There is Always Light: Young People Making a Difference

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 20: Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. During today’s inauguration ceremony Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn into their new positions as President and Vice-president, within the context of many existential threats to the people of the United States and the world. Global issues such as Climate Change, Racial Justice and an out of control global pandemic are just a few of these seemingly insurmountable threats simultaneously facing humanity.

And yet, in spite of these enormous challenges, there is hope. While many might think it is a cliche to say that young people are the hope for the future, as an educator I know this to be true, I see proof of it every day. As a head of school and educator for over 30 years, my faith in our youth to lead us toward a better tomorrow has not dimmed, “there is always light.”

Every day, we educators see the promise and untapped potential of young people. One lesson I have learned over the years is that we must trust in and nurture that potential and stop holding our young learners back. Schools have a crucial role to play in guiding the development of our youth, but for too long they have been places of compliance and rules, that serve the adults well but limit our students’ unlimited capacity to truly learn, flourish and make a profound impact.

In spite of this, more and more young people are emerging on the world stage and taking their rightful place as impactful leaders. A well known example is Greta Thunberg, who has taken a principled stand to fight climate change and has established a global movement of young people who refuse to sit by and watch the world they will inherit crumble. But what kind of world are we adults bequeathing to our children? As Jane Goodall has said:

“We must remember that we have not inherited this planet from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children. But we have not been borrowing their future, we have stolen it and we keep stealing it.”

For the sake of our children’s future, we adults need to rethink how students learn in school. Are we providing them with the rich opportunities they need to explore and find purpose in their lives? Do our schools provide our students with forward looking, relevant and connected learning opportunities and experiences, or are we still mired in the past?Unfortunately, the latter is often the case. Young learners often have to endure curricula that provides no real connection to their world and no pathways for them to discover themselves.

But there is hope all around us as young people make their voices heard. A magnificent example was the inaugural poem written and read by Amanda Gorman, the 22 year old US Poet Laureate, and the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration in United States history . Her poem The Hill We Climb boldly faces the current realities and provides us with hope for the future.

Eighteen year old Jerome Foster II is another example of a young leader making a real difference. Like Greta Thunberg, Foster is a climate change activist, having helped to organise large climate marches in Washington D.C. As a teen, he has already spoken at the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights and the UN Youth Climate Summit in 2019. This young entrepreneur and social action leader is also the founder of OneMillionOfUs, “an international non-profit youth voting and advocacy organisation that provides resources and training to young adults.

Greta Thunberg and Jerome Foster II at a Climate Change Demonstration

Many of our schools have had to rethink what effective learning looks like in the time of COVID. Some schools have had to provide their students (and teachers) with greater latitude in the classroom (virtual or otherwise). We’ve had to get out of their way for all the right reasons. Throughout this challenging year we have continually noticed the silver linings that have been the bi-product of this COVID crisis. Perhaps many of the changes we have had to make out of necessity during these challenging times can become a reality in the future after the pandemic is behind us.

One such silver lining might very well be the true empowerment of our young learners. We adults, we educators, have a duty to support our students as they find purpose, become leaders and positive change makers in small and large ways. If given the space and pathways to explore, “problem find” and seek guidance, young people can achieve remarkable things and schools can be places where learning is transformational in their lives. The world needs more Gretas, Amandas, and Jeromes!

(For more on the topic of integrating difference making in schools see Tom Vander Ark’s recent book, Difference Making at the Heart of Learning.)

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