The primary reason that more and more of today’s young people, and unquestionably those involved in the justice system, don’t go to school, is because it has no relevance for them. Justice-system involved youth have myriad obstacles to “educational achievement”, including a host of reasons that could, and do, prevent them from going to school, ranging from the trauma of witnessing or experiencing violence, to the need to help take care of family members, to lack of family support for their educational progression due to multiple factors connected to poverty and the effects of mass incarceration on their communities. One fundamental lesson I’ve learned in the nearly two decades I’ve been directly involved in providing an alternative educational program for youth in these circumstances, is that they will fight their way through all of these obstacles to attend an educational setting if they feel it has direct relevance to their lives.
So how do we make education relevant for today’s young people? And some would ask, why should we? At exalt, we call our pedagogical approach contextualized teaching. We’re rooted in Paulo Friere’s concept of critical pedagogy – which emphasizes students as active participants in their education and in shaping the world. exalt youth are some of our most marginalized, by the inextricably connected stigmas of race and justice-system involvement they must carry like an albatross, as well as their staggeringly under-developed academic capabilities, limited exposure to environments beyond their own communities, and thus un-employability. They know that the deck is stacked against them, even if they don’t know the historical roots for their status.
So if I’m a 16 year old in this context, the age-old promise that education can be the great leveler, can lead to a career that enables me to live comfortably and support my family, can lead to my acquisition of societal respect – is meaningless. The gap between the images of “mainstream” success that these young people see in the media and their own lives is so vast, that the chasm appears utterly uncross-able. They must find some creative hustle to have any chance of making it to what seems like a surreal existence in which their power is not limited to how low they can sag their pants or how loud they can be on a subway platform, how much pain they can inflict on one another, on themselves.
Contextualized teaching means that in every lesson our Teachers teach, they must draw an arc that connects with our students lives directly - their histories, the communities they’re returning home to, the issues they struggle amongst their peers with - as well as to the present subject, and the future. Students must be inspired to aspire. If you feel worlds away from what someone is insisting you can achieve or be, it’s very hard to be inspired. If anything, you can feel even more demoralized because of the distance between you and the future-vision. But if that future-vision is connected concretely to your present circumstances, you can begin to see a tangible path, not an elusive dream.
I think for those of us over the age of 30 it can be hard to grapple with the idea that our historical paradigm of compulsory education could be obsolete. After all, not a big percentage of us would say we liked going to school. But you just did. We have trouble seeing how directly the compulsion was tied to a cultural/societal promise. It’s tempting to look at how well students in other countries are doing and come up with all kinds of ideas for how we should emulate them. But we’re not a Scandinavian or east Asian country with a historically and still largely homogenous population. We are an extremely young nation (comprised of multiple ethnicities from early on), built on the genocide of one group of people, and then the enslavement of another, which grew to be an economic superpower because of that history, not despite it. We keep wanting to pretend we can sweep race under our American rug. Thinking that if we frame things in terms of “achievement” (gaps) while acknowledging “disproportionate minority” representation in the under-achieving (and over incarcerated) ends of the spectrums, we must be addressing the problems. Meanwhile, the disconnect between burgeoning numbers of young people and education grows deeper and wider.
We’re still teaching American history largely the same way we have for two centuries. The War of 1812 has no meaning to exalt youth. (Yet hey have to know it to pass the American History Regent exam required for high school graduation.) But it could, if we were just even slightly more honest and intentional about connecting it to their lives. exalt students have come to our class after being shot, evicted, released from jail, jumped, and in one case, having his room burned by a vindictive family member. (And we’re a voluntary program.) They have plenty of grit and resilience. What they need and crave is for us to more clearly show them how education does directly connect to their lives.