Contemporary legend says the business of high school is boring and must forever be that way–that its sole purpose is to deposit tidbits of knowledge into young minds and standardize the way each attacks the world. School Tales begs to differ. As is made clear by its five spunky student narrators, high school, the home-base social institution for teenagers, exerts powerful agency over answers to fundamental questions–Who am I? What do I want to learn? Am I able to direct my life? Can I trust friends to be there for me? How do I find a sense of purpose in contributing to our world?–and is a time of struggle with life’s questions amidst intense pressure to make decisions by graduation and launch into adulthood. Students in School Tales, living in a small town of the southern Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, encounter a number of personal and public issues including racism, anxiety, shame, a cross-country move, gender identity, immigration, family instability, depression, lack of self-direction, abuse, and law enforcement. The lessons they learn in school include the meanings of freedom, success, friendship, exploration, inquiry, confidence, false either/or choices, and dreaming. As these students take charge of their learning, the true goal of high school emerges–and the result is a truly heart-warming view of students building what they would call “a life worth living.
Our daily routines of being so busy lead to neglect in deep reflection about the purpose of school. Another reason for the avoidance may be the feeling that the design of the home base social institution for teenagers, high school, is so entrenched that it will never change. But if we know anything these days, it is that change in the 21st century is rapid across many areas of life.
Amidst this rapid change, schools are still stuck in the belief that young people do not need to take stock of their lives, but merely take in disparate tidbits of knowledge and regurgitate the factoids on a test as the measure of success. Not only does the approach not constitute learning, it is also ageist, assuming youth have nothing of value inside to express and no personal interests to develop.
Changes for schools are being proposed in university academic circles and read by other academics along with a few local school leaders. Most of the suggestions for change still assume the job of school is to prepare youth for their entry into the workforce. In contrast, ask students about their needs and the answers are in the here and now, not later. Students reveal a hunger to act on what they care about and are eager to drive their learning about the real world.
To bridge this divide in perspective and create more effective schools, adults must learn to listen to students for a change and help strengthen the voices of young people. Authentic listening is required to meet the needs of youth – the purpose of school. Failure to listen results in increased rates of: shutdown, depression, anxiety, suicide, bullying, violence, and wandering without direction. Meanwhile, schools focus on issues of grades, graduation rates, attendance, etc. to push students through while still avoiding meeting their needs.
What would a transformed school, focused on personal needs, look like? This is where many of us get stuck, lacking a vision. We have a tendency to want a one size fits all solution for U.S. schools. But, fortunately, schools are still administered at the local level. For those school boards to be effective they must bring students, educators, parents, and other community members together to design daily school life where youth can flourish.
This coming together to make decisions will demonstrate to people of all ages what a democratic process in our republic looks like. The premier U.S. philosopher of education, John Dewey, maintained the purpose of education is experiencing, not preparing for, life in a democracy through community based schools. Freedom to do, engage in real problems, and reflect on experiences results in learning to think for oneself. And, Dewey also stressed that students learn as much from failures as successes.
Substantial school change will begin with strengthening student voices, adults listening, and all ages working together to develop a vision for schools in communities. Five teenagers in School Tales, living in a small town of the southern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, narrate their stories of what’s wrong with traditional high school and what’s right about a high school transformed to unleash their energy. These ordinary, spunky teenagers look to school for help in building what they call “a life worth living.”
Lenna and I developed this website to create a place for high school students and their supporters to share their ideas and passions for change. Be the change you want to see…jump in!