In the summer of 2020, Kerry Dolan, an assistant principal at a Chicago high school, received a letter addressed to the entire body of predominantly white teachers and administrators. Signed by over 100 mostly BIPOC students, the letter described their feelings of hurt and abandonment when their teachers did not mention or address what was so evident everywhere else in their lives: pain and outrage over the murder of George Floyd. The students wanted something simple: love, support, and affirmation. When they were met with silence, they decided to be the ones to start the conversation. Why, when this was such a powerful learning moment in American history, wasn’t the school speaking to it?
A committed educator who loves her students dearly, Kerry was moved. She understood their pain and disappointment, and realized that “we needed to find a venue to give students the space to share their feelings, to share their thoughts, to share their experiences in a way that allowed staff to hear them and really not just listen to them, but hear them.”
After meeting with Kerry and others, the students asked to lead a teach-in about antiracism and their experiences for the school staff. Said Ariana Hinton, one of the participating students, “This is one of those moments where the roles had to reverse in order for us to get somewhere, and I was fine with that.”
The session they facilitated featured a powerful poem by a student, debunking of racist stereotypes, and specific calls to action for ways in which the school could more actively support students of color. The reviews were 100% positive.
One attending teacher wrote in her evaluation: “Wow. Powerful. Contagious. Thoughtful. Motivated. Genuine. Uncomfortable. Proud. Optimistic. Cautious. Ready. Just some random thoughts on this great student-led presentation. Thank you. I am touched by your actions and words.”
While reading through the feedback the sessions had garnered, Kerry realized that there weren’t existing organizations whose sole mission was to provide student-led professional development, despite many schools and school districts identifying student voice and agency as high priorities, and educator after educator touting the value of student-directed professional learning. And, Student-Led Ed was born.
“Teachers and schools talk a lot about the importance of student voice, and yet most of the voices leading professional development and school improvement are those of white men, and rarely include students, let alone BIPOC students,” Kerry said. “We are looking to change the narrative of whose voices are worthy and valued in the multi-billion dollar educational professional development industry by providing digital, sliding scale, student-created and facilitated professional learning opportunities for schools, school districts, and organizations to catalyze positive change in school cultures through the voices of the largest constituency at every school: students.”
The Pollination Project supported Student-Led Ed in developing their online presence through a new website and social media engagement so that they are able to continue their mission to center student voices and improve school culture. Kerry and the students were so excited to receive this support, sharing that “We are incredibly grateful to you for being the first organization to take a chance on us and believe in us. Thank you so so much!”
Since that time, Student-Led Ed received another grant from the National Geographic’s COVID-19 Educator Relief Fund that enabled them to spend the summer creating public-facing webinars for educators and youth which are now available on YouTube. They also submitted a proposal and were accepted to present a student panel at this year’s National Council for Teachers of English Conference to help engage more educators in championing their mission.
“Too often, students’ voices are overlooked as the powerful catalyst for change they are. We tend to believe that adults have the answers, when so much of recent progress in our country can be attributed to our youth,” Kerry said. “They have a lot to teach us.”