When I was in school, I had no idea that I could make a difference in our world. I lived in the time of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, but we never discussed these events or issues. I wrote term papers in high school, but I was merely taking notes and regurgitating information rather than answering a question that would force me to research both sides of an issue and take a stand.
Today, students as young as kindergarten are introduced to deeper learning where they research a topic or question together and come up with ideas on how to address any concerns. It might be a problem within the school or the community or the state or even the nation or world. Many educators are using project-based learning to teach the content standards for language arts, math, science, or social studies in a meaningful way. Students are more engaged and informed when they learn about problems that impact them now and in the future such as trash, renewable energy, climate change, racial tension, recycling, endangered plants and animals, and plastic use.
When I was a principal, our elementary school students participated in projects and learned so much in the process. I know they may not have grasped the full impact of the issue yet, but the fact that they were researching current problems and thinking about their future gave me hope. I think many adults dismiss our young people’s ideas; they don’t see that our youth deserve to share their viewpoints because our actions today greatly impact the world they will live in for generations to come.
I recently viewed US Kids/ #Vote with Us, a powerful film about the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who led a movement for gun control legislation after a gunman opened fire at their school, killing 17 people and wounding another 17. These young people experienced a traumatic and incomprehensible event in their young lives, but they were able to mobilize and lead the March for Our Lives in Washington D.C. in March 2018. These young people spent much of their summer traveling around the country to share their message about gun control. It wasn’t easy, especially when confronted by adults who questioned their motives and sometimes threatened their safety. These students’ efforts led to changes in gun laws in a number of states, and some of these young activists continue to be involved today. As the film shows, though, it hasn’t been easy for any of the survivors of the shootings.
Through the power of social media, we read about many young people who are making a difference. Their work is helping citizens in their community by organizing food pantries or distributing face masks to our health workers or cleaning up our beaches. Check out this story about the teens who organized the Black Lives Matter march in Honolulu this past summer where thousands of people marched peacefully to protest the death of George Floyd and to advocate for social justice. Honolulu residents are now voting on a proposal to establish a Youth Commission to advise the Mayor and City Council on important issues relating to children and youth. I am in favor of this proposal; I believe that our youth today are invested in creating a better future for our city, and they should have a voice and a seat at the table.
Schools are realizing the positive impact when students are invested in their learning. When students explore current issues that are of interest to them, and when they are able to discuss and share what they’ve learned with a wider audience, the learning will be much more relevant, meaningful, and likely to have a long-lasting impact. In today’s world, we need citizens who can tell truths from untruths and who can make well-informed decisions. Empowered youth activists can have a positive impact on our community, our state, our nation, and our world, and they may become our leaders of tomorrow. Let’s encourage them in their efforts to make a difference!