Change with Our Help and Change for Our Sake

Set in Denver, Colorado, this year’s CES Small Schools Project Summer Institute was a large success—especially because 60 students attended. The welcoming, almost family reunion-esque atmosphere created the perfect catalyst for discussing and sharing innovations in the small schools process. There were group workshops (set in rooms with an overabundance of Jolly Ranchers, pads of paper and pens), lively discussions over several catered meals, and, most important, an empowering full-day student-only workshop. To sum up this weekend in any detail would require a novel, not a magazine, so you’ll just have to take my word for it: this conference was awesome. At the closing session, several students offered their thoughts about the experience—here’s what I had to say.

The only constant is change. As educators, your goal, your permanent responsibility, is to prepare us for change as best you can.

You teach us, you inspire us, you mold us.

Now, let us mold you. Let us shake the infrastructures and loosen the bonds of traditional schooling. Let us, the students, build walls, maintain them and foster legacies in them. There is no better opportunity to reach more educators with this message than at a CES conference so…here is my piece, written concisely so it may be spoken clearly.

A little say in our school’s structure is like a little love from a very beautiful woman: it’s a tease. Traditionally, students are given committees with a little say, but in what? Planning their prom? Skirting real issues and throwing pebbles at the lesser ones? In many cases, they—we—have nothing more than a constantly half-adjourned Student Council and a few suggestions in a friendly box to sate our First Amendment right. It conjures images of the age-old Monkey on a Treadmill with a Banana Dangling Just out of Reach, albeit on a smaller and, we hope, less abusive scale.

I don’t mean this comment to come across as negatively charged. I mean it as a footnote in the small schools process; in saying it, I hope to dog-ear a page in a long, impossible-to-read novel called Creating a School, a novel written by someone who obviously took lessons from James Joyce.

In short, the more power you give students beyond the mundane, the more you share your problems with us as fervently as you share your cultures and knowledge, the more likely we are to be responsible with that power. The more likely we are to step up and work as adults, produce results as adults, and improve the structure of each school as adults.

I promise you that if a student’s voice were heard and acted upon, if a student could propose an idea with every confidence that it would be enacted, you would not be disappointed. Maybe surprised, and maybe even a little uncomfortable, but not disappointed.

All I’m calling for is attention. All I want is for small schools around the country to do something doubtlessly innovative: to listen to your students with the same ear you cup open for your colleagues. To consistently manifest the untraditional, as many small schools have been doing for years. To redouble your efforts if you already boast student voice. To look at your school objectively and to not lose your students’ confidence as you shuffle around buildings or disseminate one school into five.

Take this opportunity, as you leave this utopia of lush meals and scattered philosophies, to remind yourselves that you are, first and foremost, teachers. You are here for us. If our participation this week hasn’t proven something to you about our capabilities, we will be back to prove it again in the fall and in the winter and in the spring and in the summer again. We are the students and we will always be subject to the ebb and flow of your decisions. To become truly and undeniably equitable, to honor and manifest the Common Principle of democracy and equity, we hope that you can steady that tide and show us what it really means to be a mentor. If the constant is change, change with our help, not alone and for our sake. For goodness sake.

Thank you.

Harmony School
Founded in 1974, Harmony School is a small independent school in Bloomington, Indiana. Harmony School is a CES Mentor School.

Being a writer, I can’t really give you a formal introduction in two sentences or less; it would feel like a caricature or an incomplete thought. However, I’m also a poet so I can appreciate the words left unsaid. I’m a senior at Harmony School in Bloomington, Indiana. Considering only my opinion, I’m a renaissance man—a jack-of-all-trades, master of none—but I prefer the term Professional Amateur. One thing’s for sure: I love the fact that I’ve grown up in a school that celebrates individuality and opinion, instead of repressing them.