The day following the principal listening session, I facilitated two groups, back to back. The first was with Lincoln residents currently enrolled at Wachter Middle School in Bismarck. We met first thing in the morning, and I noted the difference in energy level from my afternoon sessions. It took them a while to warm up and wake up. But over the course of our three hours together, warm up they did. And they had some unique things to say.
In our warm-up conversation, the students weren’t very talkative. They did share their ideas of success somewhat, discussing the need for both academic and social success, and gaining the ability to work with and accept diversity. They talked of wanting the respect of teachers both as intelligent individuals, but also as youth. They wanted teachers to understand their unique place in life – as budding adults who were still kids too.
This last bit was quite a theme of the early morning. When I asked them to offer advice to adults about how to support young people today, they offered the following:
- Have patience
- Teach the way kids understand – relate to us; don’t just take the route easiest for the teacher
- Listen to the students and give them respect
- Allow students to get up and move more in school
Small-Group Abstract Visioning (How Would You Transform Education?)
Once we had met for about an hour, I broke them up into two small groups for our abstract visioning work and left the room. Despite my coolness and hip factor with the kids (!), the energy in the room lightened up considerably when I left. I gave them instructions to get up and move, get snacks and be vocal. The volume in the room rose and became more jovial. They were waking up and becoming relaxed, especially in the absence of an adult.
After 30 minutes, I came back into the room, and they were ready to share their ideas with me. So many of the themes were identical to the previous sessions – hands-on learning, more movement in the classrooms and throughout the day (this was an extremely important point for them), more student engagement (many of them felt bored in class and that they were learning at too slow of a pace), more spontaneity and fun, more choice and interest-based classes, more excitement in the day, and more personal engagement with the teachers. Several students felt dissatisfied with how little time advanced learners received from teachers in comparison to that received by students who were struggling with content. They desired to be pushed more at school, and stretched to their own limits.
They talked a lot about their relationships with teachers, wanting more respect and trust and wanting teachers to understand them as early teens better; basically they wanted improved relationships that were lighter but deeper, and more fun. They wanted more art and more music, offering band separate from general music class. They talked a lot about technology and more involvement in their learning choices and goal-setting.
Throughout this discussion, it became very clear that these students had their own agenda. Though they answered my questions thoughtfully, what they truly wanted to talk about was their little booming town. This was such a burning subject, that I shifted gears during the last hour of the session so they could share what they were feeling.
Growth-Related Tensions in Lincoln
First off, these students were anxious about all the rapid, extreme growth in their little town of Lincoln, ND. As is well-known, North Dakota is in the midst of an oil boom in the western part of the state. What is not as well known, however, is that the boom’s impacts stretch outward as the limited infrastructure in the west becomes overwhelmed. Lincoln sits about 20 minutes southeast of the state’s centrally located capital, Bismarck. Its affordable, rural location makes the town an attractive choice for many new residents. Because of its small size, the rapid growth in this town is felt more keenly than the same amount of growth in a mid-sized city. The students were largely unhappy with the rate and amount of their town’s growth, and felt a loss of the personality and characteristics that made their small, rural town home.
They talked of the tensions between new and long-term residents. They felt the growth was too much, too fast and contributed to a loss of their rural, small community feel. They felt their town was not as private now, and that many quiet rural areas and fields were being converted into apartments and houses. They talked of this loss a lot, and regretted the decline of sledding hills and places to ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers. They were also concerned about the potential loss of community traditions. Specifically, Lincoln residents take a great deal of pride in their annual fireworks displays; the students wondered if traditions like these would be hampered by all the growth.
The Good and Bad of a Lincoln School
Interestingly, as a result of the students’ concerns regarding their town’s growth, there was a decidedly mixed reaction to the plans for a new school in Lincoln. I asked students to list the good and bad of a community-based elementary school, and this is what they had to offer.
First the good:
- Finally a new school after 15 years! (a kid-reported parent comment)
- New people are moving to Lincoln all the time with kids – a school is needed
- Kids will be able to make new friends in the new school
- The new school will raise property values
- The new school will bring more things the kids want, such as restaurants
And the not-so-good:
- New school = more infrastructure that isn’t necessarily welcomed by the kids
- Kids really liked being bussed into Bismarck – they liked the long rides and the opportunity to get out of Lincoln on a daily basis; the commute gave a feeling of calm – of not feeling rushed They feel the demise of the lengthy bus rides will be big loss to kids. Parents also liked kids being on the bus rides as it gave them time to get younger children home and wrap up their job-related and domestic duties. If these bus rides are no longer available, the community will need before and after school options.
- There will potentially be more chaos
- A new school adds to the negative feeling of extreme growth
At this point, we all acknowledged the fact that the school was indeed going to be built, and I asked the students to take this opportunity to imagine the ways in which the school could help ease the tensions surrounding Lincoln’s growth instead of exacerbating them. Here they got excited, and quickly listed a host of services that would be beneficial to Lincoln.
They began imagining the school as a community center, offering a medical facility, a place to buy groceries, and lots of green space, as Lincoln has lost so much of it. They also wanted the school to provide a place to hang out, as Lincoln’s town park was not well maintained. They wished for an open gym on the weekends, and an inside area to spend time, especially during the long winters. They envisioned a club-like setting with video games, a basketball court, pool, ping-pong, concessions, and couches. They also hoped for community-oriented events like Bingo nights, movie nights, and regular community suppers. And again, they emphasized the need for before and after school programming and interest-based clubs.
By the end of our time together, I found myself looking at this collective of youthful, intelligent energy as Lincoln’s future City Council. I will confess to previously being quite ignorant of the goings-on in Lincoln, thinking of it as a town with little sense of its own community. I couldn’t have been more wrong. These Lincoln residents love and respect their little town, and want to retain their sense of home. I hope this school will help them as they grow together.
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