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Life’s Questions Aren’t Multiple Choice

Earlier this month, I took my fifteen year old son, his best friend and his friend’s mother to the wonderful Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC to hear Jason Reynolds and Brandon Kiely speak about their important new book All American Boys. The book is a fictional account of a racially motivated police brutality incident told by two narrators, one written by each author. Their talk was emotional, compelling and charming. The two authors have been traveling the country to speak to students in their schools about racism, police brutality, and hope. The audience at the bookstore was made up of nearly all adults. There were four actual young adults in the Young Adult book event. I wished there had been more teens at the event, but I was happy that I had brought half of those in attendance.

After the readings by each author set the scene, the discussion got really interesting. All the adults were intensely interested in how the visits to schools had been going and asked the authors to tell us about how the teens they’d spoken to have been reacting to the news of police brutality and racial tension. It was heartening to hear that Jason and Brendan had visited both posh private schools and inner city schools in their book tour. They are doing such important work by just showing up to these schools and even more so by talking to and listening to the students whom they encounter. Their report was that most students remain hopeful and engaged. They want to grapple with race and violence and are eager for adults to help them untangle these issues with them.

Then, Jason Reynolds said something that stopped me. He said that he always tells students that they are a part of the most extraordinary and important generation to ever live. They typically are skeptical of this pronouncement. He then went on to explain to us that he tells them honestly that if someone had come to him and his friends and asked them, “If I asked you to answer any question, could you find the answer?” People in Jason’s generation (and mine) would have said, “Maybe.” However, if you ask teens today the same question, their answer would be, “Of course!” That is a dramatic difference. It’s something that I had never thought of in precisely those terms.

So, we have a generation of teenagers with the amazing knowledge that they are able to answer any question that is put to them. They can satisfy their own curiosity. What have we asked them to do with this kind of power? When it comes to vital issues that confront young people like police brutality, we haven’t asked them to sit at the table and discuss things. We haven’t given them the practice to talk to each other or to discuss things civilly. We’ve thrown up examples of screaming “debates” and uncivil discourse. Their only “jobs” in the eyes of the schools “system”, their communities and often their families are to get the best grades they can, pursue impressive looking extracurricular activities, and try to graduate high school with as little psychological or physical damage as possible. It’s not a blueprint for an active, engaged and passionate citizenry.

The problem is that teenagers have opinions. They have passionate and sometimes ill-informed opinions. They like to see how their opinions feel and sound by loudly declaring them in their speech, on t-shirts, and in the groups that they pledge allegiance to. In a time where high school grades and test scores are widely considered to be the only measure of a teenaged person that matter, it takes something extraordinary like authors visiting a school to ask what they really think to make teens willing to risk stating their thoughts when they’re not sure they can come up with the right answer. In classrooms around the country, teachers lament every day that they don’t have the time to allow their students to look for the answers that make the most sense to them. Teachers know that students can’t know what they really think or how to figure out the world without the opportunity to wander through answers that may not be right, to make mistakes and readjust, and to consult other people, sources, and experts that will allow them to refine the answers that make the most sense to them. There’s no time for that in the era of testing and data.

The danger is that the world outside of the school buildings where students spend their whole day is full of problems for which there is no multiple choice answer. The stakes out there are as high as life or death. Where can teens exercise their incredible power of finding answers to help them to decipher a world in which the answer is never as simple as A, B, C or D?

Of course, there are books. Books allow students to consider and spend time in worlds where they can consider how other people feel and see how conflict can play out in a safe way. This is why I believe that Young Adult fiction can save teens. There are also still sports teams, clubs, arts, community, religious and other outlets that teens can find to support and accept them while they work together to achieve a common goal. Though some of these programs have their drawbacks, they provide a place for teens to see complexity and nuance.

There are also adults who want to listen and find a way to help. Trusted teachers, parents, mentors, book authors, and other leaders can make a huge difference even one teen at a time.  I know that you’re out there.  I know that grades, extracurricular resumes are important.  Please, listen to a teen and let them make mistakes. Let them say outrageous things and express their thoughts.  Engage them in conversations instead of shutting them down.

Barring that, teens, look for people who understand you.  Find them and let them listen.  Listen to them.  Stay curious and know that as I have said before, school is not real life.

