Not just another brick in the wall

"Read some publications from one of the urban youth writing programs in the Boston area, like 826 or WriteBoston" was on my blog list as an interesting way to learn more about my community from perspectives I don't ordinarily encounter. Since I sometimes teach high school field trips but know very few high schoolers personally, I also thought reading some student writing would be a nice way to reconnect with the thoughts and experiences of that age group. 826 Boston is a program based in Roxbury's Egleston Square that teaches young people creative writing, essay writing, and more. I wasn't sure whether I'd end up recommending what I read to other people, since at least some of the writing is bound to be unpolished. 826 has a lot of student work online for free, but I wanted to give some money to the cause, so I bought a book, "Tendríamos asistencia perfecta/Attendance Would Be 100%: Student Proposals for High School Redesign Boston." It ended up being one of the most thought-provoking books I've read this year.

The book, which came out last year, was written by seniors at the Margarita Muñiz Academy, a new bilingual high school in the Boston Public Schools. Each student interviewed an adult who works in education or is connected to a mentoring or internship program. It's also clear that they did research on an education-related subject of their choice. The result is that the book serves as a useful crash course in current education design theories and practices, as well as a window into real high schoolers' perspectives. The students' proposals included some programs beyond the current BPS budget, but well within the realm of possibility, as other schools do them. A couple of distinct patterns emerged. Students are still asking the age-old question "When am I going to use this?" but here, they envision more vocational training, applied arts and business classes, internships, and dual-enrollment college courses. High schoolers care deeply about whether they fit in, but it's not (solely) about the approval of the popular kids. The student authors talk about school as a place they could be getting the mentorship and support not all of them get at home, and a place where being bilingual can be a source of alienation or of community and cultural exchange depending on their school environment. They also returned often to the theme of learning to be independent and do well at work or college. The de rigueur term for this is "soft skills," such as time management, self-directed tasks, and knowing the implicit dress code of a workplace. Some students wrote about their high school's programs that they want all students to benefit from, and others wrote about opportunities they wish they had. 

The cover of the book is sort of yearbook-style, with small photos of each student in a grid.

The book was an engaging and quick read, but it often challenged my thinking. All of the students wrote their articles in both Spanish and English, but with the exception of the a short bio of each student, the text doesn't appear in both languages. Most of the essays are printed in English, but some are in Spanish and some include an introduction in one language and more detail in the other. As a museum person, I'm used to bilingual text being a feature to help more people access the content, so I expect the same information to be present in both languages. This seemed to be more of a cultural choice, reflecting the use of language at their school, and allowing students to choose which version of their essay they wanted to show the world. As an English speaker in the US, I'm used to being the target audience, language-wise, of anything I pick up. 

One thing that really struck me was the way the students spoke about themselves in their bios -- for many of them, the bio was like a little manifesto of who they are and who they plan to become. In many cases, it was clear to me that the students' lives are very different from my own at their age. Some of the high school seniors are as old as 20, many of them having come to the US partway through their education. They write about not having time for homework because they have work five nights a week, and they all know kids who have dropped out because they want to earn more money to help their families. Several pointed out that vocational training in high school would save them tens of thousands of dollars by allowing them to bypass or shorten their training after graduation. I share some other adults' worry that kids will get tracked too young, and particularly that minority students will be pigeonholed by socioeconomic status rather than by their own career goals, but this book helped me see the value in offering vocational training to the students who want it. 

It was obvious that this was not just a school assignment to these students, that many of them really care about what happens for the classes below them. By now, the authors of the book have graduated. I hope they are all on to do the things they dreamed about doing next. I'm left thinking about what those of us who don't work in the school system can do to help students grow. Paid internships and workstudy will help, but all of the high school redesign in the world won't fix some of the underlying problems, whether the students are studying for their cosmetology license or APs -- Boston has a known affordable housing problem and far too many families stuck in poverty. Certainly, voting for city leaders and school committees that will effect change is one step we can all take. We can also get more of our workplaces involved in the internships and other connections to the working world that help kids understand what they're studying and translate it into careers.