The transition took me by surprise. One moment, we were exploring the path that ideas take on their legislative road to public policy, and the next minute, students were disclosing their personal struggle with ongoing anxiety and depression. At first, I worried that the doom and gloom of our semester’s exploration of climate change and species collapse might be to blame, but it soon became clear that the root of this shared experience was far deeper. In an act of incredible vulnerability, adolescent after adolescent gave voice to the loneliness and uncertainty of transitioning to adulthood in the paradoxical age of connectivity and disconnection.
Post-graduation plans didn’t seem to tip the scale. An even mix of students headed to the work place, to dorm rooms, and into gap year adventures expressed ambivalence about pathways that had no clear link to outcomes or impact on an ever-unpredictable world. Absent was the mixture of nostalgia and excitement my peers and I had experienced in the weeks before graduation. As I listened to my students wade through their relationship to political divisiveness, financial insecurity, and a world that makes them feel increasingly small, I felt guilty that my biggest fear heading into college had been home-sickness.
And then I asked the question: “Who in the room feels like they have purpose in their lives?” Two students sheepishly raised their hands. One guffawed. Most stared at me blankly. In the conversation that ensued, it became clear that their high school experience had provided plenty of opportunity to build skills: meeting standards established by adults, pursuing truths set forth by adults, regurgitating answers deemed correct by adults. Students learned to write essays, take tests, and, yes, do high order thinking to analyze literature, scientific data, and historical events. What was glaringly missing was the option, nay, the requirement, to turn the lens inward. While they could conjugate a verb and factor a polynomial, few could articulate what mattered to them or brought them joy. This is the failure of public education.
When we pitched the idea of “EPIC Academy” (E.P.I.C. for Educational Path I Choose) to the Rowland Foundation, we led with our vision of students building agency through passion-driven projects they designed. Over the course of our first year in the fellowship, we realized that passion without impact is hollow and temporary. If snowboarding or animal husbandry or musical theater begins and ends with the experience of the student, the learning does nothing to connect students to a larger network of belonging or meaning.
The seniors in my classroom had copious talents. They starred on athletic fields and theatrical stages, in bands and in clubs. The vast majority have food security, consistent housing, and functional families with summer plans. What they don’t have is the feeling that their existence matters.
Passion. Power. Purpose. These are the tenets of EPIC Academy. These should be the priorities of all public education. Instead of diagnosing the extent of the summer brain drain in math computation in the first weeks of the year, we should be helping students figure out what lights their fire. In a world of monumental challenges like climate change and income inequality, where floating plastic islands are 64 times larger than our state and college tuition grows faster than inflation, in a world where individual humans feel powerless to make an impact on the ocean of concern, we need to help our students find the places where they do have agency not just in their lives and to pursue their passions, but to effect change in the world around them.
We can’t solve adolescent anxiety with a series of 9-week projects. We can’t prevent iPhones and Snap Chat streaks from coercing teenage brains into dopamine dependence with a new path to graduation. But we can show students that we see them. We can stop telling them that school is here to prepare them for some condescending, future “real world” and start recognizing that they already live in…and worry about… the real world. Educators clinging to the 1970’s belief that success in freshman biology predicts college graduation, career advancement, and a white picket fence is not only failing our students, but making them feel alone in their unease.
Beginning next fall, the fifty students who self-selected into EPIC Academy at Lamoille Union High School will connect. They will build deep and lasting relationships with their teacher mentor who, because of this new model of small cohort size and full-day mentorship, can truly know them. They will collaborate with community partners who are active in the arenas that students want to pursue. Through the iterative process of peer review and community reflection, they will connect with each other. And, most importantly, they will turn that lens inward and do the hard work of examining who they are, what motivates them, what assets they possess and can access, and yes, how to create lives of meaning and joy. Five years from now, let us not measure the success of education by math scores and reading levels alone, but by the number of students that raise their hand when we ask them, “Who feels like their existence matters?”
Amber Carbine-March wishes she could talk to animals, but is pretty darn happy being a high school science teacher. When she isn’t petting her miniature donkeys or paddle boarding with her wife and kids, she is usually scheming new ways to expand equity and opportunity to all students.
Kim Hoffman is a former yurt-dweller and field naturalist turned science teacher. When she isn’t identifying edible wild plants with her botany-obsessed 5-yr-old, she is dreaming up ways to empower students.