Playlist to a new student identity

For the Monitor
Saturday, September 02, 2017

At last my children have begun their summer reading, and this can only mean one thing … school will be starting in a matter of days.

Though they both love to read, they are grumpy about literature “forced” upon them. Needless to say, my reminders that they had the choice to start earlier are not helping their frustration.

Their whole middle school is reading Bystander by James Preller, a book about bullying and the importance of thinking for one’s self. Additionally, each student must pick a separate book from a list of recommendations. As a result, in our house we have been talking a lot about school and choices as we approach a new academic year.

We are not the only ones – with new administrations in the State House and the White House, “school choice” and the appropriation of public funds has been a hotly-debated issue. We will save that dispute for the pundits and instead examine the choices that all students inherently possess, regardless of the school they attend.

To hear my children talk, one would think school is an oppressive institution that allows for little deviation or personal preference. What’s at the root of this submissive, even defeatist approach? Too many schools unconsciously cultivate passivity, adhering to ideas and structures that were developed at the dawn of the industrial age.

I feel fortunate to work in a school that encourages students to act rather than react, intentionally creating their own unique experience. Whether learning within a traditional or progressive curriculum, the fact is that students have choices. The following are suggestions for taking ownership for one’s learning experience. Extra credit if you can identify all the songs and artists.

“Who are you?”

What if each new school year was treated as an opportunity to reinvent one’s self? Especially for those students starting new schools or entering middle school,

high school or college for the first time. Who will you be? What do you want to change? How will you be known? Are you tired of being referred to as Billy and would rather be called William or Will? Have you had enough of being solely identified as a jock or thespian? This is your chance to think outside the box and resist limiting labels. Take advantage of a fresh start and be creative.

“Let a little color in”

Speaking of creativity, ideally schools are places of imagination, inspiration and innovation. Even if your school is unduly traditional, you can still look for ways to add color to your experience or even draw outside the lines. Choose to be creative in your approach to assignments, challenge the status quo and add your unique voice to classroom discourse.

“Take a walk on the wild side”

A risk-free life is destined for boredom and stagnation. A growing body of research supports the benefits of healthy risk taking and willingness to fail in the learning process. Increasingly, high schools and colleges have classes and programs designed to confront perfectionism and “de-stigmatize failure” like Smith College’s “Failing Well” curriculum. This fall, experiment with discomfort, take a risk and build resilience.

“Always look on the bright side of life”

One’s outlook on life is a choice, and school is no different. Will you be positive and curious or cynical and cranky? It is easy to identify the negative aspects of our days and to be prisoners to busy schedules, but an intentional focus on goodness and optimism has many benefits. Studies on smiling show that the simple act of grinning can relieve stress and stimulate natural antidepressants in the form of neurotransmitters to our bloodstream. Researchers in Scotland and Sweden have also shown that smiling has neurological effects on those around us, creating contagious positivity and increasing perceived attractiveness. So even if you are not feeling upbeat, try faking it until you make it.

“Ground Control to Major Tom”

Be aware of the parts of your life that you can and cannot control. Sometimes there is nothing you can do and like the song, you may feel like you are “floating in a most peculiar way.” Practice welcoming the discomfort of uncertainty rather than futilely struggling to change or avoid the uncontrollable. A mindfulness practice can be a great tool for cultivating awareness and acceptance in the moment and many schools are building curricula around mindful learning and living. As for the things you can control, the choice is yours, so own your decisions.

“I get by with a little help from my friends”

Relationships matter. Don’t take my word for it – research abounds that proves the importance of connection in living healthy, fulfilling lives. The Harvard Grant Study is an ongoing longitudinal study (75 years and running) that demonstrates the power of relationships in fostering success, happiness and good health. As the new academic year begins, ask yourself, “who are my people?” How are you intentional about building connections with peers and teachers? Go out of your way to expand your network of friends and welcome new students into your “tribe.”

“I really wanna understand”

In a recent writing class, my students and I discussed the hate and violence in Charlottesville, Va. I asked them what they knew about it and one student made an insightful observation. He said that he knew what had happened based on media reports, but that as a white student living in privilege in a predominately white state, it was difficult for him to truly understand the range of emotion and fear that these rallies created for people of color in Virginia and across the nation. What are the ways that you will seek understanding in your learning and interactions this year? It is easy to know and to memorize, but the depth of perspective requires intentional effort and willingness to challenge surface assumptions.

“It’s called gratitude and that’s right”

Education is a privilege and one to which many children around the world do not have access. The reality is that even schools in our country are not created equally (read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities for more on this). As you might mourn the end of summer vacation and a slower pace, find ways to be grateful for the opportunities that await at school. Try naming one thing each night or morning (perhaps both) that you are thankful for. Not only will this improve your mood, but it will also serve as a reminder of your good fortune.

There is a lesson here for us all. Whether we are in school or just living our adult lives, we have choices. Choose wisely!

“Who are You” by The Who

“Let a Little Color in” by Mike Morris

“Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by Eric Idle (Monty Python member)

“Space Oddity” by David Bowie

“With a Little Help from My Friends” by The Beatles

“Understand” by Shawn Mendes

“Gratitude” by the Beastie Boys