teens address school reform

On Wednesday night, we finished our summer program for 13 kids, ages 12-14. They built a website on issues in the Prince George’s County (MD) school system, which they attend. Their site is part of the Prince George’s Information Commons, which we have been building–slowly and sporadically–since about 2002.

We did almost all of the computer work, but the kids developed the site plan and wrote virtually all of the text. They chose all but a few of the audio clips that are scattered through the site; and they were completely responsible for the interviews that generated those clips in the first place. We will now work with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin to develop software that will help students to build their own sites for community research–removing people like us as technical intermediaries.

We now need to figure out what we learned from the summer’s experience. I haven’t had a chance to reflect enough, but I think we learned that: Group interviews of activists and officials provide great educational opportunities. … It’s hard to present a website to a live audience, as our kids tried to do on Wednesday night when their parents and others adults gathered to see their work. … Kids have a hard time imagining that their work will have any public impact–although I think it could have an impact if the project is well planned and disseminated. … Kids are experts on certain aspects of their own world, such as discipline issues in their schools. Adults will (rightly) defer to their expertise. … Children’s behavior is very dependent on context. Give 13 young teens an opportunity to interview a public official in her office, and they will act like 40-year-olds. They will discuss issues such as truancy and vandalism with great maturity. Yet we know that some of the same kids have had their own discipline problems.

For me, as a proponent of positive youth development, the program was both inspiring and sobering. It was sobering because the youth and their interviewees so often identified student misbehavior as a major issue in their schools–a key barrier to learning. Those of us who talk about youth as assets don’t often emphasize teenagers as dangerous and self-destructive. Yet the program was inspiring because it showed how well teens respond when they are taken seriously.