By Stephanie Filio
Young people have long struggled with their place in the world. Each generation finds a new atmosphere of experiential learning and growing worldviews in adolescence. As children shed their parents’ perspectives, they establish their own values and begin to make personal decisions on their own. Though liberating, this time can also feel incredibly isolating.
Our students are too young to vote, but old enough to want to make an impact on their society. They are considered juvenile, but they have well-developed views and opinions.
As I watch our country struggle for progress, I can’t help but turn to my students for guidance on what should come next. When the world ambles into darkness, young people can renew anyone’s hope! They are visionaries, and they see the world through enchanted eyes. They know the reality of hurt, but they push through even the most taxing situations to continue growing, learning, and achieving. Though COVID-19 has kept us home, planning can begin for returning to our kids at some point, better able to serve them than ever!
Another mark of adolescence is no doubt rebellion. Though it drives parents crazy, rebellion is not always a bad thing. Sometimes healthy rebellion encourages students to push past adversity, combat stereotypes, and confidently advocate for themselves and others.
Working with students on progressive ways to express themselves is what brings educators hope. Our country is currently learning about the importance of speaking out and standing up against the shameful history of oppression in US society and institutions. Our students can truly be our “next steps” in the national movement on ending racism and bigotry.
Student voice means taking what students say as truth and allowing them a space to explore their feelings and values. There are many creative ways that we can allow students to create their own mini-movements, including calling on some underground work from generations past!
Have students work in a group, sitting in a circle. Establish rules for speaking, and keep a record of what is said to call upon later. Don’t shy away from allowing students to debate! Instead, help guide them with your moderating to show them that it is okay to have differing views.
Remember zines?! They are opportunities for students to make mini-publications of their views. Have students create zines on topics that are important to them and prepare copies so that they can share. Allow students to place their zines in public spots around the school or raise money for a cause by having your group create a mini-bookstore.
Have students create a graphic image that represents a cause they stand for. Students can use any medium they would like—small images work as well as large. Have each student create many images or reproduce one image on a copy machine. Leave the images all around the school or larger community so that when someone finds one, they not only get a message, they also get to keep a little piece of original artwork!
Okay, this one might be a stretch, but I have a beloved Crochet Club at school where we hang out and practice relieving tension (crocheters know this is both literally and figuratively). Really, any craft or art will do to give students a space to create things with their hands while spending time together. I can’t even begin to describe the valuable conversations we’ve had in our circle.
One year I sponsored a magical group of girls that got together after school for a female-empowerment group. The rules were pretty simple: talk about how amazing girls are, vent on ways that we wish girls and women received more props, and perhaps most importantly, BRING FOOD. We celebrated every holiday with a table full of food, commemorations of each other, education about our heritages, and expressions of our hopes for the future.
Like art flashes, students can make posters to hang around the school. You might get extra lucky if your school requires approval of posters before they can go on the wall. This gives kids an opportunity to speak with school administration about their posters and have discussions about why some messages might be perceived as “inappropriate.” Sometimes a deeper dive into policy—and possibly policy change—can come from these types of interactions.
Classrooms with small groups or stations can have a dedicated space for activism at any grade level. Provide students with publications that teach them how to be an activist and resources to learn more about important topics. Provide materials for writing, making, and other creative outlets.
Make and print “take-one” flyers with a positive message to post around the school! Take-one flyers are great ways to spread kindness selflessly and bring a school community together. This is a great project for any classroom, club, or individual student activity.
The Deeper Work
In order to allow our students to be able to commit their voices to the things that are important to them, teachers have to know that they are going to be backed up by their administration and division. Many teachers hesitate about bringing heavier topics into the classroom for fear of backlash from parents and educational leaders.
If we truly want to allow our students to be agents of change (and truly want to see change ourselves), we must also make sure we are sending a message with our school system’s policy. Staff should stay up to date on information coming from senior leadership so that they can cite specific initiatives if necessary. For example, if a teacher is questioned about a lesson they have planned that addresses current events that include the deaths of citizens from authoritarian use of force, that teacher can use a superintendent’s statement citing the event in an effort to oppose racism in response.
Educational staff should be supported in their efforts to allow students to play their part in social activism. If a school leader gets the feeling that teachers feel discouraged from allowing students to speak out on topics such as racism, gender equality, and bigotry, that issue must also be tackled. A stifled voice will trickle down to our students, sending them the message that it is safer to stay quiet. This might not only damage the greater society as the generation ages, but also the current, smaller-scale bystander issue.
I look forward to seeing all that students have to say about how they believe their world should evolve. I have been very lucky recently to have heard from some students at my own school and I feel that I grow immensely every time I’m educated by young people. They have it in them to be the ones to create change; we adults just have to let them.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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