Two weekends ago, I attended the Texas Association of Future Educator's (TAFE) Teach Tomorrow Summit, a conference that was attended by over two thousand high school students and teachers from across Texas. During my high school years, I served as the organization's state vice president, a position I took seriously. When I joined TAFE at R.L. Turner High School, our chapter had five members and acted more like a social club, where students could come to after school, eat donuts, and socialize. Within two years, and with the leadership of a few students, our TAFE chapter grew to a membership of over fifty students, who became involved in a number of community service projects and regional as well as state competitions. We ran for Regional Parliamentarian and then Regional President, positions that we won. Eventually, our school ran for state vice president. Within two years, our local chapter grew from an afterschool "hang out" place to an organization whose members volunteered in local elementary schools, spearheaded a number of community service projects, won regional and state competitions, and held a state officer position. Among the many recognitions, our TAFE group at R.L. Turner would go on to win the honor of Outstanding Chapter at the annual state conference.
When we returned to our school, five members approached me in the hallway. With tears in her eyes, one of them said, "Pierre, if it hadn't been for TAFE, I would have never known what it meant to work so hard at something and be recognized for it. I used to not do my homework, but TAFE inspired me to get my work done so that I could be part of the group." Another said, "If it hadn't been for TAFE, I would have gone home every afternoon and watched TV or play games and not have had a purpose." The words remain imprinted in my heart. I remember tears trickling down my cheeks.
I still consider these girls as friends, though we have not spoken in some time. They were what our school system considers "high risk". I always thought of them as "high potential". Their dedication to public service and hard work have inspired me beyond their knowledge.
This year, I returned to TAFE, not as a participant but as a presenter. I led six workshops: two on teen dating violence and four on restorative justice as alternative approaches to Zero Tolerance Policies. In my interactions with students, teachers, and other presenters, I began to remember the inspiration TAFE gave me and many of my peers. Students talked about the ways in which they are unfairly silenced in schools or ignored in the classrooms. They voiced an alarming need for schools to reconsider the way they deal with disciplinary problems -- methods that are transformative rather than simply punitive. Several students approached me asking, "How and who can I bring to talk about teen dating violence in my school? We don't have these conversations." One teacher indicated that she loved the teen dating violence workshop, but that some of her "students were shocked" -- did he really just say gay and lesbian and transgender youth? How can he say that so publically? This teacher told me that she and her students come from a "little bitty town in Texas" and that they "needed to be exposed to these things because it's all a growing experience." Other teachers indicated that while they wanted to have these conversations about teen dating in their schools, the school districts wouldn't allow it. The unifying message: thank you for providing a space where we can discuss these difficult, though necessary, topics.
Organizations like TAFE do just that. They provide spaces for conversations, platforms where students from different backgrounds can exchange ideas, where they can find inspiration and expand their understandings of the world. We need more organizations like TAFE. We need student organizations that foster collegiality, that are dedicated to students not because of their quantifiable success but because they are individuals trying to find a place in the world.
Unfortunately, school districts have cut funding for many extracurricular activities, except, of course, when it comes to sports. My own school, Turner, has reduced the number of clubs from approximately sixty when I was a student there to only a handful today. Why is this, one might ask? I have heard a number of principals and administrators indicate that the role of high schools is to send students to college (this merits another discussion). The emphasis on college acceptance pushes these administrators to focus on mathematics and science, social studies and English; these efforts emphasize students' success on the ACT and SAT, on their passing states' standardized tests that often measure memorization, strategies, and formulaic approaches to learning. Unfortunately, colleges are not looking for students who can pass tests or who can crank out numbers from a calculator. Colleges are increasingly seeking 'well-rounded' students, those who become 'citizens of the world' by getting exposure to different ideas, diverse cultures, and stimulating experiences. By eliminating extracurricular activities from schools, administrators, in fact, undermine the very goals they are trying to achieve. Their narrow emphasis prevents students from developing the traits of well-roundedness and a global perspective that colleges seek. This past weekend reminded me of the essential role extracurricular (and co-curricular) organizations like TAFE play in the formation of students. Let's hope schools place more importance in organizations that form students outside of the classroom.