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One thing that I found fascinating this past year was that these teenagers were often having similar conversations that I was having with my friends and colleagues. I would walk into the common area of Bucks Learning Cooperative to find a group of teens talking about the last presidential debate. On our online chat forum, one of the girls shared a cartoon mocking the denial of science. During our weekly summit meeting, where all of the members from BLC get together to talk about BLC related things, the kids brought up the shooting of Philadelphian Walter Wallace Jr, where we then got into a discussion on the use of deadly police practices. I would talk about it with them, then I would go home and find myself talking about the same things with my family. I imagine they did so similarly. There wasn’t much escape.
At The Learning Cooperatives we trust teenagers. We give teens the autonomy to make decisions on how they spend their time in the present and how they will prepare for their futures. As discussed in the book The Self Driven Child, a sense of control is critical for adolescent growth and well-being, and that autonomy grows when we trust kids to make choices in their lives. This is exactly what we support at our cooperative. We let teenagers run their show. With adult guidance, of course. Our centers are a substitute for conventional school, where, conventionally, adults make these decisions for the kids. But instead at The Learning Cooperatives, they take their education into their own hands. And to no surprise, when people hear about our center for the first time, they are quick to fear the trust we give teens. “What do you mean they don’t have to go to every class if they don’t want to?” “What do you mean they can come and go as they please?” “What do you mean they can choose not to take math?!!!”
As a society, we for some reason have grown to think that our teenagers aren’t capable of making decisions that will best benefit them. We think if we adults don’t make these decisions for them, they will run wild and learn nothing. But then I walk around Bucks Learning Cooperative, fresh into 2021, and I look at all the teens wearing their masks without complaints and washing their hands in between classes without making a stink about it. They are bringing in homework assignments that were optional and coming in at 9am for chemistry and writing class. One of the boys last week offered to facilitate a class on game design. One of the girls designed a flyer asking for collaboration on creating a graphic novel. And then there’s the big one: they were there with us, helping us carry the weight that was all of 2020. At the ages of 13 and 15 and 17. They were getting involved, engaging in discussion, showing compassion, getting angry, feeling stressed, offering up ideas, feeling down, being resilient, and bringing hope.
I look at the kids at our center continuing to learn and play and grow while dealing with their own struggles that came with this past maddening year, and I can’t help to think how silly it is that we as a society fear giving these kids the confidence to run their lives. If they can look at the civil unrest going on and feel the emotional weight of it, engage in discussion, get mad, then come up with possible solutions to make for a better society, then why wouldn’t they be capable of looking at their own future and coming up with a plan to get to where they want to go? If they can engage in political discourse and argue politics, you know, the thing that shapes our country, then why can’t they shape their own lives? No, they don’t have to take math. They also didn’t have to watch the presidential debate. Knowing that the presidential election was important though, many of them did. And knowing math is important, many of them opt to learn math too. If we are going to share the weight of the world with our kids, which has become unavoidable, we can also trust them to make decisions on their educational journeys. We as adults will absolutely share our guidance and support and offer to carry more of the weight of the troubles our country is facing. But it is also okay that we let them have some of that burden; as they continue to prove, they can handle it.
[Photo Credit: Alexis Sellers]