We've long known worried that students are slouching and straining under the weight of their backpacks. Perhaps, though, we overlooked their hearts- the truth is that they are not thriving, and they are barely surviving the stress that has come to define high school. It is making them tired, it is making them anxious, and it is making them sick. Our school system is crushing the tender hearts and fiery spirits of our teenagers.
Our school system. Our teenagers. We are at the heart of this issue, and we are the ones who can right this wrong. We can make a difference here. Research shows us that our system is working for a lot of different kinds of young people- students of color, LGBTQ students, students with a wide range of abilities and students who come from diverse families are struggling to keep up because our curriculum and system fail to account for and reflect their lives, rendering learning irrelevant.* We see an exceptionally challenging version of this happening for our girls, who learn at every juncture that they are not enough. While girls, and all young people contribute in very significant ways to this world, our system frequently fails to recognize their capacity.** Imagine growing up in a world where you do awesome things and have incredible ideas, but no one has time to listen and the school where you spend your days reminds you- everyday- that what is most important are high test scores and weighted grades, because college is on the horizon, and a good college will mean a good job, and happiness is the result of a good college and good jobs. It sounds like we've gone a bit too far on preparing our young ones to succeed in this world, unless we want to produce rote beings who are to do little more than control their anxiety enough that they may regurgitate answers just so. We have to make a difference: this is our problem, these are our children, and these hurting teenagers are going to be the ones to whom we hand our democracy, our hopes and dreams, our plans for a better world.
I had the privilege of watching two docs this weekend, both by Vicki Ables, on our education system. The first- Race to Nowhere- focuses on the extreme pressures young people experience in schooling, and for what? Teenager after teenager appeared on the screen to tell their story- narrating stories of extreme anxiety and describing the pressure cooker that we typically call high school. Again and again, I imagined myself in ten or fifteen years, staring into the eyes of my little girls. My heart started to hurt- here were families trying to change their children's lives, but in order to create a healthier environment they needed to reach out way beyond the confines of their living rooms. The system is old and sturdy and filled with traditions and ways of doing and being that we have outgrown.
Next I watched Beyond Measure, about the extraordinary ways ordinary people are chipping away at our educational system, carving out moments of success and hope and even, dare I say, pedagogical magic. Pedagogical magic! When I say that, I mean they are finding ways to amplify that spark in a child's or young person's eye- they are surveying the scene and working within the system and starting their own schools and deciding that the tender hearts of our teenagers are quite simply, too important to overlook in favor of test scores and weighted GPAs. Again, I imagined myself designing my daughters' educational futures- how would we choose schools? What would they need? How would we find a school that fostered their individuality, creativity, and hopefulness?
I've long known that film is central to learning and inspiring and change-making- media played a critical role in both of my graduate degrees and at the heart of my conception of media is video (and/or film). I imagine that there can be a story told in film that, when it comes alive on social media, grows out from a center like little roots in fertile soil from a really good seed. This is exactly how I felt about these two films. How might these stories move through the world, inspire us to think about education and learning and youth and ultimately, to effect change?
I can imagine teachers and students using these pieces as an entre to working together and sharing stories- as a way, ultimately, to get vulnerable about who they are and what they need. Ah, it always comes back to vulnerability, doesn't it? It seems a big part of the issue in our contemporary education system is the lack of space to be vulnerable. How do we allow students to fail, and learn from failure, when test scores reign and the teacher is forced to rush through material on the daily to even have a shot at covering it all in a year?
Film- where we all experience these stories first individually in relation to the piece- seems like one way to carve a space of vulnerability. After we have this individual experience collectively- we watch it in a group- can we then open up about our own lives, and can this kind of work give us the language to discuss our reality?
I think so. Actually, I know so because schools are beginning to partner together and in Beyond Measure, we see glimmers of hope, we see how the heart and muscle with which educators, parents and students respond can powerfully transform our schools and education system.
*If you'd like more information about how our educational system is failing young people who experience difference in many different ways (race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, etc....) I'd suggest starting with critical pedagogue and acclaimed feminist Gloria Ladson Billings. She shows us how students of color can't find themselves in our contemporary school systems and why that is so critical for success.
**Girls are having an extremely rough time right now. This is a fine line to walk, because we run the danger of casting them as delicate flowers wilting in the sun. I want to be clear that girls are doing incredible things and are capable of contributing to this world in powerful ways- and it is up to to create a context in which they can do so. So- right now, our context doesn't do a good job of that, and we know that girls experience extreme pressure, challenging social relationships, and deep feelings of imperfection as they move through school. A great starter-read about this is Rachel Simmons work on the construct of the good girl, and the way that this idea shapes how girls move through the world. She's got a phenomenal book directed towards parents, if you're interested!
Chelsey is a digital storyteller, geek, mama, researcher and yogi. She loves to make things and her favorite food is artichokes.