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Many Minnesotans are celebrating the fact that they just elected the most diverse state legislature in history. But before anyone pats themselves on the back, I want to strongly remind everyone that we still live in a state where the experiences of white Minnesotans are starkly different from those of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Minnesotans.
Take teaching, for example. We still live in a time where teaching the truth can be criminalized and book bans are somehow deemed constitutional, and in the midst of this, teachers of color face unbearable pressures. My own story reflects this reality. If we, collectively, cannot reimagine education, we will soon lose even more teachers like me who represent diverse communities.
Our newly elected leaders are not and cannot be the only driver of change in our state. When it comes to making big moves and bold changes, we need not look further than the powerful young people in our communities that can drive the change needed for a better world.
As a former classroom teacher, my goal was to ensure that my students had a better school experience than the oppressive school experiences I grew up with in Georgia and Ohio. In my classroom, my aim was to center joy, literacy and community in the classroom. I knew that while I didn’t have the power to change the education landscape as a whole, I had the ability to create radically different circumstances for my students in my own classroom.
But the future of students’ lives cannot rest on the coin toss of which teacher is assigned to them, nor can it rest on the shoulders of individual, counter-cultural teachers who are resisting an archaic system of educating children. Minnesota’s students of color experience a vastly different education than their white peers because our state’s educational disparities are among the worst in the nation.
We must make systemic shifts in reimagining the world of K-12 education to change these outcomes and we need to do this standing shoulder to shoulder with our young people. If harmful systems can be created, they can also be dismantled, and I plan on dismantling the system alongside fierce students.
Some may say that we already center our education system around our students. After all, in the best K-12 classrooms, student input is often requested through surveys, morning circle activities, exit slips, and digital polls. But usually students know that their input is sought in limited doses, and often for insubstantial or inconsequential issues such as what school lunch should look like or what book to read. Even then, student input is rarely actually implemented in a meaningful way.
Reimagining what it means to be a student in our public education system means using strength-based processes that engage students in the co-design of relevant learning experiences. It means seeing and honoring the wealth of knowledge our students bring to school. That’s right, co-designing, as in, not exclusively teacher-driven.
The community has no shortage of extensive research and proven practices for how to close opportunity gaps in school, but for the most part, gaps still remain and often leave BIPOC teachers feeling isolated and disproportionately exhausted. What we need is a relentless commitment to social justice and a reinvented model of school that is co-designed with students to be equitable, inclusive, powerful, just and engaging for every learner, and joyful for every teacher.
I challenge my fellow Minnesotans to go further than showing up to vote for change. Whoever you are, no matter what you do for a living, you have a choice to make when you engage with youth in our community. You can continue to use your positional power to keep the status quo of the generational hierarchy, or you can ask youth to reimagine possibilities, co-design solutions with you, and co-conspire to implement them. I plan to do the latter.