The world is full of narratives, especially those of middle schoolers. If you pay attention, you can see a master narrative running throughout, made evident by the systems, structures, and social norms in place. In looking at these pieces and parts, simply asking why can lead you to the master narrative at play.
Take the grading system for example. Why give grades? Because young people can’t be trusted to measure and reflect on their own progress. Why do parent-teacher conferences without the student present? Because young people are not capable of sharing and reflecting on their own learning. Why change the rules, provide the extension, make multiple allowances? Because young people are fragile and can’t handle missing deadlines or making mistakes.
So much of what we do at The Village School is construct a counter-narrative- a narrative entrenched in our beliefs about children and adolescents. In our community, young people are trustworthy, capable, strong and resilient. They want to learn, they want to improve, and they want to do excellent and purposeful work. In turn, our systems, processes, and language at TVS reflect these beliefs.
This year, I’ve seen the power of this counter-narrative in Adventure Studio. Within the walls of our school building, our middle schoolers are trusted with more freedom and responsibility than most young people their age. It goes without saying, they respond to this trust and respect by actually being trustworthy and responsible. Why? Because they are capable and they want to be trusted. In an environment such as ours, they can shed the narrow constraints of the outside world and step into a far more productive narrative about who they are and what they have to offer.
But like all things that challenge the status quo, this is not always easy- particularly when engaging with the real world.
On a recent trip to the bookstore, one of our middle schoolers was looking for a “definitive biography” of at least 400 pages to fulfill her Civilization requirement this session. After finding a book that she felt was in her challenge zone, the employee at the checkout counter engaged her in a long line of questions laced with skepticism:
“How old are you? Did you look at the young adult section? Why do you have to read 400 pages? Are you sure you can handle this?” and my personal favorite, “Is your teacher just trying to inflict some cruel and unusual punishment on you?”
I watched as she navigated this line of questioning that was so different from the types of questions she encounters in the studio. And, on the way back to campus, she shared some of her own questions that had formed as a result of the interaction.
“Why did my age matter? I read adult-level books. I know what is appropriate for me. I know my mom would agree. Why did they think I didn’t want to read a long book? I love long books. Why did they assume I wouldn’t choose to read a book like this unless someone was making me?”
She was baffled, understandably so. The bookstore employee’s behavior fit with the master narrative but not our narrative at TVS.
Similarly, our Middle Schoolers faced this challenge when attempting to secure apprenticeships. It was not easy. Many potential employers who showed interest in hosting an apprenticeship at first, became less decisive and certain about having a young person spend time learning and helping their organization. It seemed the master narrative loomed large, threatening their success in landing their first apprenticeships.
But, after several weeks of hard work, persuasive and impressive emails and pitches, dead ends and promising new opportunities, our founding middle schoolers secured their apprenticeships, showing the real world just how capable they really are.
Again and again, our learners at TVS will be given opportunities to challenge the status quo. They’ll no doubt face struggle and skepticism. But, along the way, they’ll be part of a movement that actually changes the common narrative, one that offers a more complete and accurate reflection of what young people are capable of.