“AND THEN THEY SET FIRES IN THE BATHROOM, WHILE SHE WAS TRYING TO BE SO FRIENDLY."
It’s a safe bet that in random high schools all over the United States, some
kid has just set the bathroom wastebasket on fire. And deep down, all of us
Anyone who has made it out of their teens most likely remembers the feelings
of anonymity and captivity that even the best high schools can convey.
Whether in huge urban warehouses, sprawling suburban campuses, or newly
consolidated rural schools, teachers with more than 125 students a day can’t
help but focus the majority of their attention on only the most urgent cases.
In such settings, order trumps most other institutional aims. To keep the
place running smoothly, students’ behavior becomes more important than their
understanding, acquiescence more valued than inquiry. In pursuit of order,
school and classroom rules routinely supplant the disarray of kids’ questions,
objections, suggestions, and problems. High school becomes something done to
kids, not by kids. This is the way it works; this is the way it has always worked.
Against this backdrop, the voices of the students who helped write this book
took on even more importance to What Kids Can Do, Inc. (WKCD), the new
nonprofit organization that asked me to gather teenagers’ advice for an audience
of teachers and the public. Based in Providence, Rhode Island, WKCD
researches and makes public the work and learning of adolescents around the
United States via its website and also through networks of others who care
about or work with youth. For this book project, WKCD won support from
MetLife Foundation, whose Supporting New Teachers Initiative recognizes how
much new teachers could learn from studentsif only given the chance.
With two million new teachers needed over the next decade and 60 percent
of beginning teachers quitting the profession within their first five years,
advice from the classroom could not be more important. Research shows that too many schools across the country suffer from a persistent divide, one pitting
teachers and students against each other. In a 2001 national survey, 65 percent
of students agreed with the statement, “My teachers don’t understand me,” and
33 percent of the teachers reported inadequate preparation to reach students
with backgrounds different from their own.
In this climate, I set out to collect what would become sheaves of interviews
and writing from forty students in New York City, Providence, and the San
Francisco Bay Area. Through school connections made during years of education
writing, I found ordinary students who reflected the faces and backgrounds
of their diverse student populations. Some had moved from typical big-city
schools into small schools; others had dropped out altogether before returning
to class. Several performed well academically, but many struggled. Twenty were
recent immigrants, English-language learners in a special class at a large California high school. Another half dozen spoke no English at home but took regular classes at school. Whenever I found students who agreed to participate, I asked whether they could interest a friend in coming, too.
Except for the class of English-language learners, we met in small groups of
three to five students, usually on weekends and during school vacations. Each
group worked for at least three sessions of three to five hours, and we paid students for their time at an hourly rate comparable to that of undergraduate
From their short biographies (pages 197 to 199) and their words throughout
this book, a vivid mosaic emerges of the individual narratives these students brought to our discussions, debate, and analysis. As diverse a group in ethnicity and
academic record as their schoolmates in the cities where they live, these young
messengers realize well that most of their teachers do not share their background.
Their advice also recognizes the differences among themselves: Every high school
student is unique, making the teacher’s job even harder.
Yet strikingly, their daily encounters with teachers ring true across the
boardnot just for students of color and language minorities like themselves,
but equally for their more privileged peers. As they trade wisdom on how to
navigate high school, they invariably strike the same chords kids everywhere
sound when they let down their guard to recount their school experiences.
“Socially, kids hate you if you succeed too much,” observes Mika, whose
strict Jamaican parents demand the highest achievement from her. “It’s like:
‘Shut up! Why do you have to rub it in my face that you know and I don’t!’ I didn’
t learn that until it was too late, and then I completely shut up in class.” Alexis, who
has shuttled through three New York City high schools, elaborates: “Intimidation is
the key. Teenagers care about what other people think of them, and so they feel
They speak of their need to be known well but to maintain boundaries and
privacy. They crave respect from adults, feeling retaliatory rage when humiliated or ignored. “Kids want to learn,” in one Harlem student’s words, and they hunger for the power to shape their own futures. They know their lives are in flux, and when things go wrong, they want someone to help without shaming them. As Alexis points out, “Teachers need to make allowance for the fact that we change from year to year
and even from week to week.”
Throughout their work on this book, students showed enormous appreciation
for the teachers who helped them learn. Though they offer plenty of criticism
and advice, they testify time after time to a teacher’s power to change their minds
and their lives. They respond with real attachment and respect when a teacher believes
in them, offering support through difficulties. Maribel’s favorite teacher at her large
Providence high school “is always willing to talk and can get you interested by asking questions.” Alexis describes her math teacher: “He won’t let you give up.” And they observe that sometimes a good teacher helps them learn just by treating them with warmth and understanding. “She would find times outside of the classroom to ask me
how I was doing, and to let me know that I could go to her if I needed anything at all,”
says Tiffany about a teacher who recognized the difficulty of being a black student in a largely white school. Veronica, a fifteen-year-old from Oakland, says of her biology teacher: “He has changed our lives forever.”
As originally conceived, this book would have devoted a chapter to each of
the key academic areas, offering students’ insights on how to teach them most
effectively. But as the torrent of student voices mounted with each work session, we realized the mistake of that assumption. Our groups offered surprisingly little critique of curriculum and assessment. They focused more on the relationships that made learning possible.
Might listening carefully to these students change high schools enough so
kids would no longer set fires in the bathroom? We know instinctively that
teachers, as with physicians and attorneys, perform best when they not only
know their material well but notice and respond sensitively to the people they
serve. But faced with the ever-shifting needs and opinions of adolescents, a
teacher might easily despair of ever hitting the delicate balance these student
co-authors say they want: adult authority and guidance mixed with a healthy
measure of flexibility.
Without genuine dialogue, such an aim remains elusive. In organizing students’
words into the following chapters, I tried to focus their diverse perspectives, with the goal of fostering better communication. In the narrative voice,
“we” indicates student consensus on their advice, and I revert to the third person when
summarizing or interpreting their responses. Kids’ observations, at
times blunt and irreverent, appear here unedited, with an occasional translation
for those of us not cool enough to understand. For the sake of authenticity, I
chose not to exclude suggestions that seasoned teachers would agree are
Above all, this book aims to foster a teacher’s habit of paying close attention
to what students say, whether they speak through words or actions. As Lauraliz,
a quiet and careful seventeen-year-old from the Bronx, reminds us: “I been looking
for a teacher I can talk to, and I think I found that teacher. I don’t really know how to
approach him yet, but when I need to talk about something, I’ll find a way.”
One day, after a long and animated work session, I asked the students around our
table, “Has anyone ever asked you questions like these before?” They paused to think,
then every head shook no.
This book, I hope, will help to right that silence.