By Jevon Hunter
Children are unapologetically honest. I like that. I appreciate it when students ask straightforward questions. I have two favorites, both in reference to classroom learning: “Why is this important for me to know?” or more directly, “When am I ever going to use this in life?”
These questions are important because they challenge us — as teachers, as educators, or simply as adults. When these questions are asked, our children are hinting that the curriculum is disconnected from their lives, that it has no realistic application beyond preparation for a future examination.
Our children — particularly our adolescents, which are those youth between the ages of 10 and 18 — hunger for something more meaningful as they struggle to answer the two fundamental questions that define their existence: “Who am I?” and “What is my place in the world?”
Buffalo Prep is an academic enrichment and support program that helps underserved youth succeed in school, and it works to close the opportunity gap for Western New York kids. To address these important questions coming from students, the program is currently shifting its curriculum so that it better connects to the lives of our children.
We are using the city of Buffalo as a lens to achieve our learning goals, as a form of culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies while also having our students learn essential skills that will help them become researchers of their own communities and lives. Last summer, for instance, Buffalo Prep students applied the following school subjects in purposeful ways:
• Mathematics classes examined whether residents were living in food deserts;
• English language arts courses explored bias within mass media and journalism;
• Science classes organized lessons around the way the body reacts to stressful living conditions; and
• Social studies classes investigated the impact of immigration on the city.
The youth then presented their research findings to the public using a combination of traditional presentation styles and digital displays of information. During the process, our students acquired the habits of mind and early dispositional abilities necessary to participate as citizens in a democratic society and in adult life.
This approach to teaching and learning gives our young people purpose, and it meaningfully answers the questions our children are asking about school. Will all our children accept this response? Of course not. But it is better than the vapid reply they typically hear: “Because it will be on the state test.” The children are demanding more. Let’s give it to them.
Jevon Hunter, Ph.D., is an urban education professor at SUNY Buffalo State College and helped transform the curriculum at Buffalo Prep.