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Many Minnesotans are celebrating the fact that they just elected the most diverse state legislature in history. But before anyone pats themselves on the back, I would like to urgently remind everyone that we still live in a state where the experiences of white Minnesotans are very different from those of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Minnesotans.
Take teaching for example. We still live in a time when teaching truth can be criminalized and book bans are somehow considered constitutional, and in the midst of it all, color teachers are under unbearable pressure. My own story reflects this reality. If we can’t reinvent education together, we will soon lose even more teachers like me who represent different communities.
Our newly elected leaders are not and cannot be the sole drivers of change in our state. When it comes to big strides and bold change, we need look no further than the strong young people in our communities who can drive the change needed for a better world.
As a former homeroom teacher, my goal was to provide my students with a better school experience than the depressing school experiences I grew up with in Georgia and Ohio. In my classroom, my goal was to focus on joy, literacy, and community in the classroom. I knew that while I didn’t have the power to change the educational landscape as a whole, I did have the ability to create radically different circumstances for my students in my own classroom.
But the future of student life cannot rest on the coin toss which teacher is assigned to them, nor can it rest on the shoulders of individual, countercultural teachers who oppose an archaic system of child rearing. Minnesota’s black students receive a very different education from their white counterparts because our state’s educational disparity is among the worst in the nation.
We must make systemic changes to reshape the world of K-12 education to change these outcomes, and we must do so shoulder-to-shoulder with our young people. If malicious systems can be created, they can be dismantled, and I plan to dismantle the system together with militant students.
Some might say that we already focus our education system on our students. Finally, in the best K-12 classrooms, student contributions are often solicited through polls, morning circle activities, exit slips, and digital polls. But typically, students know that their input is sought on a limited basis, and often on insignificant or irrelevant subjects, such as what school lunch should be like or what book to read. Even then, student input is rarely implemented in a meaningful way.
Rethinking what it means to be a student in our public education system means using strengths-based processes that engage students in co-designing relevant learning experiences. It means seeing and appreciating the wealth of knowledge that our students bring to school. That’s right, co-design, as in , isn’t exclusively teacher-driven.
The community is not lacking in extensive research and best practices to fill gaps in the school, but for the most part gaps remain and often leave BIPOC educators feeling isolated and disproportionately exhausted. What we need is an unrelenting commitment to social justice and a reinvented school model, co-designed with students to be equitable, inclusive, empowered, equitable and engaging for every learner and joyful for every teacher.
I urge my countrymen from Minnesota to go further than just showing up to vote for change. Whoever you are, no matter what your career is, you have choices when engaging with youth in our community. You can continue to use your positional power to maintain the status quo of the generational hierarchy, or you can ask youth to reinvent opportunities, co-design solutions with you, and unite to implement them. I intend to do the latter.