The discussion at the breakfast table today was about Harry Potter. Specifically, the kids were deciding if they knew anyone who would want to go with them to the party at the local bookstore to celebrate the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Conversation turned to the realization that between the two, my kids really only had one friend who likes the little wizard as much as they do.
What struck me most as I listened to the kids talk was the fact that this independent taste wasn’t a problem for them. They have lots of friends who like baseball or soccer or art, but reading and Harry Potter not so much. And they were okay with that.
In a world so often overrun by groupthink and guided by peer pressure, examples like this one, silly as it may seem, are a welcome reminder of the joy of independent thought and sense of self.
Those qualities can be even tougher to hold onto during the middle and high school years, when peers take on importance of religious proportions and insecurity comes as inevitably as pimples on one’s nose.
As educators, and as schools, it’s important for us to nurture the individualism of our students. There are times and places that convince me of the progress we’ve made on this front; high school today looks a lot less like a John Hughes movie than it did when I was in school, but one needn’t look beyond the internet to see examples that remind us how insecure we all are and how much we’ll compromise to feel that we fit in.
Being adults makes it easier to own our individual tastes, even it they’re nutty or unrefined. I’m okay today saying that I dig Sherlock Holmes, Sammy Davis Jr., and Moon Knight, while in high school it mattered more to me that I had a letterman jacket and didn’t wear embarrassing shoes. As we get older, most of us come to that point where we own who we are, at least more than we did as teenagers.
So the challenge is to take this adult security and help our students see beyond the consistent and ubiquitous pressure to conform and hold on to (or even develop) their individual tastes and passions that are their own. Unapologetically.
I’m not so foolish as to believe that this won’t feel a bit like punching ocean waves, but the perspective that our own opinions matter, that our tastes help to define who we are, is valuable in the developing health of our kids.
In classrooms this can take a thousand forms. I’ve seen teachers provide students with more freedom to choose some of what they study. Some teachers use project based learning to allow students to apply concepts or methods to a topic of their own.
I once had a student when I taught in rural Oregon impress and surprise his classmates with a presentation on his gingerbread building prowess. In an urban California school I watched as a student talked at length about her grandfather, a boxer in the 1930s who almost knocked out Joe Louis.
Great teachers understand the importance of knowing, really knowing, their students, and they create classroom cultures that are safe and encourage students to tell their stories. Often these teachers model this truth telling themselves, and always they value what students have to say.
Schools can model this culture of acceptance and celebration by encouraging clubs, taking time to honor students’ diverse talents and interests, and presenting the many human faces, student and adult, that make up the school as a whole.
I’m blessed to work at a school that honors and values individuals and individuality, all while celebrating our collective, kaleidoscopic life. Whether you’re a Harry Potter fan or not, a commitment to helping students find, and own, their own voices can be …magic.