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How do we tell the stories of our students—diverse, unique, and special as they are? This year, we decided to try having students tell their stories themselves.
Our Student Journey project was born from a single question, which we kept as its guiding purpose: what would students change about the education system to better fit their needs? High school-aged students in our Reengagement and Corps for a Change programs were asked to respond to the guiding question in any medium they chose, whether that be an essay, poem, song, video, podcast, or any other medium, and were compensated for their time. This project falls under the umbrella of our Youth Voice Initiative, our commitment to creating platforms for and amplifying student voices that also includes focus groups and other methods of student engagement.
What we ended up with are works of art and creativity from students in four Colorado school districts. Though each project was as unique as its creator was, students connected with common themes that provide an authentic look into what it is like to be a high school student in 2022.
Validating their experiences
The theme that appeared most frequently across the students’ projects was their desire to be treated as whole individuals with life experiences that are valid. Youmna, a student in Poudre School District who created a podcast interview with her Corps for a Change member Mel, said, “I definitely want [adults] to view us as people and that our experiences and connections are just as important and valuable as theirs. And it’s not invalidated or ‘less than’ just because we are younger and have less life experiences.” Several students also emphasized the importance of respecting youth perspectives as a way to make school more equitable. Lily, a student at DC-21 in DPS, turned the microphone outward and interviewed other students about their answers to the central question. “Students need to have a say in how the school is run,” a student named Ariel told Lily. Bridget, a student in Mesa County Valley School District 51, represented this idea artistically through a painting they created, explaining that horizontal lines crossing their entire painting represented rigid curriculum implemented without student input: “[The lines] are so straight, so dead set, that they forget about the things that interest the students.”
Being the root of change
All students emphasized this need to be heard and respected by the adults in their lives, and some reminded us that doing so is crucial as their age group makes up the next generation. One of the most inspirational results from the Student Journey projects was hearing students express that they see themselves as creators of change. Nyo, a student in Poudre School District, wrote in her essay, “We are the future and that should give us the right to also grow the ways of our school—changing it for the good… It is up to us to rise up and stand for what is right, to fix what is broken.” In her podcast, Youmna discussed her belief that requiring students to learn about cultures and identities other than their own creates empathetic students who can generate real change. She said, “If we really don’t start fixing these [human rights] issues from the root, which is the education system, we will never see true improvement. Our world will just keep going the way that it’s going right now. And I don’t want to see that. I want to see change and I want to see peace definitely, which I think seems very farfetched, peace and equality for everyone. But I don’t think that it’s as farfetched as we believe it is. It really just comes down to education.”
Jeremiah, a student at R-5 High School in Grand Junction, shared a rap that he wrote and recorded with donated studio time from local studio Fusion Audio Solutions. Jeremiah’s lyrics included a call to his fellow students to create change:
Did you even set goals ‘n apply pressure?
If not set yo goals to get better
We all connected so we all needa rise up
Why you lookin at the phone if you know the sky’s up
There is no limit you shine brighter than the sun
‘N I’mma keep reminding you till the job done
The process of self-discovery
Of high importance to us at CYC was not just the resulting projects (the “what” of the initiative) but also the “how” of the initiative, or how the experience felt for students. Students provided positive feedback on how the project differed from typical classwork and provided an opportunity for them to share their honest opinions. We hoped for this result and were glad to hear that the initiative achieved its goal, but we were even more excited to hear from students that participating in the project helped students to look inward and learn more about themselves.
“I’ve had a lot of realizations while writing this song,” Jeremiah said. “I liked it a lot because I got to put my voice out there and I know a lot of people stand for what I stand for and a lot of people that vibe with me to this song because it’s not just an opinion, this is something everyone goes through in their life.”
Youmna expressed a similar experience with her podcast interview. “Vocalizing it made me realize my opinions toward everything that’s happened [in my life],” she said. “I didn’t put it into words before, but then while doing the podcast, I had to put it into words. And it made me really understand my opinions towards situations, because they were just feelings before but now they’re put into words.”
This year’s pilot project was small by design, as we prioritized students’ needs and solicited student and member feedback on how we could make the experience better. Next school year, we’re looking to widen the aperture to provide platforms for a larger group of students from different age groups and regions to share their experiences. If you would like to support students across Colorado in their journeys to school success and finding their voice, we invite you to visit https://cutt.ly/HHaaWaS. We can’t wait to hear what our students have to say!
Here you can experience a sample of the projects that students submitted: