. are rising from the disheveled debris of yet ANOTHER TRAGIC school shooting- this one in Parkland, Florida. Another One!?
Though the smoke has not yet cleared, the student voices sound clear.
Their voices sound young, yet brave.
Angry, yet focused.
Sad, yet hopeful.
Deterred, yet determined.
Kids calling for safety and gun reform sound level-headed.
Put the kid's pictures next to politicians faces and they seem young. Put their words next to many politicians words and the kids seem wise.
Wait, these KIDS sound WISE? The same kids who we, as teachers, often prod to complete their assignments and make it to class on time sound wise? The same kids who we, as parents, sometimes have to WAKE UP for school so they aren’t late for class? How can they be wise?
Perhaps this time our kids are trying to help us WAKE UP.
Since 2013, there have been nearly 300 school shootings in America.
That’s an average of nearly 1 a week.
From 2013-2015, 59 people were killed in school shootings and another 124 were injured.
School violence is occurring at an alarming rate.
Less than 2 months into 2018, there have been 18 school shootings. Students aren’t supposed to be worried about watching for guns or worried about blood on the walls. Classroom walls are supposed to be for displaying colorful student artwork and addition, subtraction and multiplication posters. Instead, gunmen have entered classrooms, over 50 times every year on average, and students are beginning to walk out in protest.
Students Have Tried to Wake Us Up Before
Days after the first protest erupted, I founded a program called Gateway2change. Working with leaders across St. Louis, we defined the mission of empowering students across the community to connect to address difficult societal issues like race and take positive, forward-thinking action together. With hundreds of students from dozens of schools participating in student summits on race, the students began to create action projects to bring peace to the community.
As caring adults, we worked with intentionality to create open the space and conditions for students to thrive. All that we created was the space. The conditions. Soon, student leader like Jaylen Bledsoe, Khaila Jones, Nina Miskovic and Shawn Filer and hundreds more took over. The movement was theirs. A few months later, students received attention from the White House, were invited to speak in Washington D.C. and began scaling their program to other cities like Rochester NY and Buffalo NY where the program flourishes today.
As adults, we are so used to providing the teaching. Often our jobs involve providing content- like reading or math curriculum. To empower student voice, we don't need to worry so much about content. Our job is about process, offering space for students to personify bravery and collaboration.
Stepping back, though this article has talked a bit about two specific issues (guns and race), the real point is not about a specific topic or political talking point. The point is that youth are poised. Fired up. Clear eyed. Young people not only sounding the alarm. They are our best hope at setting the day's agenda for change.
Our political affiliations are beside the point. Your stance on topics like race or gun control are important. Valuable. Deserving of respect. Your experiences are meaningful and your contribution to society invaluable. And yet, this article is not about us as adults. Its about our kids and their potential. You deserve to be heard. So do our kids...
Change is underway AND its student-led.
As adults, we can either inadvertently stifle student-led change or create the conditions whereby young people- yes KIDS- are in a position to change the world. The question for us: Are we ready to cultivate those conditions for youth?
Many talented educational leaders across our country, in charge of many initiatives and successful projects, were never taught how to create the conditions to empower youth in trying times let along taught how to deal effectively with student walk-outs. Yet, we want to help. Based on my experience founding Gateway2change and learning from students as they took the student voice success nationally, I learned a lot. Below are the Five Steps To Empower Student Voice. (You can download a free poster below) Instead of eschewing student drive, these steps can help youth usher their energy and strengths in constructive directions. As educators, community leaders and caring parents, you can use these steps to empower student voice around different topics to help them MULTIPLY their positive impact.
Five Steps to Empower Student Voice
1. Self-Care and Wellness
Supported by mental health professionals, invest in self-care and wellness activities. Exercise, journaling, yoga, talking with a friend or counselor, meditation, healthy eating, a good night’s sleep and more can set the tone for constructive action. As an adult, it’s important to start with your own self-care and wellness. If you’ve traveled on a plane, you’re likely familiar with the flight attendant’s request for adults to put oxygen masks on first before helping the kids. Why? Your safety and calm put you in a position to help youth focus on their self-care and wellness.
2. Norms for Courageous Conversations
Setting norms from the onset can aid everyone involved stay true to guiding principles that keep everyone feeling safe. Strong. Heard. Validated. A part of the team. Inviting students to have a hand in the creation and/or revision of these norms can help ensure that everyone feels comfortable and invested. The norms of Courageous Conversations can be a useful place to start as you define the current reality that the youth will help to change.
3. Identify and Connect Strengths
Sometimes people have good intentions yet lack the tools and/or space to act. Help everyone identity their unique strengths and how these strengths can help lead to a brighter future. After identifying and communicating different student and educator strengths, you can help illuminate that these strengths can serve as the fuel for changing the current reality (involving the problem) into a new vision (involving the solution). Look for student strengths. Name them. Talk about them. Discuss how connected strengths represent the bridge to the new reality you’ll create together.
4. Envision a New Reality Together
After you have created space and time for youth to define the current reality and connect strengths, envisioning a new reality can support students in setting the course of their discussion and action. Put simply: What do they want the new reality to look like when their efforts are a resounding success? If defining the current reality represented the foundation of change, envisioning a new reality represents top of the building. What are you building towards? How would you describe how success will look, sound and feel? Why are you motivated to create this new vision?
5. Create Systems and Supports for Sustained Change
While one meeting or opportunity to vent may feel good, lasting change requires both sustained commitment and continuous opportunities to collaborate and build together. There is a saying: show me your calendar and I will tell you your priorities. In this case, invest in regular opportunities for youth to build together in a positive, forward thinking environment and you’re setting everyone up for success. Remember to embrace “failure” as part of the journey of student empowerment and CELEBRATE success along the way!
So, can you hear them now?
Students across the U.S. are sounding the alarm. How will we respond?