Every year, my students work through my favorite unit: “Mad as Hell – The Community’s Response to Homelessness and Poverty.” It’s my favorite for numerous reasons, but mainly because it gives me the opportunity to see the heartbeat of this generation. And it’s not what you think.
Recently, one of my friends started talking about a girl in her class she was worried about because despite her desire to be number 1 – in GPA, social status, and everything else high school requires of teenagers – she had fallen severely in her work since her boyfriend broke up with her. It’s a common motif, unfortunately – one I see far too often. And I think the answer is simple.
Students need a significant task.
Once teenagers enter high school, something shifts inside of them. Seriously. Suddenly they aren’t quite old enough for complete responsibility, yet aren’t young enough to be passed over. It’s this awkward stage of limbo – and as a society, I think we’ve done the students of America an incredible disservice not trusting their inclinations and ideas. Brain-based learning states unless a student emotionally invests in a lesson, schema is not built. There is no prior knowledge for a student to fall back on, because she’s been detached the whole time. However, if a student buys into the lesson and emotionally invests in the topic – understanding the relevance to his or her life – schema is built and knowledge is retained.
And this, of course, should be our goal as educators. But. All too often, our best intentions are laid waste by the expectations already given to us by the state. It’s like we’re caught with our hands tied behind our backs and all these expectations of success. There has to be some kind of in-between, though. There has to be a way we can make lessons relevant and at the same time, meet standards.
I don’t claim to know all the answers, but I do know what’s happened in the past. I know about the student who quit cutting once she found a niche in Invisible Children. I know about the kid who finally let go of his anger once he realized he wasn’t alone when we shared our stories. I know about the girl who felt the sweet release of admitting her history of drug abuse in a class discussion about ramifications of the drug culture. And I know the Mad as Hell unit hits more nerves than anything else we discuss. When we watch GOOD’s Skid Row documentary, students often respond with, “I didn’t even know this existed in America!” Teenagers have an innate desire to know. They are insanely curious about the world around them. I can’t tell you how many times students get down right angry at the injustice of human trafficking. It only makes sense – if we don’t invest in their skills and believe in their ability to achieve change – they’ll find something else to investigate.
This is why I believe so strongly in service learning. Service learning, at its core, empowers students to look around them and initiate change through creativity and at the same time, meet curriculum standards. Students are no longer just sitting in a classroom, memorizing quotes and facts and information not useful in a society influenced by excess and profiteering. Through this unit, I’ve learned the heartbeat of this generation is making a difference. This generation is no longer satisfied with the status quo, and it’s our responsibility as educators to motivate and facilitate a learning environment where students can effectively create change.
Don’t believe me? Here’s what my students have said:
“America has always been about change. And we are that change.”
“I never would have taken a Pre-AP or AP class with my weed addiction. My mom went into debt getting me out of addiction. I’m going to have a better life because my mom gave up hers.”
“Our generation is where it starts. We have the creativity and ability to make a change.”
“The biggest problem in our world is apathy.”
“I’m just so sick and tired of talking about it and not doing anything. I say there’s nothing to do, but there’s everything to do. Let’s start.”
“People doubt we care about anything ‘important’ and they are wrong. We do. We care more than they think.”
“I walked away from the man asking for change and thought about this class – and for the first time, felt guilt about not helping when I had the resources to do so.”
It’s a new year. New students, new lessons, new opportunities. Sometimes, it’s far too easy to forget about the lives behind the faces in our classroom. Just remember: they may not act like it, but there are plenty of teenagers just waiting for a chance to prove themselves. Our kids are mad as hell about the injustices of this world and they aren’t going to take it anymore. Personally, this challenges me – what am I doing to get them involved? What am I doing to show them they matter?
It’s a daily battle – I know this. But I also know we all have the ability to create and inspire and challenge these kids to greatness. It just takes a small spark of belief. One small question of “what if?”
Elora works as an Instructional Facilitator and blogs at Elora Nicole.