I just spent a weekend with high school and college students from seven sites in the U.S.: Lawrence, MA; Santa Fe, NM; Middlebury, VT; Aiken, SC; Atlanta, GA; Window Rock, AZ (on the Navajo Nation); and Louisville, KY. These students were gathered as part of the Next Generation Leadership Network, a project sponsored by the Bread Loaf Teachers’ Network and Andover/Bread Loaf, a program with a thirty-year history of working with community leaders and public school teachers. We talked together, performed together, and wrote together to “invitations” (the word FEBO, a hip-hop/rap artist who led us in a fabulous workshop, much prefers over the more sterile and regimented “prompts”). We were invited to continue this sentence: “I am ____,” and later to continue “I do it for ____.” Here’s what one teacher from the Santa Fe Indian School had to say:
I do it for my students, who have changed my life more than I could ever express. So at least once a day, during a project, a lesson, a field trip, a simple assignment, they know they are loved, appreciated, and able to create beautiful and powerful writing.
Listening to teachers and students talk about what motivates them and gets them out of bed every morning gave me a lot to think about, and a lot to be grateful for. I wrote “I do it for myself, to stay alive, to stay sane, to make the connections that keep me going, to learn more about who I am through what students teach me.”
During one long afternoon, the students and teachers met in their home groups to discuss/brainstorm about the problems facing their communities and their ideas for addressing them. What followed was one of the most intense listening experiences I’ve had, as group after group described the challenges facing them. There were differences, to be sure, but what struck me most forcefully were the similarities. Over and over, they identified the same problems: food insecurity, water and air pollution, physical and mental health issues—diabetes, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, opioid addiction, smoking, obesity, trauma associated with abuse—and lack of resources, lack of access to health care.
These young people present a microcosm of the country and of the issues that are facing students today, issues that are, as these students told us, worrying them a great deal. What kept me from feeling the deepest despair, however, were the young people themselves: they were, as I later told them, clear-eyed, realistic, compassionate, resourceful, imaginative, and DETERMINED. Seldom have I met a more determined lot. And they have plans to address these issues—from forming community coalitions to carrying out tests of local water sources, to building community gardens to supplement and improve diets (we learned that in the 27,000-square mile Navajo Nation there are only a dozen grocery stores—think about it), to developing tutor programs (that’s my word—they refer to “writing leaders,” which is much better!) and so much more.
The problems identified by these young people are not unique to their communities. Today we know that colleges and universities include a number of students who are homeless and food insecure; in my area of California, food pantries are springing up exponentially. So I am once again reminded of something the inimitable Maxine Greene used to say: when you look at the students in your class, they may all look just fine. But they aren’t just fine, you just cannot see the burdens they are carrying, the problems they are struggling with, the challenges that bear down on them.
No time like the present then to listen—and listen hard—to the students we are privileged to work with. Ask them to write about what they are most worried about. Ask them to complete this sentence: “I feel ____.” Or “I need ____.” Or “I do it for ____.” These are trying times, but especially for young people and students. We need to listen and to help them discover ways to find agency and to take action.
Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1879453 by quinntheislander, used under the Pixabay License