Personal Learning Plans for a Racist and Divided Country

All Vermont middle and high school students are now writing Personal Learning Plans (PLPs). Students articulate values, envision their college or career pathways, and discuss how they'll get there.

The Agency of Education provides prompts and guidance. Post-secondary "Individual Student Goals" might include "activities" such as "attending a two- or four-year college, enlisting in the military, enrolling in certificate-granting training programs, or employment." Short-term goals focus on academic progress as well as pursuits like "getting involved in volunteer, community service, or co-curricular activities."

As a school principal and father, I find it good to ask children to voice their values and goals. But something important is missing from the PLP. True to its name, the vision we are asking our young people to conjure is a personal one, an individual path. What's missing is the idea that my path is intertwined with yours. What's missing are prompts that compel our young people to reflect on citizenship and the common good, how their futures and our common fate are joined.

In these learning plans - as is generally the case in schools - citizenship seems to get confused with service, volunteerism or charity. It gets treated as an aside, a special event, an extra-curricular. This is dangerous. Membership in a service club, participation in a Green-Up Day, helping to raise funds for the firehouse - such activities are important expressions of citizenship, caring, and interdependence. Indeed they are a glue that helps hold a community together. But schools and communities have a duty to cultivate a broader understanding of citizenship in terms of power and policy. Young people must know that they have responsibilities to wield their individual and collective power to strengthen our democracy, dismantle injustice, and defend their rights and the rights of others.

Our communities are not short of problems that need solving. Consider the opiate crisis, the climate crisis, wage stagnation, environmental degradation, the wealth divide, the legacy and present dangers of American racism, and the lives we continue to loose to the war on terror.

We've got work to do. That is, our kids have work to do if they're going to un-build the problems we've built into the world we gave them.

To do this work our kids need to be both impassioned and deliberate, incisive and empathic, creative and organized. Schools have a role in cultivating these skills and traits, and we have a role in helping young people become active citizens, whatever career path they may eventually follow.

A citizenship responsibility to the common good should be core to the very being, disposition and content of every classroom in our schools. Our world is too troubled for it to be otherwise.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tackling the most pressing problems of our day, schools are generally very good at keeping superficial or keeping quiet. Given the emphasis on bullying-prevention in recent decades, you'd think we'd know better. The bully's best ally is the bystander. The oppressor's best protector is silence.

Learning plans and lesson plans that compel kids to voice their values are a start. In response, many students will talk of valuing family and friends. Some students will say they value their faith. Some will talk of animals or athletics. Others will value hard work. Some will voice a more political consciousness and say that they value freedom, equity, diversity. But we need to go beyond proclamations of principle. It's easy to profess allegiance to a concept. Visit the website of David Duke, former KKK Grand Wizard. His banner values are "freedom" and "diversity." Of Martin Luther King, Jr. one might say he professed the same. Simple values statements are not revealing or prophetic enough. Informed by our values, it's the deed we envision and the actions we take that matter, and school is a time for young people to start taking action.

A prompt for students that I'd like to see guiding our Personal Learning Plans - and as a driver of curriculum throughout our schools - goes something like this: "What are the most pressing problems facing our community, society, or world today - and what are you going to do about it - starting now?"

The power of a prompt like this is that it places a high expectation on young people and the community of adults in their company. School reform is inherent. When adults voice an expectation of children, responsibility then falls on adults to help kids rise to the occasion. If our young people are to get to work right now solving society's most pressing problems, school curriculum and pedagogy must reform in political and practical directions.

It's not easy for teachers to teach like this. Controversy and discomfort are going to surface. But resources to support teachers and administrators are out there, including ample models of classrooms and schools doing it well.

Where I sit it is springtime and a good time to be inspired by birdsong, twitters and tweets. I heard an inspiring tweet the other day: A first grade teacher wrote to the universe: "Looking for resources on talking about identity and race + gender in first grade." An organization called Teaching Tolerance replied, retweeting. All of a sudden this first grade teacher had 29,000 people hearing his question.

More teachers and school communities must take the springtime steps this teacher has taken. If our students' plans and the broader curriculum remain silent on the injustices of our day, we only strengthen the injustice. Eli Wiesel instructs us: "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

Taking sides as a teacher doesn't mean indoctrinating kids. As a teacher, refusing to be silent means asking questions. And then, if we do our jobs right, our young people will tell us what to do next.