Post submitted by Whole Child Blogger Alseta Gholston
Any time a societal transformation has occurred, young people have almost always been the driving force to bring about revolutionary change. Whether one looks at recent events in North Africa and the Middle East, at our own history in the United States through the Civil Rights Era, Otpor's toppling of a Serbian dictator in 2000, or the past anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa, the common thread that ties movements for social and political change are that youth at all ages are at the center energizing the popular call for civic justice. Young people have always been capable and effective in upsetting the status quo whether positively or negatively. When we don't provide structures that make them feel connected, involved, trusted, and respected in the making of society or community, we sometimes risk alienating and disengaging them and producing conditions that we consider as putting kids "at risk." It's this vision for change, idealism, and energy that children, adolescents, and young adults possess that can be awakened, harnessed, and positively directed to not only make learning alive and relevant for students, but also firmly link educational preparation for future outcomes to students' current lives, purposes, and goals.
It is quite common to expect that the purpose of our education system is to prepare students for the workforce by transmitting a set of knowledge, skills, and credentials that will enable them in the future to be productive within our economic system. Now, as we tack on citizenship readiness to this purpose, we run the risk of implying that citizenship, or youth participation in civic action, is something for the future. While we do want each child to graduate high school fully able and prepared to go to college, embark on a career, enlist in the military, and be an active citizen, we also want to ensure that students are connecting these objectives to their present lives and circumstances.
Civic education, financial literacy, health awareness and promotion, and education for entrepreneurship, for example, provide a hands-on framework that makes learning relevant, current, and centered on the student's interests and needs, and provide tangible outcomes that extend beyond the school walls or even the school year. These practical learning experiences have to connect to the stories relayed in history and current events, the inquiry and fact-finding skills of science and math, or the creative expression in literature and art, so that learners become more invested in their education, are able to see how it affects them in the present, and become inspired to take part in their own personal development and enhancement.
Examples of schools that are using this approach to developing students' capacities for social advocacy and community involvement are Northport High School in Northport, N.Y., and West Village Magnet School in Bend, Ore. These schools demonstrate how developing student voice is a significant part of the school culture and is being transplanted into the larger community. The students at these schools already understand the importance of their roles in creating the communities in which they take part in and receive support and facilitation through essential student-teacher relationships.
At West Village, students' passions and personal learning goals are integrated into the curriculum. One year, students learned about environmental and social issues, then held a community fair on sustainability where they presented various community-wide projects ranging from teaching water conservation to holding a Pennies for Peace drive. Some students still continue working on these projects long-term and local organizations have asked them to participate in their own outreach efforts.
Similarly, at Northport, young people have many opportunities to be active leaders for social justice in the community. Students for 60,000 is a student organization that provides humanitarian assistance to those in need. Projects have included feeding and clothing the poor or homeless locally and internationally and teaching English to recent immigrants in their town. Also, members of A Mid-winter Night's Dream, another student club, have testified before Congress on issues related to ALS disease. These students have been able to conduct research alongside scientists and have raised over $1.5 million dollars in seven years in order to support patients with ALS and further research.
In any movement for change, be it from the school level to the international level, it is important to recognize and guide the fresh perspectives and ideas of young people and ensure they know the social and political power they possess as individuals and as a collective. In doing so, we must empower them to understand their rights, responsibilities, capabilities, and opportunities to have just as much powerful input into their educational and civic experiences today as they will tomorrow.