How can Detroit educators learn how to transform their classrooms? Ask the students.

High school senior Caleb Bailey started to sharpen his financial literacy skills as part of the Midnight Golf mentoring program in Detroit. But now he believes students should learn financial skills much earlier than he did. 

“I know a lot of people don’t know what a W-2 is,” he said, adding that all students should also know how to pay bills and the significance of stocks and bonds.

Teaching financial literacy skills and improving classroom culture are among the ways students at Communication and Media Arts High School said schools can be redefined in the fall.

The virtual discussion about transforming the school environment was part of an ongoing effort of The Plug, a project that encourages students to talk about their top education concerns. The conversations, which began in February and take place multiple times a week, are focused on equity and justice. The Michigan Department of Education hosted Monday’s forum. 

The students have been “thinking about how to reimagine schools, how to reimagine their experiences, how to inform policy and practices in their buildings,” said Dr. Rema Reynolds, one of the Eastern Michigan University professors that helps coordinate the project. 

Students gave insights into their current learning experiences and needs during a time when educators and parents may have difficulty engaging with children during remote instruction. The coronavirus pandemic has worsened inequities in an already struggling city, where most district students are not acquiring internet access and devices until June. 

Nine students and more than 50 educators participated in a lively videoconference discussion where students were asked questions about school life and what needs to change. They are working with the school’s administration to change policies on dress code, tardiness, in-school suspension and detention when school buildings reopen.

“The Plug is all about using our voices to speak for the kids — for all the kids — whose voices cannot be heard right now,” said student Candance Montgomery. 

One key theme emerged from the afternoon discussion: the importance of a healthy teacher-student relationship built on trust, communication, and respect. 

Here are five takeaways from the students to help foster healthier and more equitable school cultures:

Teachers need to meet students where they are

Candance kicked off the conversation by discussing the impact of COVID-19 on student well-being. Students have lost family members, teachers, and parents. In the state with the third largest number of cases in the nation, Detroit has been hit especially hard.  

“I know coronavirus has kind of shaken everybody up,” said Candance. “If kids get back and you are rushing them, it won’t create a safe learning environment. Students won’t be concentrating on learning. When we constantly tell students that they’re behind, it’s a negative message.”

Students said that teachers should create a more relaxed and accommodating classroom for students when buildings reopen. The impact of COVID-19 has intensified stress and anxiety for youth, so teachers should adapt their approaches to the emotional needs of students and help them learn at their pace.

Incorporate meaningful, creative ways to engage students

Students also called for educators to take more risks in the classroom, including engaging more with students. Students Immanuel King and Jayala Word said teachers should provide more discussion time on topics, put special value on students that take risks, encourage debate, and engage in different forms of leadership. 

Immanuel highlighted the leadership of CMA’s principal Donya Odom for her personable approach. He said he appreciated that the principal showed students respect. 

“She talks to you person to person, human to human,” Immanuel said. “She can relate to you, and it’s so comforting to us that she can do that.”

Harsh discipline doesn’t build trust, it erodes it

Many of the students expressed concerns over disciplinary actions, like suspensions and expulsions. There needs to be a balance of students understanding consequences for negative behavior, but an atmosphere of overt surveillance and a punitive mindset doesn’t help students grow. 

“We’re always being watched. We’re always being put out on front,” student Tamiliyon Smith said. 

The Detroit district has taken steps to reduce suspensions and implemented a progressive disciplinary approach that gives educators more flexibility. The district reported a 63 percent drop in out-of-school suspensions between April 2018 to April 2019

Don’t be afraid: Educators should commit to cultural diversity

A white teacher asked how to approach teaching subjects like black history. The students shared the consensus that teachers need to strike a balance between honesty and sensitivity.

Most of the students in the city district and in Detroit charter schools are African-American. 

“The teacher sets the environment for the classroom. If you’re comfortable, the class will be comfortable,” Immanuel said.

Jayala stressed the importance of cultural competency.

“You should try to learn about other traditions and races. You never know who you’re going to have in your class,” she said. “Try your best to relate to your students.”

Equip students with life skills that help them thrive as adults

Students want more elective classes to help them prepare for the challenges of being independent adults. They suggested more classes to train in skilled trades or in financial literacy. 

“Many of my school grade peers are undecided or are completely discouraged about what they want to pursue after graduation. This is a huge issue in the black community,” student Imari Deadrick said. 

They want to learn how to invest money, fill out tax forms, understand student loan contracts, and manage their credit cards. 

A lot of kids don’t have a household where they can learn that stuff. They end up learning the hard way,” Candance said.

As the meeting ended, someone used the chat function in the videoconference to ask the adults in the videoconference how they would use what they just heard, with the hope of working with students to enact these changes in classrooms. 

“What are you going to do?”

“What are you prepared to do differently?”

“What are you going to do to bring around equity and access for all students?”

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