In the creation of Energy Convertors’ Student Voice Fellowship that will be launching in Fall of 2017 in Oakland, I embarked on a 100 student listening campaign to hear more about what students feel schools should be focusing on. My thought process is if I am trying to build a platform that centers on the voices of students, then I need students to help me create that. The purpose of all this is to ask students, those most impacted by our schools and policies, what they view the issues as. My goal on this listening tour was to do just that: LISTEN.
We had robust conversations, but the question that yielded the most conversation was: “If you could address any issue regarding education, school, and your community, what would it be?”/ Every group we spent time with was incredibly thoughtful during this conversation and here are the top three answers we got. I am sharing this with the hope that educators, community activists, parents and the like take heed.
#3 Fix the Potholes in Oakland ASAP I must admit, this one was a little surprising. Students were adamant about the pothole issue in Oakland. After thinking about it, it makes sense. A bunch of 16 and 17-year-olds that just started driving is having a rough time driving through the city.
#2 Quality Teachers that Care About Me This one came up with a lot of passion. Students were quite vocal on this point. They each could point to one or two teachers they felt were “different” but for the most part, highlighted that they did not feel they cared for them. I pressed during that question to get some clarity on what they meant and to get some examples.
One student said, “It feels like my teachers don’t wanna be here and I’m like if you don’t wanna be here, what makes you think I wanna be here?” Another student said, “My teachers know nothing about me. Nothing! Like, damn, you want me to do all this work that has nothing to do with me, but you can’t even take the time to find out what I care about or where I come from?”. That student got a lot of head nods and verbal agreement from his fellow students.
One other quote that stood out came from a young lady that presented as shy but when she spoke, the thunder came with her, “Some of these teachers just suck. No disrespect to the good ones, because I got some good ones - but there are some teachers that I feel like are learning the material the day before. Ummm, you’re supposed to be helping me with my Geometry, we can’t both be struggling!” There’s a lot to unpack there, but it was interesting how eager these students were to be heard.
#1 Teach me Life-Relevant Skills More than 50% of the students called for life-relevant education. Students were clear and cogent in their disappointment with the lack of life skills. These students wanted to learn about money management and investment. They made it clear that Shakespeare was cool but I’m crazy broke. They wanted to learn about entrepreneurship and how to pay for college without going into debt.
Here’s an exchange I had with a student:
Student: Charles, keep it real, how often are you using Algebra or Biology on the daily?
Charles: Honestly, the math some but as a whole, not very often.
Student: Exactly, but you know what I think about EVERY DAY? Getting this money or getting my moms a house, or stuff like, “what are stocks and how can I get down?”
Charles: I hear you, so what do you think should be happening?
Student: Teach me how to build a business or how to invest so I can own a crib. If y’all was doing that, I’m early to class, every day, swear to GOD.
The students explicitly asked for classes or space to learn more about their culture. They wanted to learn about the business market. They wanted to feel like the material they were covering would apply to life and be happy. The students were bullish about being unprepared for college. A few students pointed out that while they appreciated their History class, they'd be excited to learn more about the history of Oakland or even their particular neighborhood. They wanted to explore careers and understand the salary differentiation between them and the list continued. The talks were so compelling with these young people now we just have to do something about it.
Takeaway Here’s what you should take away from these findings. How are we listening? When more than 20% of a study mentions potholes, I’d expect educators to think, “Oh, there’s an opening to educate on local civic engagement.” Or when a student makes a statement about Algebra, it is an opening to go deeper in real world application. How are we as adults, educators, and community going to take this type of information and WORK for children?
As we move closer to the launch of the fellowship, Energy Convertors will continue to have these conversations with students. Through the fellowship, they will research the problems and solutions they want to see in education and their communities. The students will learn how to do research and lift their voices through blogging, video story-telling, hosting speaker series, publishing Op-Eds and other forms. These students are going to help shape the experiences of thousands of students by flexing the mighty voice they have. The question for us is are we going to help or hinder?