There are 50.1 million public school students in prekindergarten through 12th grade in the United States. Each student spends about 35 hours per week inside the classroom – more than teachers, principals, and education policy makers – yet student voices are almost entirely absent in the debate surrounding how best to improve public education in our country. Let's change that.
I am a journalist and former high school English teacher traveling around the country speaking to prekindergarten through 12th-grade students in diverse public school settings about their experiences in school. I plan to complete about two interviews in each of the 50 states. At the end of this journey, the compiled interviews - edited into first-person accounts - will form a book-length oral history of the U.S. public school system titled "My American Education: Students Talk About Public School."
The purpose of this book is to give voice to America’s public school students, in the hopes that they feel empowered, and that their words humanize the public education debate. Apart from this aim, my main hope for “My American Education: Students Talk About Public School” is that, once published, it will be a historical reference work that will provide a panoramic view of the U.S. public education system in the 2010’s as seen through student eyes – a reference work that can be added to the curriculum of the more than 20,000 teacher degree and certification programs across the country to better prepare new teachers to face the diversity they will encounter in their classrooms.
Our kids want to learn, and they have important feedback for us. Unlike teachers, principals, school district leaders, teacher’s union members and policy makers, students have nothing to lose by honestly speaking about their education. A thriving and successful system is one that inherently includes space for critique and reevaluation. We need to give our students a platform to speak about their own education, so that all of us can learn and improve.
You can check out excerpts of these students' stories at @myamericaneducation on Instagram, and read Ashayla's, Caleb's, and Edgardo's stories below.
Ashayla, 11th Grade*, Edison Senior High School, Miami, FL
"I know God's by my side, but sometimes I don't feel safe. I mean, it's not like I'm scared or anything, you know? I'm just saying, like, we have incidents where they come check the classrooms. I believe somebody snitches, and they bring a cop in. They have dogs and they have Tasers and all that other stuff. They don’t do that like every week or whatever. But, yeah, it has been incidents where I was concerned. Somebody had a gun in there before. I'm not scared, like, 'Oh my God, I might die today.' It's not that serious. I guess you could say I feel safe, but then I feel unsafe.
I went to a middle school in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It wasn't like the schools down here. It was more diverse race-wise. Here, you don't see a lot of white people. I thought all the school systems were just like the one in Michigan. So when I came here 3 years ago, everything was very different. The teachers were different, the kids was different, the way they talked, it was all different. It was a wakeup call to see how the world really was.
We had more resources. Like a lot. And also the way that they teach down here is way different than Michigan. It's more slow here. In Michigan, we didn't focus on a particular test. They prepare you for life after you leave. They were actually trying to help you gain knowledge so that when you leave the school, you’ll have all that, and you’ll be ready for the world. Here, they focus you mostly on a test. So after the test, it's like, what else do you do?
I miss the environment. It was cleaner. Edison not that really clean. I’m not just talking about the environment. Like, the teachers, sometimes they curse as well as the students. And so they’re not as clean as they can be. Like, they attitudes - they adapted to the way the kids act. Like, 'If you act this way, I’mma act this way.' As if we’re on the same level, which we’re not.
Pure. Their intentions aren’t pure, you know what I mean? Don’t be a teacher if your intentions aren’t pure. I really don’t understand why you teach if… I mean, it’s to make money, probably. "
Caleb, 11th Grade, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, NY, NY
“Many people who go to LaGuardia don’t have a lunch period. You need a signature from a parent to actually skip your lunch period, but people do that in order to fill up time with classes. I think that’s insane. I kept my lunch period. I mean, it’s a lifestyle where you’re sabotaging yourself with more work. That’s kind of the mentality at maybe any school. It’s just work, work, work. Take these classes, take these classes. Take more tests, more tests. It’s just racing to the top instead of racing outward into the horizon.
I haven’t seen any violence or bullying. The students are very, very nice. I think they’re just tired, that’s all. I think the atmosphere is sort of that people are tired and overworked and just lugging to different classes and just want to sleep in yoga. It’s another option for PE class. People in chorus are singing sometimes in the stairwell. But, it’s not like ‘Fame.’ I guess, the idea in ‘Fame’ is that how people behave embodies who they are, and in LaGuardia, it doesn’t feel like that. When people are practicing singing in the hallways, it feels like an assignment or almost like they’re trying to memorize something for a test.
