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Freedom of Expression – Just Not at School

One of the problems with being a teen and a student is that your freedom is so limited, if you have any at all.  So many writers, musicians and filmmakers talk about the journals they kept as teens and how they kept them for ages before sharing them with the world.  Traditional publishing was inaccessible to teenagers and few had a way to find an audience for their message or their art outside of the restrictive world of their school.

I remember distinctly the Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al. Supreme Court case in 1988.  The basics of the decision were that school newspapers were not forums for student expression and therefore, students did not have the right to free speech.  Their “speech” could be censored legally by school officials. I was on my high school newspaper staff in 1988 and I was outraged. Like most 17 year olds, moral outrage was one of my best skills.  I attended a student journalist conference in Washington DC that summer and got together with students from many different states and we all wallowed in our collective outrage. Seventeen is the precipice of freedom. I was headed to college the next fall and I was ready to make my own decisions. Saying what you think and exposing injustices was exactly what a student run school newspaper was for and now the nine old people in the Supreme Court had told us officially that we had no right to say what we thought.  Outrage on top of outrage was the result.  Outrage and gnashing of teeth, but no action. It was frustrating and left us all feeling helpless and impotent.  We just had to wait a year or two until we magically became adults and could say what we wanted.

As a teacher, I see all the restrictions that are placed on schools in attempting to “guide” students. Another list of “don’ts” for the young people!  The message is, “We want you to become productive citizens who are able to think critically, as long as you do it through an approved format within these restrictive formats on only these topics. Oh, and if you could do it in a horrifyingly boring five paragraph essay, that would be great.” I don’t know where these rules originate.  How is it we’re surprised that teens don’t feel confident enough to express themselves creatively, forcefully or thoughtfully?

All this is thankfully counterbalanced by brilliant, thoughtful and daring teens who are expressing themselves through the freedom that exists outside of school through the magic of the internet.  Their ability to craft a message to their peers and the world is noteworthy because it reaches a broad audience outside of school.  My favorite example of such a person is Nathan Zelalem.  I’ve followed Nathan for almost four years now through his youtube channel ‘The Third Pew.’  He’s my second favorite member of the Zelalem family. His sister Salem is my Young Adult reading guide and great friend. She is the greatest.  Nathan’s videos are funny, thoughtful and well crafted. They are also messages that would get made within a school.  No teacher, club sponsor or principal that I know of would facilitate or encourage the freedom that Nathan’s parents have given him. While it’s disappointing to think that school is so restrictive, it’s also thrilling to think that there are teens like Nathan out there saying what they want to say the way they want to say without the restrictions of a classroom.

Here’s one of my favorite of Nathan’s videos:

There are teens out there speaking the truth, kicking butt and making the world better.  We need to keep looking for them and encouraging them to speak out. With the standardization of testing and testing and testing permeating all parts of students’ lives, those who have the guts and the work ethic to speak out need our support and encouragement if they’re going to survive and having the courage to say what they think without restrictions from adults. Team truth!

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Here’s your list, teens.

Teenagers really are a marginalized group.  I believe that teenagers are basically issued a scroll of “Don’t-s.”  Don’t stay out too late. Don’t text and drive. Don’t be late. Don’t be a bully. Don’t let your grades drop. Don’t get into any trouble. The problem, I think, is that nobody gives people this age a list of “Do-s” to go along with this. The only thing anyone tells them to do is to not get in trouble or break any rules.  That’s not very helpful and it can be completely paralyzing as well as counterproductive – for everyone.

It seems that we just don’t know what to do with adolescents. They don’t know what we want from them other than to just go to school, do everything we tell them to do, and not cause trouble. When they’re younger, their antics are seen as cute or typical for their age. By the time they are around 12 and able to stay home without supervision, many parents stop parenting. It’s understandable. Parenting is exhausting and meeting a child’s immediate needs is enough work.  Once a child can make his own dinner, let herself into the house after school, and finish her homework on her own, they still need so much more than just someone to make sure they’re not screwing up.

We do a terrible job of this part of parenting and schooling. We move kids from Elementary School to Middle School over the course of 2 months of summer break and when they land at their new school, they’re expected to manage, lockers, seven class periods with seven different teachers, gym uniforms, negotiating a brand new social life with students from many other Elementary Schools, and they’re supposed to have it all worked out within the first two weeks of school. Plus, we take away their recess! It’s not a good formula.

What if we took the time and the money to figure out something for these kids to do?  They need community centers and free unstructured time to create without a legion of adults standing over them telling them all the things that they can’t talk about or shouldn’t do. We need to “let them sing and scream”, as Amanda Palmer says in her brilliant song “Ukulele Anthem.”  When we try to control them so much and demand that they succeed, or at least not cause trouble, in all of their efforts, we’re suppressing their natural expression, socializing, and their creativity. If they can’t get what’s inside them out by saying what they want, doing what they want, listening to what they want, creating what they want, READING what they want, they’re going to withdraw and become resentful, secretive and angry. Then, we usually punish them for having a bad attitude. They just can’t win.

Very few adults I know would abide being told what to do.  Most of us need a creative outlet – a way to make some noise.  We want to know that we can affect our world and our lives. Not all of kids’ activities or studies need to prepare them for college.  We have to find ways to let them do what they want sometimes – just because they want to. Whatever it is.  They have to be able to sing and scream. We also must make it clear to them, to quote Amanda Palmer again that, “Just because your grades are bad, it doesn’t mean you’re failing.”

We fail the entire teen population when we don’t listen to them and give them a chance to say or do or read what they want.