In 1961, thousands of teenagers joined the Cuban Literacy Campaign and left their homes to go out and teach their fellow country men and women how to read and write. Most of the volunteers were under 18, some as young as 10 years old, and many of them had never been away from their family homes before, but they felt the tug of the nation’s call to help end illiteracy in their country, and they took a chance and accomplished something extraordinary. In just one year, they virtually eliminated illiteracy in the nation, and they returned to their homes changed in powerful ways.
This evening, I had the opportunity to see the film Maestra, a short documentary about the Cuban Literacy Campaign and many of the young women who gave a year of service to change the state of their nation. The film is a powerful testament to the power of young people and to the capacity of the people of a nation to make great change. The filmmaker, Catherine Murphy, was struck by how the young people changed the nation and how the experience changed the young people, so she let the women who had been part of the campaign tell their story through the film. Norma Guillard was one of those women, and she joined us at the screening to share her story and to answer our questions, and it became more clear than ever just how formative that experience had been in her life. “I went away as one person,” she told us, “and I came back someone else.”
Norma’s story, and the stories of all of the women who were featured in the film, got me to thinking about young people in our schools today. Do they know their own power? Do we recognize their power? What opportunities are we missing out on because we aren’t asking them to join us at the table?
As a teacher, I have always had a philosophy of “no-throwaway-work.” Young people have so much power to affect the community around them, so instead of writing just to write, I believe that students should be given opportunities to make a difference in the world. If we are going to write, we should send it to someone, or publish it somewhere, or use it somehow. If we are going to create something, it should be something that has an impact on its environment. So, the movie was profound for me. It showed on a grand scale what young people could be capable of if we gave them the tools and opportunities, and even more importantly, it shifted the story of high school education from what students can or should get from us to what they can offer us.
So, how do we shift the way we think about education to make this happen more often?
This summer, as we prepared for the start of the school year, I was struck by the adult lives that many of our young people were living. They were taking care of their parents, working full time jobs, raising younger brothers and sisters, and taking care of homes. And then I thought about how many of them would return to school environments where they had to ask permission to go to the bathroom. That just didn’t seem right to me.
I think we need a radical shift in how we think about educating our youth in the United States. I think it’s time to start recognizing the grown up lives of so many of our youth. I think it’s time we start asking our students what they can offer, instead of telling them what they should receive. The illiteracy rate among adults in Milwaukee is 27%. We are the fourth poorest city in the nation, and the most segregated city. We have to start somewhere, and our young people have the answers.
There is a great deal of work to do in and for our city, but it’s not going to get done if our young people aren’t part of the process. Perhaps it’s time to start a campaign of our own. Perhpas it’s time to see what our young people have to offer. It’s a radical shift in thinking, for sure, but just think what we could accomplish, if we all worked together, like the young people and adults who pulled together to address the illteracy problem in Cuba.
I hope every single one of you will get to see the film in the near future (students and adults, alike!), and when you do, maybe we can have a conversation about where to start.