There are two worlds at every school. There is the world we teachers inhabit, full of lesson plans, procedures, academic standards and learning targets, where we tend to think of our students primarily in terms of their academic abilities, and their strengths and weaknesses we are working to overcome. And then there is the world our students inhabit, where the most important challenge is not always doing well on a test, or completing a project, but instead is how they manage to fit in with their peers.
The new MTV series, If You Really Knew Me, takes us into our students' social and emotional world, through an extraordinary project called Challenge Day. As teachers we observe the cliques, the occasionally mean behavior, the bullying, and sometimes we intervene to try to protect the vulnerable, or to make our classrooms safe spaces. Some schools have programs to fight bullying. In my classroom I used class meetings to discuss how we treat one another, to try to get my middle schoolers to be more humane. I had marginal success, I would say.
But Challenge Day takes a different approach. Through an intense day of communication exercises, students are challenged to open up and share their experiences and feelings. In so doing, they discover that one thing they all have in common is a sense of isolation from one another. They also discover that this isolation can be bridged when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
Students are confronted over racism, sexism and homophobia. There is space to apologize, and room for forgiveness and a fresh start.
Challenge Day founders Rich and Yvonne St. John Dutra write:
When we were in school, we learned how to read, write, and do math-we even learned how to drive a car-but no one ever taught us how to be ourselves. No one taught us how to deal with the thoughts and feelings we carried inside us every day. No one taught us how to discover our personal truths, how to express our love, how to connect in a deep and honest way with other human beings, how to communicate with our siblings or our parents, and certainly no one taught us how to grow into the parents we wanted to be to our future children.
Today, as adults, we pose the question: if we never learn these things-truth, love, connection, communication-then does learning anything else really matter?
The first episode of the series focuses on a small town high school in Colusa, California, and airs on MTV Tuesday, July 20, at 11 pm. Or it can be viewed online here now.
What do you think of the message of Challenge Day? Should schools conduct programs like this to help students relate to one another?