Need for Identity

I had an awkward moment yesterday. It was one of those moments where I just had to say what everyone in the room was thinking, but no one wanted to say it. The room was full of students. The elephant in the room was no one could articulate what makes our high school great. No one could identify with one particular thing. No one could come up with six consistent iconic symbols that would encapsulate our student body. And everyone felt uneasy for that one moment when we knew what thought was hanging in the room. We have a problem, Houston.

Then, in an effort to try and bring some resolve to this thinking, I described how it was when we opened this school. How different things were – and how the students were charged with the task of leading a school to become something. And they did. They owned the programs. As advisers of Broadcast, Newspaper, Theatre, Yearbook, and NHS, we would sit around and talk about how these students had grandiose ideas – and they worked to make them happen. How risk-taking was a norm. And as teachers, we loved it.

The students have not changed. They still come into this school with sparks of hope – wanting to own a piece of this experience. But something has changed. Whether it is the high stakes testing, the need for certain college acceptances, or the pressure to take a full AP schedule, something has changed how the students are committed to this school. They are consumers, not co-owners, not producers.

The thing about culture I find fascinating is how it is created off actions and behaviors. One can’t simply say, “Here’s the culture I want,” and POOF! it’ll happen. No, it must be intentionally fostered, watched, guided. When we, the staff, opened up Eastern, we were very cognizant of the culture we wanted to create. We took ownership of the school by fostering certain behaviors and opportunities for students, and by sticking to these beliefs that we were the ones making big shifts and leading.

Yes, something has changed. Whether as a staff we still believe we can make big shifts is an unknown. Whether we are standing together to create a culture is an unknown. Whether we trust the system to support us is an unknown. And with all of these unknowns, it is no surprise that behaviors have changed, and the collective identity has been shaken.

We have chosen to ask students daily if they are hearing us when we talk about learning goals… if they see our learning goals on the board… if they are “paying attention.” Oh, yes, last night’s conversation was very telling – the students are paying attention. Just not in the way most of us would hope.

And today, like most days, I am left with more questions than answers… Why are we telling them their learning goals? Why are they not articulating them to us? Or why are we not helping them to create them for themselves through guided conversation? How will we ever get back to the majority of students owning their school experience if we are still stuffing goals at them without their involvement in the process? Where is the ownership by the students? Why have we taken two steps backward in an announced effort to become a 21st Century school? And with our student demographics changing at such a rate, we are we throwing learning goals at every student as if a one-size-fits-all approach is still okay?

I don’t have the answers. But movement for the sake of movement leaves some things behind. These behaviors of telling students how and what to learn will most certainly create a school culture. Is this really what we want our students to become?

— My takeaway from last night is how I still get to work with amazing students. Their honesty and open involvement in the conversation was amazing. And I left being more committed to them and the success of our endeavor. They truly do want to own the experience. They do want to be amazing creators. And I still get to be a part of this.

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