Stacking the Building Blocks of Change

Walking into the Mary Lyon Pilot High School on a chilly October morning brought back many familiar—albeit, long forgotten—memories of my own high school experience. The linoleum tiled floors, corridors decorated with students’ work, and characteristic classroom decor featuring maps, posters, inspirational texts, and heavy-duty plastic furniture put me right back in the secondary education setting. My nostalgia only intensified after sitting in one of those plastic chairs and watching the class activities unfold before me.

From the first few moments of the class, the reluctant voices of the few students who initially spoke out (and the tired faces of the many more who did not), were all too familiar. I remembered my own indifference to many of the classes, readings, and lectures I sat through in high school—even in subjects that interested me. Some days, sustaining the effort to stay awake was enough of a challenge, let alone the effort required to participate. But this class proved to be quite different from my experiences. These students weren’t reading from a textbook, and they weren’t just receiving a lecture.

While the young, energetic, and bow-tied teacher of this U.S. History class, Mr. Urban, was quieting the roar of the students at the outset of the class, a Generation Citizen Democracy Coach named Eddie was preparing to lead a discussion about the root causes behind the poor quality of public school lunches—the chosen focus issue in this class. Eddie and Mr. Urban seemed to have a strong rapport with one another that enabled a fluid and informal interaction with the students throughout the day’s exercises. It took some time, and a lot of instigation, but after the students’ initial reluctance had subsided, they were standing, scattered across the room, and vocalizing their positions on the topic at hand.

Over the course of this exercise, it became clear that some of the students were becoming more comfortable engaging themselves in the class-wide discussion. The opinions of their classmates and instructors suddenly identified allegiances or doubts in the proposed topic, and conversation ensued. This promising ignition was stoked by Eddie and Mr. Urban who began contributing ideas and opinions that encouraged the students to think outside their current positions. By the end of the exercise, no solid consensus had yet been reached, but progress was undoubtedly made. As the students filed out at the end of the day, Eddie and Mr. Urban discussed their opinions on how the day’s activities went. They debriefed on the efficacy of the “root cause” exercises, and reviewed potential strategies for improving participation and overall functionality for the next class.

I walked away from my first Generation Citizen class visit with a greater understanding of not only the impressive commitment our Democracy Coaches (and public school teachers) have made to this program and the students it serves, but also with a renewed faith in the opportunities for the future of public education. With the many tools, technologies, and diverse personalities finding their way into classrooms, education has an extraordinary capacity for evolution as the world around it changes more and more rapidly. One recently popular instance of this evolution is the desire to measure not only what our students know upon graduation, but by how well they can think. As Generation Citizen has proven in hundreds of classrooms already, engagement yields thinking, and both yield increasingly impressive results.

We know that an educated society is a free society, and we’ve built a public education system in this country around that virtue. But there is still work to be done in evolving education to meet the changing needs of the citizenry. As the world changes, and as new economic, social, racial, political, environmental, and physiological challenges emerge; our public education is tasked with dual missions. First—as always—provide a safe and high-quality environment for students where all the resources for their learning and well-being are made available. But secondly, we’re tasked with revamping public education to teach students how to utilize that information, put into action the systems and methodologies they’re finding in their textbooks, and engage themselves with the people, communities, and issues they care about. This is the unique niche that Generation Citizen provides, and it’s the basis of our success that has already transformed education for so many students around the nation.

Generation Citizen is one of a handful of organizations working within the system to encourage and inspire students who are capable of so much more than our tests can measure. By facilitating the engagement of students in enriching ways, relating the information we teach to their lives and their communities, and arming them with the skills they need to act on and with the information and tools we’re exposing them to, we will have done something truly special. We will have taken a step into the next generation of great public education.

What we’re helping students discover is that the free exchange of ideas and opinions not only leads to a greater collective understanding of an issue, but that it is a necessary building block of change.

– Chris Freda, Sasaki Associates and Generation Citizen Junior Board Member

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

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