In Praise of the Teenager

For the most part, the modern teenager really gets a bad rap. Totally. Despite the gun control efforts led by Parkland secondary school shooting survivors in the United States, to young activists like Patricia Manubay and Ziad Ahmed, most adolescents are often viewed of being disrespectful, emotional-charged, self-indulgent, narcissistic, and a wee bit egocentric. But many of them also have much to teach us. Sometimes there are offers of insightful commentary on the world us. Sometimes a teenager’s sense of (in)justice overshadows impetuous and reckless behaviour. Sometimes our young people possesses a deeper perspective of the world that is…adult-like. Sometimes these reflective and articulate teenagers are in our own homes. And sometimes we need to listen more closely when they share.

Surprisingly Surprised 

Our fourteen year old son, Jackson, might be considered western society’s stereotypical teenager. The toilet is often left up. Our house is a dumping ground for personal belongings. Swearing loudly while engaged in an online multiplayer video game with friends. Shoveling a beautifully created dinner down the gullet in seconds. Literally. Eating that last bag of Doritos in the cupboard without concern for others. I think my point is made here. But on a recent drive home after a great day of skiing and connecting Jackson shared his insight and talked candidly about the future. His future to be precise. An avid snowboarder for nearly a decade, Jackson confided that he often envisioned himself employed in the ski industry either designing winter outerwear and equipment or plying a trade in the ski hospitality side of things.

I was immediately proud that he had put some thought into his future. I mean, this kid actually has thought about something other than getting the next skin on Fortnite? Pinch me. It might be safe to note that most of us are focused or moored in the immediate of our day to day without much regard for the bigger picture. After picking my jaw up off the car floor I asked Jackson if he had a plan. What things do you think that you need to do in order to put yourself on this lifestyle career path? Jackson loves winter recreation and he comes from a lineage of highly successful small and corporate business entrepreneurs. Both of these passions run deep in his blood. Our intercourse turned to planning with the end in mind, a term used often in the work of teacher and educational pedagogic, Robert Marzano, to help teachers with their planning. If a future in ski industry was a strong attraction, Jackson might want to initiate some research on what that might entail for a soon-to-be Grade 10 secondary student and eventually Class of 2021 graduate. He pondered my invitation.

Jackson shared that he envisioned attending the Ski Resort Operation and Management Program at our local post-secondary institution, Selkirk College. I encouraged him to learn more about the requirements needed to apply (and be considered for acceptance) to this highly competitive post-secondary program. His initial cursory research revealed some results including a C average or better, and experience in the ski industry. Complete an online questionnaire. Participate in a telephone interview. Standard post-secondary application fair, I reassured Jackson. Most importantly, I highlighted these were only details or benchmarks, not obstacles. If this is a goal really what he wanted to pursue. It is one thing to consciously plan for the future while living mindfully in the present. Something that many of struggle to balance.

Two days later, it appeared as though Jackson not only had a plan, but he had also considered the process of executing his plan. “I guess I need to get a job at Whitewater [our local ski haunt]…or maybe start helping uncle [an owner of an outdoor equipment retailer] at the store. And if I do the ATLAS program in Grade 12 [in second semester]…I will need English [12, a BC graduation requirement] done in the first semester.” Sounds like planning with the end in mind. Marzano would be proud. I was. Jackson also contemplated meeting the specific grade requirements. “I can get Cs no problem. Maybe Bs in some of my electives. I don’t like sciences much…maybe I need to stick with socials [like psychology and law], and of course, English.” I reassured him that as parents the only thing that we have ever requested of our kids academically is for them to do their utmost best. To be able to say that they genuinely put their best foot forward. He smiled. “I know, dad…work hard. I know. I know.”

The Dreaded H-word

As the conversation moved away from the future, I cautiously inquired if Jackson had any homework to do this weekend (while secretly not wanting to ruin our blissful day together) with reminding him of his responsibilities. His response was immediate and definitive, “I get it [assigned work] all done in class.” Jackson shared that he “stay[s] in after class on breaks and lunch to get work done…I don’t really want homework.” He further qualified his statement: “I get way more work done right class or at home. It’s too loud [during actual class time] and I can’t focus. And if the teacher is there [during break or at lunch] I have immediate help.”

Jackson outlined his work plan for those evenings where homeroom is necessary. He referenced the use of Google Classroom by a couple of his teachers to access the assignments, lectures, and related resources like videos and slide-decks. After a pregnant pause, Jackson turned to face me, “Why doesn’t the whole school operate like this? The assignments are laid out. If you are doing the work and someone [is] monitoring your progress [via a digital portal] why do I need to come to school? It seems like a waste of time and people if we have [the technology], doesn’t it?” Ah, yes, son. It does.

As I attempted to foment a reasonable pedagogical reply to deflect my son’s broadside volley on our current system of public education (it was going to be something about the psycho-social benefit that learning with others in groups plays in healthy personal development), Jackson pressed his point, “I mean, phys ed and team sports are good for that, right? There’s lots of stuff [at school] for me to meet with other kids.” Indeed. “So, why do I have to go to an actual building to learn if I can learn on my own?” I wondered if this was a pitch to home-school himself through a distributed learning program?

But Jackson wasn’t done and chose his words deliberately. “Some people can learn on their own and in their own way and on their own time. I like that teachers trust us to take our learning seriously. I want teachers to trust that students will get it done…[and] if [students] don’t then they will lose the privilege [of working from home] and have to come into school.” Finally, Jackson clarified his position that while he “likes going to school for the physical and social aspects” he wasn’t so keen on the other elements of institutionalized learning. Message received. Loud and clear.

Introspectively Underestimated

I’m well aware that Jackson is not unique in his thoughts about school and learning. He attended our district’s unique multi-age classroom school from which he recently graduated after five years. A requirement of the Wildflower School pedagogy is that one-fifth of all student learning is done at home. Many families reserve Fridays for that purpose (students attend class Monday-Thursday). Jackson would often put in 5-6 hours of independent work often supported by his mother on these homeschooling days. As parents, we are very proud that he has developed a work ethic and understands the importance of student-led learning. Or at least an understanding that, ultimately, we as individuals are responsible for how and what we learn. Not our teacher. Not our parents. Jackson gets this. No doubt, this may be where some of his questions around student-led learning and the responsibility of the learner have arisen.

And while he often doesn’t show his reflective and introspective side, Jackson is very honest and truthful about issues that grind away at him. He implicitly questions the value that society places on what, to him, appears to be a very out-dated way of learning. It simply doesn’t meet his needs. I’m willing to bet that he may not be the only teenager holding this insight, too. Who better than ourselves to say what works (or doesn’t) to help us to meet our learning needs? The ideal self-directed learner is a myth. But learning that meets individual needs is now more feasible and attainable than ever before.

I am proud of Jackson and his ability to be introspective, but I also grossly underestimated his ability to be introspective. Sure teenagers often come across as a frustrated, morose, brew of hormones. Completely unbalanced. Reciting Shakespeare one minute. Telling you to fuck off the next. Then falling asleep with their favourite childhood stuffy tucked under their arm. It’s confusing. It’s a juxtaposition.

But there is one thing that teenagers seems to offer humanity perhaps as a redemption of sorts. Honesty. And we can’t hope for more than that for our future.

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