The role of education and the role of teachers is to empower students not just to do what they want, but to make mistakes. The more often you make mistakes, the more likely you will be to do something important. Messing up is something that we have to foster. Because, that’s how expressing yourself works – it’s when you get the chance to be wrong and to, you know, just sort of have a go at random things.
That’s the problem with our education system now, is that mistakes are the worst things you can make. The reason that that’s bad, is because it encourages students – when they take a test or when they study for something or when they do projects – to be dead inside. To sort of be sterilized. And, music and the arts are about being fully alive, and about just being completely in the moment, where all your senses are enlivened and working. That’s the kind of experience that school should foster and harness and be focused on. Not in trying to get everyone to line up and just sort of follow the rules and take orders. That kind of environment is really destructive.”
Edgardo, 12th Grade, Chavez High School, Houston, TX
"I was born in Mexico. I finished freshman year over there and then I was like 14 years old when I moved to Houston with my parents and my sisters. When I got here, they make me took freshman year again, so I’m one year behind. There in Mexico I think the education is kind of little bit lower than here.
My dad, he finished just the 7th grade. And my mom finished…I don’t know, I’m not sure. Prolly like 8th or 9th grade, and that’s it. I don’t talk too much to them about their past. They tell me to always go for more, like, don’t stop. Always try to give my best.
From like little, I put on my mind that I have to study, I have to get a career, you know, get a job, something to earn money. To be a…como, para ayudarlos a ellos.** Because they didn’t have good education. My dad, he works in construction and he said it’s too hard. So he’s telling me that if you really want a good future, study hard, don’t be lazy, ‘cuz you don’t want to be workin’ like me.
I think that if I don’t go to college I see myself working construction or McDonald’s. Earning the minimum wage. Just earning money to pay my bills and to be always like, 'Oh, I have no money to buy what I want.'"
**Like, to help them.
“My American Education: Students Talk About Public School” will be a compilation of 98 first-person accounts from U.S. public school students in prekindergarten through grade 12. I aim to interview 7 students in each grade level, which will result in about two student interviews in each of the 50 states, including the District of Columbia.
The student accounts will appear in the book is ascending order by grade level, and the book will be split into three sections: primary school (prekindergarten-grade 5), middle school (grades 6-8), and high school (grades 9-12). In their accounts, students describe their schools, teachers, classes, extracurricular activities, jobs, parents’ work and educational backgrounds, and college and career aspirations. They also critique and analyze what their schools and teachers are doing well, and what they can do better. Each student account is rich, poignant, and unfiltered.
I leave student colloquialisms and grammatical mistakes in the accounts, so readers could see the variances that exist in students’ articulation and grammar levels.
I plan to complete the interviews 3 states and two weeks at a time and return to NYC where I am based for a week in between travel to complete the interview transcriptions, post them to the Instagram page, and schedule student interviews for the next set of states.
Alaska, Washington, Oregon
Arizona, California, Hawaii
Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota
Idaho, Nevada, Utah
Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska
New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma
Kansas, Missouri, Iowa
Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississisppi
Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan
Alabama, Georgia, Florida
Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee
Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina
Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia
Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont
Day trips to: Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts
$5,400 - Airfare
$8,400 - Rental car (30 weeks on the road)
$1,200 - Gas (For an estimated 16,400 miles)
$12,600 - Hotels (30 weeks on the road, estimated $60 per night)
$8,400 - Kickstarter fees and cost of campaign rewards
$36,000 - Total*
*This is the bare minimum needed to complete interviews in all of the 50 states and does not include any wages or living expenses. Thank You very much for your support.
Some great rewards are in store for you! Name mentions in the book, a personalized thank you note, an education-themed road trip playlist, access to my photo log from visits to schools and interviews with students, copies of the e-book and physical book, and the print below.
*All posted student grade levels are at time of interview.
Risks and challenges
Gaining access to students and schools is difficult. Because of this, finding and securing interviews might take longer than planned. I hope to use my contacts in the education sector to find students and parents who are willing to share their stories.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (29 days)