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A Letter to Teachers: Stop telling teens that you don’t like them!

Excerpt from a text message conversation I had with a 17 year old friend:

There are so many things wrong with this. The biggest problem is that it’s all too familiar. I’ve heard teachers, administrators, counselors and others say things like this. Basically dismissing things that teens like. I don’t know what prompted the teacher to make this idiotic declaration, but I don’t think it matters.

YA isn’t a genre. It’s a category. YA can be science fiction like Ender’s Game, historical fiction like The Book Theif  and Code Name Verity, realistic fiction like Catcher in the Rye, fantasy like Harry Potter or (my husband argues that Frodo was an adolescent Hobbit so The Lord of the Rings qualifies in his mind)  or any other kind of story. Like the classics that English teachers have deemed “acceptable” or worthy of reading and of study. If you’re an English teacher, I have to think that you enjoy at least one genre of literature or you wouldn’t be teaching English. YA can be literary like A.S King and Jason Reynolds, it can be hilarious like Jesse Andrews and E. Lockhart, it can be touching and important like Jaqueline Woodson and Matt de la Peña, romantic like Gayle Forman and John Green, or anything else that “adult” books can be. There is great literary YA and there is silly, goofy, popcorn YA that’s just fun to read. The best of it makes teens, or the teen selves inside of adults, feel understood, heard and less alone.

What is YA? YA is a subset of books written about teenage characters and deals with the issues, problems, thrills and triumphs of teenhood. So, these are the books that speak most clearly and directly to a high school teacher’s students.  These are the books that your students want to read, choose to read and in which they find there are people who understand what they’re going through and in reading them, your teen students feel less alone.

So, what are you saying to your high school students when you say you don’t like YA? You might as well stand in front of a group of teens and say, “I don’t like you people, and I don’t care about what’s important to you. I am certainly not going to spend my time learning about what’s important to you or remembering what used to be important to me.” What a betrayal!

The last text is the most disappointing. “She seemed so promising,” meaning that up until that point, this teacher had the potential to be trusted and respected – maybe even liked.  She squandered it all on that one self indulgent statement, “I don’t like YA.”  The student who may have heard her the loudest and who sent me this text is one of the all time great people in the world. She’s curious, a voracious reader, has a wicked sense of humor, and is terrifically smart.  She’s just the kind of student this teacher and all of us wish we could clone and put into every one of our classes, but she’s been turned off by a teacher who dismisses the very books, writers, characters and worlds that mean the most to her.  I doubt that her teacher realizes just what she’s done.

There are plenty of middle and high school teachers who genuinely don’t like teenagers. Here’s a news flash – those teenagers know you don’t like them. Apparently, this teacher went on to say that she spends all day long “dealing with teenagers” and has no interest in thinking about them outside of her job. Even if she feels that way, WHY WOULD YOU TELL THEM THAT? What, you’ll talk to them when they finally grow up? Guess what, they won’t speak to you by then. They’ll realize that you’re one less person who is willing to help them, listen to them and take them seriously and they won’t forget.

Nobody forgets how it felt when an adult cast them aside and made them feel unimportant. Think for a minute. You can probably remember every adult who cast you aside and told you literally or effectively to “grow up” or to “get over it” or some other dismissive and damaging message.

Now, think about the adults who actually cared about you and listened to you when you were struggling.  I remember mine.  I am still close to a few of them: Mr. Wilson, the greatest US History teacher in the history of teaching, who let us eat lunch in his classroom every day and talk about whatever we wanted and just be with our friends in a safe and comfortable place.  It was a great physical and emotional place that he held for us and that we cherished.  He would never dismiss whole vast swaths of books, music, or anything else that we loved.  He remembered being young.  He was curious.  He was always too busy talking about all of his own passions for plants, and music and old films.  He saw us – really saw us.  We trusted and loved him.

I don’t know why some teachers, administrators, counselors and others like to be dismissive of the things that teenagers love.  It’s mean-spirited and counterproductive.  Meet teens where they are and find out what they love.

It’s the only way that we’ll ever be able to speak to the teens – not at them and that is the only way that they will ever trust us enough to tell us what’s important.