Why I’m still thinking about student council

The thing about writing like this, is that pieces, like, Student Council, third Grade, or like At the Table are neat, self-contained stories about something.  At least kind of.  But they aren’t really self-contained, besides being a telling about something, they are my/our real lives too and much as I hoped the things that troubled me would simply end when I hit “publish” and posted them, they don’t end there at all.  These stories are stories of lives that actually go on and on. 

My daughter still struggles with real life, day-to-day things that have, among other things, racism at the root.  I have figured out a few more things about keeping her hopeful and interested and not resigned about her wish to be on the student council.  I know the racism in the whole student council thing isn’t intentional; and it isn’t the same as generations of poverty, police brutality, shattered families or no health care.  But it is one corner, one piece of racism and I don’t like it landing on my daughter or anyone else’s son or daughter either. 

There were two meetings at school in the past two months, and I must write about them; they were moving to me and deeply, deeply hopeful.  They were meetings that came about and were initiated by a black heritage committee at our school, which is, as most things that happen in public schools are, committees of women.  Mothers.  In this case, black mothers wanting to talk about why things are the way they are for their black sons and daughters.  In this case, these women had been meeting and talking as a group of black women, for a while before they finally called this meeting.  It is another piece for still another time, to write how I landed at these two meetings and what I felt and learned.  How amazing the two meetings were and how honored I was to be present; to listen and learn and what an honor it was to be surrounded by the minds of the women who invited me.  One of the things that bubbled up was not just my daughter’s Student Council story, but the story of another mother’s child– a black son who had tried for many years, before succeeding to be elected to the Student Council– and that mother’s slow awareness of what might be going on. 

Then several weeks after those meetings happened, it snowed and snowed here and on one of our snow days, I ran into still another mother– a mother like me who is a white Jewish woman whose child is a young girl of color.  We got to talking about something– and I was going to keep it to myself, but I ventured that my daughter had wanted to be on the student council and what I was thinking about all of that.  And she had a similar story about her daughter, and it seemed to be helpful to her, affirming, for me to say, “I think there is an issue here.”

Last week, in our school’s weekly newsletter, there was a little discussion of the fine work of our current student council and this list was published– a list of “qualities” of leaders.   It was published to be food for thought to “foment” more leadership.  The list bugged me.  Bothered me.  It seemed the same old thing– a cheery, vague list that is really about getting our children to behave better or to act right, and that seems to imply that if everyone has a good, respectable attitude and manners, things will all fall into place.  A list that doesn’t face what goes on around us and that doesn’t challenge us as adults to look at the world they are growing up in and to try to tackle the hardest, harshest conditions and make them change for our children.  As though the crushing racism, violence, and inequity in the world is caused by a lack of politeness.  So I wrote my own list about what I think adults need to do on behalf of young people to we need to do, among other things, to begin to undo some of this.  Here is the school newsletter list:

  • Leaders have a solid foundation in basic skills
  • Leaders are curious about the world
  • Leaders have a strong work ethic
  • Leaders look toward others who may be older, more knowledgeable and wiser to mentor them through the rough spots in life
  • Leaders know and value team work
  • Leaders are problem solvers
  • Leaders consider varying points of view
  • Leaders believe that greater privileges bring great greater responsibilities
  • Leaders nurture their regard for others by being honest, fair, humble, compassionate, kind, courteous
  • Leaders take pride in their work
  • Leaders believe in themselves
  • Leaders go the extra mile

And here is mine–aimed not at the children, but as us, the adults setting the stage for them to be themselves– to reach for each other and to live in a school that models something different about the value of each person.  My list also, falls far short of addressing violence and poverty and all the isms that fall on our children, but it is an attempt at something different.  So here it is.

  • Every single child should be encouraged to think of herself or himself as a leader.
  • Having the opportunity to take many leadership roles throughout the life of a student is important for every child.  Parents and staff should work together to ensure that our children don’t get “tracked” into either thinking of themselves as the obvious leaders, or thinking of themselves as children who aren’t the leaders, aren’t going to be leaders.
  • Every child has many interesting ideas and perspectives to contribute – from his or her own unique perspective.
  • Student Council should be a chance to experiment with a wide range of different ideas, perspectives—a place for children to experiment with their own thinking; it should be a place where the thinking about what students can do together, what is interesting and what is valuable should become broader and broader over time as a result of broad participation. 
  • In keeping with our values around diversity, our school should be a place to encourage a wide range of participation in all kinds of leadership; if we aren’t seeing a wide range of students participating, we need to do some course correction.
  • Participation on the Student Council should involve students who reflect the diversity of our school—all races, boys and girls, students who fall everywhere in the range of academic achievement, children with and without disabilities, students who come from a wide array of ethnic backgrounds, class backgrounds, family backgrounds, etc.

What are the principles, the ideas that you think, if we adopted, would make things meaningfully different for our young people growing up?

One response to “Why I’m still thinking about student council

  1. Linda Warschoff

    I have never heard of an elementary school having a student council. I’m not sure it’s a good idea. What does it do? It sounds like it is fostering an elite class which in this case is along racial lines. There are other models of participatory democracy such as that used by Sudbury schools…where the students have a lot of say in how the school is run… I have never seen a public school that trusts children–or creates the cultural context–that empowers children to take responsibility for the democratic process. Tell us more about this student council, Laura. Is it telling some kids that they are special, better than the others? Is it marginalizing other students? I would like to know more.

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