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New Questions for Youth in Our Divisive Times

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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).

In the first book that I wrote with teenagers, Fires in the Bathroom, students from public high schools across the U.S. gave blunt advice to new teachers whose backgrounds differed widely from their own. Fifteen years later, their insights still shed light on why kids skip school, cut class, put their heads down on their desks . . . and maybe set fires in school bathrooms.

Our present era, however, is raising the stakes for youth and their teachers by an order of magnitude. Immigration enforcement policies; access to guns; escalating climate change; issues of gender, race, and ethnicity; the exploding use of social media--all these have outsized impact on the lives of adolescents.


We generally accept that school will affect the futures of youth--but what should a "good education" include in this era of deep divisions? How can teachers support their students' growing sense of agency, which can help shape their present and their future?

At What Kids Can Do, for a new book we'll call New Fires in Our Lives, we're again going to young people for examples as well as insights. I'll share here a few of the many questions we want to ask them:

  • Who do you feel responsible for? Who needs you most in the "here and now"? What do they need from you?
  • What are some of your "communities"? (For example, neighborhood, school, friends, family, affinity groups, online groups, etc.) Pick any one of those, and try drawing a map that shows what "borders" you have noticed there. What keeps someone outside that community, and what brings someone inside it? Use arrows to indicate where you've seen people cross those lines into new "territory." What did that look like? How did it work out?
  • In your daily life, in what ways do you make your voice heard? When you care about something, how do you put your ideas out there? Who hears what you have to say? Who doesn't hear it -- and why not? Who do you think should hear it?
  • Who else should people be listening to? What news source do you go to for information you trust? How can we work to reduce spreading lies on the internet?
  • What do you and your peers need in your everyday life, in order to realize your aspirations? Do you get that now from school? From the other communities you're part of?  What people might act as your allies?

We'd welcome your own questions, as well as answers from the youth you serve.  For more information, contact me at [email protected]

Photo by Andrew Weller

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